Ben Olsen

Disappointment can’t overshadow season of improvement for D.C. United

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One year ago, D.C. United were watching the MLS playoffs from home after finishing seven points out of the playoffs. Burdening with one of the worst defenses in Major League Soccer, Ben Olsen’s club was dragging to seventh in the East, a -3 goal difference unable to compensate for their 52 goals allowed. For the RFK faithful, it was another disappointing season and another year removed from the franchise’s glory days.

It’s a testament D.C.’s 2012 accomplishment that the dour mood that surrounded the franchise is now a memory. No more talk of fading legacies. No delicate thoughts of the Bruce Arena years. This season, Olsen kept D.C. in a playoff race since March. Thanks to a late season run to second in the East, La Barra Brava had reason to believe their team a contender.

And ultimately, that belief was rewarded. Though Houston’s 4-2 aggregate victory in the Eastern Conference final left little doubt who should represent the East in the MLS Cup Final, D.C.’s presence in the conversation spoke to all the improvements the team’s made since last year:

  • A year of health from Chris Pontius plus the addition of rookie Nick DeLeon helped D.C.’s attack take a step forward, the team’s 53 goals scored ranking fourth in MLS. A near-full season of Dwayne De Rosario helped;
  • Perry Kitchen, moved back into midfield for his second MLS season, provided cover for the back line;
  • Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic helped the defense shave nine goals off 2011’s total;
  • As did improvement in goal from the still-improving Bill Hamid.

But as Houston made apparent over the last week, there’s only so much progress you can make in 12 months. Over the course of 180 minutes, D.C. United — playing essentially a 4-5-1 formation that helped protect a still vulnerable defense — was a better set up to take advantage of opponent mistakes than create opportunities of their own.

It’s a formula that’s rarely going to beat a Dominic Kinear-led team. Without De Rosario and Pontius (who only played 12 minutes in the series), United was left reliant on lapses like the one that led to Branko Boskovic’s second leg goal. There were never going to be enough. Without a threat up top or any push from their two-man shield, D.C. wasn’t going to keep up with a in-form Dynamo.

But in light of how far D.C.’s come in 2012, it was too much to ask them to keep pace. Houston was a finalist last year and have since added Boniek Garcia, Ricardo Clark, and Mac Kandji (while losing Geoff Cameron). They’re better positioned to claim 2012’s title than 2011’s. It would have been an amazing accomplishment if Olsen found a way past Kinnear’s team. That he didn’t shouldn’t diminish how far D.C.’s come.

If that’s doesn’t serve as a silver lining for United fans, consider the improvements the team’s likely to see next season. Bill Hamid will be a year older and, presumably, a year better. Same can be said for Andy Najar (suspended for the final series), Kitchen, and DeLeon. If they make the playoffs again in 2013, D.C. can expect better health from their two main goal scoring threats: Pontius and De Rosario. Ben Olsen, having proved himself one of the league’s promising young coaches, will build on this season’s experience.

Positives are always elusive in the minutes after a season’s extinguished, but when D.C. and their fans are ready to move on, they’ll be able to reflect on their most successful season since claiming 2007’s Supporters’ Shield.

And the 2013 season is only four months away.

ProSoccerTalk will keep up the discussion of the chase for MLS Cup through the Dec. 1 final.

AEK Athens beats Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) AEK Athens defeated Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0 in an ill-tempered game on Sunday that saw 12 yellow cards and two dismissals.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win of season ]

Astrit Ajdarevic scored the only goal in the 34th minute with a free kick that deflected off Olympiakos defender Manuel da Costa.

Olympiakos’ athletic director Francois Modesto was sent to the stands for protesting about the lead-up to AEK’s goal. His team’s central defender Alberto Botia was dismissed after a second yellow card in the 75th for pulling an advancing AEK forward’s jersey.

Despite the defeat, its second of the season, Olympiakos has a 10-point cushion over second-place Panionios, which beat 10-man Iraklis 1-0.

PAOK, a 4-0 winner over Veria, remains in third place, one point ahead of Panathinaikos, which beat Asteras 5-0 on Saturday. AEK is joint fifth with Xanthi.

PSG drops points against Toulouse days after massive UCL win

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14:  Julian Draxler of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at Parc des Princes on February 14, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Just days after its massive (and somewhat unexpected) beatdown of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain failed to close the gap on league leaders Monaco.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win ]

PSG settled for a 0-0 draw on Sunday at the Parc des Princes against eighth-place Toulouse, leaving the Parisian side three points behind Monaco through 26 rounds of action.

[ MORE: Bielsa returns to Ligue 1 with Lille ]

Despite holding the visitors to just three shots (one on target), Toulouse managed to contain a rampant PSG attack, which posted four goals midweek in their rout of the Blaugrana.

PSG’s first strong chance came in the 14th minute when Lucas Moura’s effort was saved in the bottom corner by goalkeeper Alban Lafont.

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani may have had the game’s best opportunity to break the deadlock when the Uruguayan attacker struck the post from inside the penalty area.

Unai Emery’s group will be back in action on Feb. 26 when PSG travels to Dimitri Payet and Marseille.

Wenger worried over Sutton’s pitch heading Monday’s clash

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 16:  Pundits Paul Merson (4L) and Matt Le Tissier (2L) take part in a training session alongside Paul Doswell manager of Sutton United (L) and players during a Sutton United FA Cup media day on February 16, 2017 at the Borough Sports Ground in Sutton, Greater London. Sutton United are due to face Arsenal in the Emirates FA Cup Fifth round on 20 February.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The story of Monday’s encounter between Arsenal and fifth-division Sutton United will be whether the minnows can overcome the mighty Gunners.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” against Blackburn ]

However, Arsene Wenger already fears a bigger challenge within the game, one that concerns his players’ safety.

Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane features an artificial surface, which is largely uncommon for English and most European venues regardless of club standing.

“First of all the pitch. Secondly their enthusiasm. Thirdly that we are not ready mentally for a big fight and think subconsciously that it doesn’t matter,” Wenger said ahead of Monday’s FA Cup meeting in South London.

In preparation for their meeting with the U’s, Wenger had his side train on their own indoor artificial field on Friday.

“Look, ideally we would like to play on a normal pitch. Competition is as well to deal with what you face, and we’ll face an unusual pitch and we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.

“We practice inside [on Friday] because we have an artificial pitch. It’s not the same as it’s a dry pitch, and at Sutton I’ve heard that’s a wet pitch, they water it before the game. So it will be much quicker than what we have.”

Leipzig beats ‘Gladbach 2-1, cuts Bayern’s Bundesliga lead

Leipzig's scorer Willi Orban, center, and his teammates celebrate their side's 2nd goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between RB Leipzig and Hertha BSC Berlin in Leipzig, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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BERLIN (AP) Leipzig held on for a 2-1 win at Borussia Moenchengladbach to cut Bayern Munich’s lead in the Bundesliga to five points on Sunday.

[ MORE: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara wins second Serie A match ]

Emil Forsberg scored one and set up another for the promoted side to end its two-game losing streak and stay on course for Champions League qualification with its 14th win of the season.

[ MORE: Bielsa makes Ligue 1 return, joins Lille as new manager ]

`Gladbach `keeper Yann Sommer pulled off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Marcel Sabitzer early on, but he was powerless to stop Forsberg from breaking the deadlock after half an hour played.

Sabitzer and Timo Werner played their way through the static `Gladbach defense and Werner laid the ball off for the Sweden midfielder to fire inside the bottom left corner.

The home side was given a lifeline when Marvin Compper brought down Lars Stindl and referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the spot, but Peter Gulacsi saved Thorgan Hazard‘s penalty before the break.

More poor defending allowed Werner grab the second 10 minutes after the break, firing inside the far post after Forsberg played him through.

Jannik Vestergaard pulled one back with a powerful header from a corner to set up an exciting finale. However, six minutes of injury time were not enough for an equalizer.

Leipzig had kicked off to a chorus of whistles from the home fans, who then mostly stayed silent till the 19th minute in protest against the visiting side. Huge banners in the north stand said “Traditional club since 1900” – an apparent protest against Leipzig, founded in 2009 when Austrian energy-drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz rebranded a fifth-tier team with his company’s livery before financing its steady promotion through the lower leagues.

COLOGNE 1, SCHALKE 1

Cologne stopped Schalke’s progress but the point was enough for the visiting side to overtake `Gladbach on goal difference in 10th.

Alessandro Schoepf got the visitors off to a flying start in the second minute with the help of the left post, and Leon Goretzka hit the post after half an hour with the home side still struggling to get into the game.

But Anthony Modeste equalized before the break with a fine strike inside the far post, and might even have scored again just minutes later, when his hesitation allowed Benedikt Hoewedes get back and clear.

Guido Burgstaller came closest to a winner for Schalke in the second half, his shot just wide of the far post after beating the goalkeeper.