Hard way becoming the only way for finals-bound Galaxy


SEATTLE – Of course, Los Angeles was going to make it tough on themselves. We should have seen it coming.

Even after taking a 3-0 lead in the first leg of their Western Conference final against the Seattle Sounders, the defending Major League Soccer champions were destined to revert to their drama-inducing selves, a quality that saw the team eliminated from CONCACAF Champions League by Toronto FC, plummet to the bottom of the West to start the season, fall behind against Vancouver in the playoffs’ knockout round, and lose at home to San Jose before eventually eliminating the Supporters’ Shield winners.

Those were the tea leaves that foretold LA’s Sunday struggles. The Galaxy were second-best all night, giving back two goals before a late Robbie Keane penalty kick secured the Galaxy’s third finals birth in four seasons. With a 4-2 (aggregate) win over Seattle, LA earned the chance to become the first team in five years to retain the league title.

“We know we didn’t play particularly well,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “We knew it’d be challenging. The objective was to advance to the MLS Cup final. That was accomplished.”

“Seattle played quite well. No question about that. Having said all that, we won this competition 4-2 and deserve to move forward.”

It’s a bottom line that belies the difficulty of the accomplishment. During Sunday’s first 20 minutes, Seattle’s three lead attackers – Johnson, Fredy Montero, and a surprisingly dominant Steve Zakuani – tore apart a Galaxy defense that was being beaten by every trick Seattle tried: combination play and one-on-one attacks; balls over the top and passes played through the line; considered build-up or quick, direct strikes.

“It’s probably been a while since a team came out and put that much pressure on us,” Galaxy right back Sean Franklin conceded, the former all-star forced to bear the brunt of a resurgent performance from Zakuani, who for the first time since suffering a broken leg in April 2011 showed signs of his former explosive self.

Franklin wasn’t the only Galaxy player to struggle early. Omar Gonzalez couldn’t contain Johnson. Rookie Tommy Meyer was out of sync with his partner. Perhaps most worrisome, LA couldn’t hold the ball, the team unable to adjust to a CenturyLink Stadium surface made slick by the downpour that fell during the match’s first half hour. On those occasions the defense was able to withstand Seattle’s pressure, the Galaxy would immediately give the ball back.

“We didn’t pass well tonight,” Arena said when asked about LA’s poor start. “The conditions certainly helped. It was a little bit difficult passing the ball. You could see our players [were] not fully confident on the surface.”

“If you watch the first 20 minutes, it looked as if they were playing on ice and they were playing on natural (grass),” according to David Beckham. “It was very frantic. They were passing the ball and keeping the ball, and we weren’t.”

Faced with problems in defense and midfield, LA did was they’ve done all season, resorting to the most-basic of solutions: Just play better. No tactical adjustments were needed. Bruce Arena didn’t need new personnel. His players just needed to execute.

“We understood we needed to pass the ball a little bit more,” Beckham said. “The game started to slow down … As soon as we put some passes together, we went through them and created chances.”

Still, the Galaxy were never their normal selves. At no point did they show the form that’d made them the league’s best team over the season’s second half. They team that took apart San Jose and Seattle in consecutive matches? They never showed up on Sunday, though to say that was all Los Angeles’s fault would be short-changing Seattle.

“They pressured us for every ball, played into feet,” Arena said of Seattle’s performance. “They positioned themselves better and were much more aggressive for second balls.

“Basically, on the night, they out-worked us.”

Seattle’s pressure left Los Angeles with no shots on frame through the first 45 minutes, and although the visitors had gained a greater foothold on the match by halftime, the Glaaxy still conceded 12 minutes after intermission, Zach Scott’s header off a Christian Tiffert corner pulling Seattle within one.

Then, as predictably as they allowed drama to undermine their otherwise smooth road to the final, Los Angeles regained their focused. Eleven minutes after Scott pulled Seattle within one, Keane created a penalty kick, eventually restoring a two-goal lead. Though Seattle had one good opportunity late, the Galaxy defense came together, aggressive play from goalkeeper Josh Saunders complementing a renewed organization from the back line.

“I thought Tommy and Omar did a good job of winning a few more balls, and we were picking up the second ones as well,” galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said, describing the defense’s improvement throughout the game. “We were able to break out a little bit and not just constantly be back and be pinned in with them firing from all sides. I think that was the biggest difference. We were winning the first ball and then cleaning up the second.”

Better passing, organized defending, winning the second balls. It was the formula Los Angeles used to play out the final minutes of a performance which became a metaphor for their season. It was unduly dramatic and failed to live up to the best team ever billing the champs accrued in the offseason. But it got the job done.

“Escape maybe is the right word, I don’t know,” Dunivant said. “We’re going through. To us, that’s the most important thing.

“If we’d won 3-0, we’d still be going through. We made it difficult on our fans and everyone on the sidelines, but we still got it done.”

If that was an implicit apology from the Galaxy left back, it wasn’t one endorsed by Bruce Arena.

“I don’t feel we escaped anything,” Arena said, defiantly. “We won 4-2 on aggregate. What’s there to escape from?”

“It’s been a really challenging season, and it’s taken a lot of character and talent to get where we are today,” Arena explained.

“After 14 games, we basically conceded the Supporters’ Shield. The objective then was to get into the playoffs. We went on a run that was fabulous. Last 17 games of the season we had 34 points. Thank God [the media wasn’t] smart enough to figure that out so we could kind of do it quietly and get ourselves going again.

“We’re back in the final, and hopefully we can have an improved performance from tonight.”

La Liga: Real Madrid win late, stay top; Atleti lose to Sevilla

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23: Alvaro Morata of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their second goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 23, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Coach Jorge Sampaoli felt Sevilla needed a big win against a top opponent to establish itself as a true contender in Spain.

He got just that on Sunday as his team defeated previously unbeaten Atletico Madrid 1-0 to stay near the top of the Spanish league.

French midfielder Steven N’Zonzi netted the winner in the 73rd minute at a packed Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to give the hosts their third straight win.

“It was an important game to consolidate ourselves against a team that looked unbeatable,” Sampaoli said. “We did well against one of the best teams in the world. This victory makes me proud.”

Sevilla, which has won six straight at home, reached 20 points from nine rounds, one point behind Real Madrid, which is top after a 2-1 home win against Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona, which defeated Valencia 3-2 Saturday thanks to an injury-time penalty kick converted by Lionel Messi, is third with 19 points.

“It’s going to be tight like this the entire season,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.

There had been some early doubts about Sampaoli as Sevilla lost in the Spanish Super Cup to Barcelona and the UEFA Super Cup to Real Madrid. But after the up-and-down start, the Argentine coach has finally been able to put Sevilla on track. As well as contending in Spain, the Andalusian club is also in a good position to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Atletico, which had the lead coming into the weekend, dropped to fifth place, three points behind Madrid.

Diego Simeone’s team played with 10 men from the 77th on Sunday because of a second yellow card shown to midfielder Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion.

Sampaoli made key adjustments at halftime, allowing his team to take control of the game and earn the hard-fought victory under pouring rain in Seville.

N’Zonzi scored the winner on a fast breakaway, speeding past two defenders after receiving a great throughball from striker Luciano Vietto. The Frenchman entered the area and calmly sent a low shot into the far corner as Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak charged from the net.

Real Madrid needed an 83rd-minute winner by substitute Alvaro Morata to earn a hard-fought win against Athletic Bilbao.

Karim Benzema put Madrid ahead just seven minutes into the game at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Sabin Merino equalized in the 27th and held on for most of the match.

Morata, celebrating his 24th birthday, scored from close range less than 10 minutes after replacing Benzema. Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz made the initial save but Morata persisted and found the open net off the rebound.

“I feel like a 10-year-old,” Morata said. “We won and we are in the lead, it couldn’t have been better.”

It was Madrid’s second straight win after three consecutive draws in the league.

Madrid and Villarreal are the only unbeaten clubs in the league after nine rounds.

Athletic is sixth on 15 points, six behind Madrid.

French striker Cedric Bakambu scored the winner in second-half injury time for Villarreal, but it was Las Palmas’ Kevin-Prince Boateng who attracted all the attention with a remarkable goal before halftime.

Boateng’s side volley from inside the area came after a mid-air, back-heel pass by Pedro Tana, who flicked the ball across the area for Boateng to shoot firmly into the corner.

Still unbeaten in the league this season, Villarreal has won three of its last four games and is in fourth place with 19 points.

Celta Vigo rebounded from two consecutive losses with a comfortable home win over Deportivo La Coruna behind a pair of goals by striker Iago Aspas.

After a 4-3 loss to Barcelona and a 5-0 defeat against Villarreal, Celta cruised to victory against struggling Deportivo to move to eighth place with 13 points.

The teams were tied 1-1 when Aspas converted a 60th-minute penalty kick. Chilean midfielder Fabian Orellana added to the lead in the 78th and Aspas closed the scoring in the 83rd at the Balaidos Stadium.

Deportivo, which has lost four of its last five games, dropped to 17th in the 20-team standings.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

MLS Decision Day: New York goes 1-2; RBNY kings of the East again

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Final scores

Philadelphia Union 0-2 New York Red Bulls
New York City FC 4-1 Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC 3-2 Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC 4-2 D.C. United
New England Revolution 3-0 Montreal Impact

Final standings

1. New York Red Bulls
2. New York City FC
3. Toronto FC
4. D.C. United
5. Montreal Impact
6. Philadelphia Union

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

The moments that mattered

4:33 p.m. ET — Fagundez curls one in, keeps the Revs’ heart beating — It’s going to take a lot more of these from the Revs, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

4:33 p.m. ET — DCU give one up to Molino, still 4th — Ben Olsen’s reserve side got off to a rocky start.

4:41 p.m. ET — Kaka puts ORL 2-0 up against DCU’s reserves — Fortunately for DCU, MTL don’t seem to want to finish 4th either.

4:38 p.m. ET — De Leeuw puts CHI 1-0 up on TOR — Losing to the worst team in the league on the final day of the season with a chance to secure a bye in the knockout round… it would be so TFC.

4:48 p.m. ET — BWP puts RBNY up, seals the Golden Boot — Anything but a loss, and RBNY finish top of the East. Bradley Wright-Phillips is doing what he does.

5:03 p.m. ET — Saborio pulls one back for DCU, still in 4th — ORL gifted DCU a way back into the game.

5:05 p.m. ET — Giovinco brings TFC level, back into the race for 2nd — A little late to the party, but TFC have awoken.

5:05 p.m. ET — Villa puts NYCFC 1-0 up, still stuck in 2nd — NYCFC keeping the pressure on RBNY, and keeping TFC at arm’s length.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

5:28 p.m. ET — Higuita restores ORL’s two-goal lead — Top shelf, far post. DCU not afraid of playing on the road in the knockout round, apparently.

5:34 p.m. ET — Giovinco sets up Morrow for 2-1, a point off 2nd — All TFC need now is a CLB equalizer, and they’d take the second knockout-round bye.

5:36 p.m. ET — Muyl wraps up the top spot for RBNY — That’ll just about do it for RBNY, the undisputed kings of the East.

5:39 p.m. ET — Kamara heads CLB to 1-1; NYCFC drop to 3rd — The best five minutes of TFC’s season? Might just be.

5:43 p.m. ET — Osorio makes it 3-1 for TFC — Nine minutes change the outlook of TFC’s entire season.

5:55 p.m. ET — Harrison puts NYCFC back in front, back in 2nd — TFC can score all the goals they want, but NYCFC only need to win to finish 2nd.

5:57 p.m. ET — Shelton makes it 3-1 NYCFC; safe in 2nd — The worst three minutes of TFC’s season? Might just be.

MLS Decision Day: FCD Shield winners; POR collapse, miss playoffs

FRISCO, TX - MARCH 06:  Maximiliano Urruti #37 of FC Dallas celebrates his goal with Mauro Diaz #10 against the Philadelphia Union in the second half during the MLS opening game at Toyota Stadium on March 6, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Final scores

LA Galaxy 0-0 FC Dallas
Colorado Rapids 1-1 Houston Dynamo
Seattle Sounders 2-1 Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes
Vancouver Whitecaps 4-1 Portland Timbers

Final standings

1. FC Dallas
2. Colorado Rapids
3. LA Galaxy
4. Seattle Sounders
5. Sporting Kansas City
6. Real Salt Lake

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

The moments that mattered

4:24 p.m. ET — Fernandez puts SEA up 1-0, into 4th — Fewer than three minutes on the clock, and the Sounders scored this beauty. Sensual soccer.

4:25 p.m. ET — Mulholland pulls RSL back to 1-1, back into 4th — 90 seconds later, RSL’s equalizer was’t nearly as pretty.

4:34 p.m. ET — Barnes puts VAN 1-0 up on POR — POR defenders standing around, and Giles Barnes puts them in a bad, bad place.

4:41 p.m. ET — COL give one up to HOU; Shield hopes in trouble — COL’s only hope for the Supporters’ Shield was a win and an FCD loss. Not looking good early.

4:47 p.m. ET — Feilhaber scores from the spot, SKC go 4th — After a nervy opening 25 minutes, SKC get on the board.

4:52 p.m. ET — Roldan puts SEA back into the lead, back in 4th — SKC’s time in 4th was short-lived, thanks to a header by the smallest man on the field in Seattle.

4:53 p.m. ET — Barnes makes it 2-0; POR in big trouble — POR’s’ season looks to have gone up in flames.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

5:34 p.m. ET — 3-0 and 4-0 in Vancouver; so long, POR — Just an unbelievable collapse on the final day from POR.

5:45 p.m. ET — Gashi pulls COL level, but they need another — Nothing doing in LA; COL lurking in the event up a slip-up by FCD.

6:05 p.m. ET — Zusi fires past Bingham, seals 5th for SKC — Breathing room for SKC.

LIVE — AT THE HALF: Shield for FCD; SEA, SKC, RSL in; POR out

David Villa, New York City FC (Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook)
Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook
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We’re through 45 minutes of Decision Day, and the goals have been flying in all over MLS already.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS scoreboard for Decision Day updates ]

The Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake traded goals inside the first five minutes in the Emerald City, and the Sounders reclaimed the lead just after the half-hour mark. They’re now fourth place in the Western Conference, clinging onto the home game in the knockout round that comes with it. Sporting Kansas City are 1-0 up on the San Jose Earthquakes, which has them fifth at this very moment. The defending champion Portland Timbers are 2-0 down in Vancouver, and are 45 minutes from missing out on the playoffs altogether.

FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy are scoreless in Southern California, and the Colorado Rapids are 1-0 down to the Houston Dynamo, which is more than enough for FCD to clinch the Supporters’ Shield.

In the Eastern Conference, the New York Red Bulls are 1-0 up on the Philadelphia Union, and 45 minutes from clinching home-field advantage through the conference finals. Toronto FC are tie 1-1 with the last-place Chicago Fire, and will finish third if that result holds.

Halftime scores

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Union 0-1 New York Red Bulls
New York City FC 1-0 Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC 1-1 Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC 2-1 D.C. United
New England Revolution 1-0 Montreal Impact

Western Conference

LA Galaxy 0-0 FC Dallas
Colorado Rapids 0-1 Houston Dynamo
Seattle Sounders 2-1 Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City 1-0 San Jose Earthquakes
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 Portland Timbers

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

For a full list of scenarios in the East, the West — to clinch berths and seeding implications — as well as the Shield race, hit this link and this link. Hit the link toward the top of this post, or right here, to keep up with all the action across the league over the final 45 minutes of the season. And, of course, check back on PST for full coverage of the afternoon and the setting of the stage for the playoffs, which begin Wednesday night with the knockout round.