Hard way becoming the only way for finals-bound Galaxy

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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.”

LIVE – Arsenal v. Man City in FA Cup semifinal

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Arsenal and Manchester City clash in an FA Cup semifinal on Sunday at Wembley which promises to be a case of all-out attack.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola met earlier this month with their teams drawing 2-2 at the Emirates Stadium in an end-to-end encounter.

The winner of this semifinal will play Chelsea in the FA Cup final on May 27 at Wembley after Antonio Conte‘s side beat Tottenham 4-2 on Saturday.

In team news Arsenal stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation they used at Middlesbrough with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil off Olivier Giroud.

City line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sergio Aguero up top and Leroy Sane, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne off him.

Click on the link above to follow live coverage of what promises to be an entertaining semifinal, while here at Pro Soccer Talk we will have plenty more reaction and analysis after the game too.

STREAM LIVE: Burnley host injury-hit Man United

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Burnley host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at fortress Turf Moor with the Clarets in search of yet another huge scalp.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Sean Dyche‘s men have already beat the likes of Everton and Liverpool at home this season and one more victory should all but secure their Premier League status and first-ever consecutive seasons in the PL.

As for United, Jose Mourinho’s squad is depleted and after the news that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo both suffered “significant knee ligaments injuries” in the Europa League quarterfinal clash against Anderlecht the Red Devils’ resources have been stretched even further.

In team news Burnley stick with a solid 4-4-2 formation as Ashley Barnes and Andre Gray play up top, with former United duo Tom Heaton and Michael Keane also starting.

United make eight changes and line up with what looks like a three-man central defense given that Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Rojo are all missing, while Wayne Rooney starts up top and captains United.

LINEUPS

Burnley: Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Barton, Hendrick, Brady; Gray, Barnes. Subs: Flanagan, Westwood, Defour, Tarkowski, Gudmundsson, Agyei, Pope

Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Bailly, Blind; Young, Herrera, Pogba, Fellaini, Lingard; Martial, Rooney. Subs: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Shaw, Carrick, Mkhitaryan, Rashford

Barcelona leaves Neymar out of ‘El Clasico’ v Real Madrid

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona has decided to leave Neymar out of the decisive “clasico” against Real Madrid because of the legal uncertainty over an appeal to overturn his suspension.

The club had taken all legal measures to try to clear the player for Sunday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, but ended up not including him in the squad because there had been no ruling on its latest appeal by Sunday morning.

Barcelona’s first appeal was rejected by the Spanish football federation last week, but the club was also trying to reverse the suspension through a local sports tribunal.

The club released a statement on Sunday criticizing the tribunal for not making a decision on the case in time for the match.

The tribunal said Saturday that while it had not yet had the opportunity to consider the appeal, that did not mean the striker was cleared to play.

Neymar was handed a two-game suspension for sarcastically applauding an assistant referee after being sent off in a 2-0 loss at Malaga on April 8.

The two-match ban was in addition to the one-game suspension he was automatically required to serve for the red card. The Brazilian had already sat out one match.

Two-time champion Barcelona also won’t have the injured Rafinha and Aleix Vidal, who have long-term injuries.

Madrid, seeking its first title since 2012, is expected to welcome the return of Gareth Bale, who had been sidelined because of a muscle injury.

Madrid enters Sunday’s game with a three-point lead over Barcelona. Madrid also has a game in hand.

MLS roundup: FCD win battle of unbeatens; POR rebound vs. VAN

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With seven MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 27 more to go…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage

FC Dallas 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

The only two remaining unbeaten teams faced off in Frisco on Saturday, and only one came out still unblemished. FCD dominated in the two most important facets of the game — chances created, and goals.

Maynor Figueroa scored the game’s only goal, a 77th-minute header to put home Michael Barrios’ floated cross toward the back post. If not for the (increasingly typical) heroics of Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (five saves), FCD would have already been 3-0 or 4-0 in front by that point. Sporting’s only shot on target didn’t arrive until the 47th minute, and it was far from a clear-cut chance, as Jimmy Medranda fired from the corner of the 18-yard box and hardly tested Jesse Gonzalez with the effort.

The win sees FCD move to six games unbeaten to start the season (three wins, three draws), while Sporting suffer their first defeat in seven games.


Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks bagged goals for Portland, who wasted little time in bouncing back from last weekend’s home defeat to Sporting. Nagbe’s goal, a stunner from outside the penalty area (WATCH HERE) opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and Mattocks made it 2-0 five minutes before halftime.

Fredy Montero scored his third goal in two games to bring Vancouver back to 2-1 just before the hour mark, but that’s as close as the visitors would get.

Diego Valeri was carried off the field in the 80th minute, which is the worst scare that Timbers fans could have possibly imagined, though the Argentine superstar told reporters after the game that he was feeling much better.


Real Salt Lake 1-3 Atlanta United

The honeymoon period is over for Mike Petke who, after back-to-back wins to open his tenure as RSL head coach, suffered his first defeat since taking over for Jeff Cassar five games into the season.

A series of comedic errors doomed RSL just about from the start, as Hector Villalba (9th minute) and Yamil Asad (46th), two of Atlanta’s South American starlets, put the visitors 2-0 ahead a minute into the first half — the latter was set up by Miguel Almiron, another of the young, South American attackers at Gerardo Martino’s disposal. Albert Rusnak pulled RSL back to 2-1 in the 69th minute, but it would remain that way until second-half stoppage time, when Brandon Vazquez beat Nick Rimando for a 3-1 clincher.


New York Red Bulls 2-0 Columbus Crew SC

Columbus’s defeat away to New York went from bad, to worse, to worst, in 39 minutes’ time on Saturday. Midfield revelation Artur went off with a nasty arm injury in the 6th minute, Alex Muyl put the home side 1-0 up in the 11th minute Daniel Royer made it 2-0 from the penalty spot in the 38th minute, and defensive revelation (and rookie) Alex Crognale went off injured immediately thereafter.


Houston Dynamo 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes

Wilmer Cabrera’s side will live and die by the form of his young attacking quartet this season. On Saturday, Erick Torres and Alberth Elis delivered the goals (read: goals) as Houston picked up a rather comfortable him win over San Jose.

Torres opened the scoring in the 9th minute, and though Elis didn’t double the advantage for another 63 minutes, the result was rarely, if ever, in doubt. San Jose managed just two shots on target (Houston had just three, for what it’s worth), as Adolfo Machado, Tyler Deric and Co. kept their first clean sheet of the season.


New England Revolution 2-2 D.C. United

In a battle of bottom-half Eastern Conference sides, New England and D.C. drew 2-2 after Lee Nguyen and a Sean Franklin own goal stalemated tallies from Jared Jeffrey and Sebastien Le Toux.