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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.”

Zouma out for the season; USMNT’s Miazga amongst Chelsea options

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
ne Rooney of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (
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A major injury to a promising Chelsea center back could put an American in the driver’s seat for some surprising playing time.

[ MORE: Camp over, USMNT turns eyes to World Cup, Olympic qualifying ]

Kurt Zouma, 21, is out for at least a half-year after tearing his ACL, as the scary-looking injury suffered against Manchester United was as bad as it looked.

From ChelseaFC.com:

Chelsea Football Club’s medical team have diagnosed that Kurt Zouma sustained an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament during yesterday’s (Sunday) Premier League game against Manchester United.

Kurt will undergo surgery in the next 48 hours and is expected to be out for approximately six months.

Chelsea has Gary Cahill, John Terry and young USMNT center back Matt Miazga as center backs in the squad.

Center backs Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa), Tomas Kalas (Middlesbrough) and Michael Hector (Reading) are all on loan.

We will almost certainly see an extended look at Miazga at some point, as Chelsea still has the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League. How will the 20-year-old fare in England? We’re looking forward to finding out.

Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018

GRANADA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF competes for the ball with Youssef El-Arabi (L) of Granada CF during the La Liga match between Granada CF and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on February 7, 2016 in Granada, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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Cristiano Ronaldo gave his seemingly monthly statement on the future in Spanish outlet AS on Monday.

It’s nothing that’s going to surprise anyone, either, as the 31-year-old superstar committed himself to his contract at Real Madrid.

[ REPORT: Fernando Torres drawing interest from MLS, NASL ]

That contract ends in 2018, meaning he’s going roughly two-and-a-half more seasons at the Bernabeu.

From AS:

“I want to stay here two more years. The two years I’m talking about take me to the end of my contract,” he is quoted as saying by AS.

“And the future, we’ll see.”

Could he leave? Sure. The older he gets, the less he’ll command a transfer fee. Bastian Schweinsteiger left Bayern Munich at 31, and Ronaldo’s history with Real isn’t one-club stuff.

Premier League Playback: Five things we learned from a pivotal weekend

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LEICESTER CITY IS LEGIT

Perhaps the biggest lesson this weekend is something we’ve been ignoring for a while. Guys, Leicester City is legit. They are the favorites to win the Premier League title.

After rolling into the Etihad Stadium and dispatching title rivals Manchester City with ease on Saturday, Claudio Ranieri is refusing to admit the Foxes are the front-runners. Well, Claudio, you are. With a five-point lead at the top and a trip to Arsenal coming up next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) this is all getting rather serious.

Leicester isn’t doing anything they haven’t done all season long. They made the most of set pieces with Robert Huth scoring from two of them and Riyad Mahrez‘s superb goal sandwiched in-between Huth’s strikes personified the simplistic brilliance of Ranieri’s tactics. Winning the ball back in midfield, a quick ball out to N'Golo Kante saw him thread it to Mahrez 30-yards up field and the Algerian wizard danced his way past Nicolas Otamendi and gave Joe Hart the eyes. Direct and at the heart of Man City, Leicester’s tactics are tearing teams apart consistently and the most impressive thing about their recent performances is their defensive solidity.

Premier League Schedule – Week 25

Result Recap & Highlights
A. Villa 2-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
B’mouth 0-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Chelsea 1-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Liverpool 2-2 S’land Recap, watch here
Man City 1-3 Leicester Recap, watch here
Newcastle 1-0 WBA Recap, watch here
Saints 1-0 West Ham Recap, watch here
Stoke 0-3 Everton Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-1 C. Palace Recap, watch here
Tottenham 1-0 Watford Recap, watch here

Sure, they sat back a little deeper than they would’ve liked against Man City but they’re able to rely on clipping one long ball in-behind for Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki to collect. Vardy didn’t score on Saturday but Hart denied him twice when clean through and he rifled another into the side-netting. No matter, after the landmark win the leading scorer in the PL penned a new contract which ties him to Leicester until 2019.

Over the past four days Leicester has dispatched Liverpool 2-0 and Man City 3-1. Now, perhaps for the first time this season, everybody expects them to go to Arsenal and seal a remarkable win that could leave their biggest rivals for the title eight points in their wake. How the Foxes deal with this new pressure remains to be seen. They are no longer expected to fail. Everyone expects them to maintain this form and now clinch the title. Handling those expectations and staying focused will now be the biggest test yet for Ranieri’s remarkable squad. If they do hold on and clinch the title, there’s no doubt this will be the most surprising moment in PL history. And maybe soccer history.


MAN UNITED IMPROVING BUT TOP FOUR HOPES FADING

Louis Van Gaal reacted angrily when asked about speculation regarding his Manchester United future and if the teams improved performance will help his own cause.

The Dutchman, 64, has reason to be pleased with United’s offensive display at Chelsea as Jesse Lingard‘s magical turn, spin and strike had them 1-0 up heading into stoppage time. Then, Diego Costa struck and grabbed Chelsea a point to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 games since Jose Mourinho was fired.

The manner in which United conceded irritated Van Gaal as his side have slipped six points off the top four with just 13 games going.

“That’s why I am frustrated and my players are frustrated. When you are playing like we have played today and you are not making the gap smaller. You can say its misfortune but it’s not the first time that is overcoming us,” Van Gaal said. “For example Newcastle United scored in extra time. We have to do that better, improve in that way. I am happy with the performance. It was not a boring match so for the third time in the row it was sparkling. I hope to get the support of the media this week.”

Van Gaal’s offense, unlike it has for most of this season, looked sharp with Wayne Rooney going close three times and Thibaut Courtois denying the brilliant Anthony Martial and Lingard but it was the same old story. United don’t score enough goals to be able to make these defensive mistakes and still grab three points. They need to buck this trend, and fast, if their fading top four hopes are to become reality.


NORTH LONDON RISING

So, we’ve spoken about Leicester. Now, let’s look at the two teams chasing them: Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, Man City is still in the mix in fourth place on 47 points but the north London duo of Arsenal and Spurs are, right now, seeming to be the firm challengers to the Foxes. Both sit on 48 points and both won this weekend.

Following their 1-0 win over Watford on Saturday, Spurs’ manager Mauricio Pochettino tried his best to curb enthusiasm around White Hart Lane but talk of a title race with Arsenal is in the air.

“I believe in my players, I believe in my squad. We will see. It is difficult to guess what will happen in the future,” Pochettino said. “In football belief is the most important word. If we believe, anything can happen. I believe in my squad and they believe too in the way we play. This synergy is very important for the future. You can see in their eyes, the feeling, the energy that they believe. But it is better not to speak too much, only show, work hard.”

Arsenal beat Bournemouth 2-0, their first victory in five PL games, and the Gunners are now back on track ahead of Leicester’s visit to the Emirates next Sunday. A win in that game is a must if both Arsenal and Spurs are to claw back ground on the Foxes. Another game which could be even bigger in the run-in is March 5 at White Hart Lane. Spurs host Arsenal in just under a month and by then it could be a straight two-horse race between the bitter rivals for the Premier League title.

As for the bigger picture, both Spurs and Arsenal are still in Europe and the FA Cup which could complicate their title charge. Arsenal, in particular, face a pivotal 10-day period in February which will define their season. The fixture list reads: Feb. 14, Leicester at home in the Premier League. Feb. 20, Hull at home in the FA Cup. Feb. 23, Barcelona at home in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg. Arsene Wenger‘s men usually hit full stride in the final months of the season but usually their situation is much worse than this. Let’s see if the perennial kick-starters can stretch their legs and stride to success in multiple competitions but, most importantly, beat their north London rivals to the PL title.


HOPE AT THE BOTTOM

Aston Villa’s survival hopes were kick-started this weekend as a Gabriel Agbonlahor inspired Villa beat relegation rivals Norwich City 2-0 at Villa Park for just their third victory in 25 outings this season. Remi Garde’s men are giving themselves a slim chance of making the greatest of great escapes. With 13 games to go the Midlands giant is eight points from safety and need to win games, fast. They have a tough set of fixtures on the horizon but at least they now look solid and steady at the back with Mark Bunn putting in another good display in goal and a settled back four shutting down a lackluster Norwich. The Canaries actually slipped into the bottom three after this defeat, their fifth-straight loss, and Alex Neil has a crisis on his hands.

The reason Norwich slipped into the relegation zone is because Newcastle United climbed out with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win at home against West Brom. It should have been three or four nil to Newcastle but Steve McClaren will be delighted his new signings — particularly Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend — have slotted in seamlessly. The Magpies have some easier games, on paper, coming up and a few more wins should drag them further clear from the drop zone. As for Tony Pulis‘ side, the Baggies are wobbling and are without a win in five as they continue to slide towards the bottom three. Each season there’s always one team which seems to slip towards the relegation abyss…


SAINTS, TOFFEES LIMBERING UP

Two teams heading on the way up are Southampton and Everton. Both teams harbored hopes of breaking into the top six ahead of the season and after difficult starts they have found their feet. No, that isn’t a direct reference to Roberto Martinez’s awesome Jason Derulo-inspired dance moves but as far as I’m concerned the clip below can’t be shown enough.

Martinez would have been left dancing for joy on the touchline on Saturday as his team raced into a 3-0 half time lead at Stoke City. The Potters’ defense was ripped open by incisive midfield running from the Toffees and Martinez resisted the urge to break out his inner Derulo. For now. “I thought about dancing,” Martinez said afterwards. “But I thought it was difficult to beat the moves the boys showed on the pitch.” Indeed. Everton is now up to eighth with two wins on the spin and just one defeat in their last six.

The team directly above them is Southampton who have enjoyed a superb last few weeks. Since goalkeeper Fraser Forster returned from a nine-month spell out injured they’ve won four out of five games, kept clean sheets in all five and Ronald Koeman was named Premier League Manager of the Month for January. On Saturday Saints ground out a 1-0 win at home against fellow top six hopefuls West Ham to drag themselves to within two points of the Hammer who sit one place above them in sixth spot in the table.

Southampton’s grit and determination to hold onto a 1-0 lead against West Ham after going down to 10-men with 40 minutes of the game left was remarkable. Victor Wanyama — who will now serve a five-game ban after picking up his third red card of the season — lunged in stupidly on Dmitri Payet and even though some may have not seen it as a straight-red, the Kenyan midfielder gave referee Mark Clattenburg the chance to send him off. Saints overcame that setback and in their next four encounters have some very winnable games. Both Southampton and Everton are back on track and challenging for the top six.


BONUS: Southampton are also launching an initiative to develop better coaches and players in North America. Find out what that’s all about in this exclusive piece as I went down to the South Coast last week to discuss their plans to muscle into the American soccer scene.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

After January camp, USMNT looks to rosters for World Cup, Olympic qualifying

at StubHub Center on January 31, 2016 in Carson, California.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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The United States men’s national team finished its experimental January camp with a 2-0 record, and now trains its eyes on World Cup and Olympic qualifying.

The last part is critical not just because of the ramifications of a potential second-successive Olympic absence for the men’s U-23 side.

[ USMNT: Tops Iceland 3-2 | Knocks off Canada, too ]

The Yanks have to deftly divide their player pool because March 25 and 29 are not only the dates for the next round of World Cup qualifying matches — a home-and-home series with Guatemala — but also the dates for the U-23s’ pair of matches with Colombia.

That’s why Jordan Morris isn’t likely headed to Guatemala City, and the same is true for impressive January camper Jerome Kiesewetter and new Chelsea defender Matt Miazga.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

Bobby Wood, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are also eligible for the U-23s, but there’s the rub. All three are in good form for country, and only Yedlin isn’t playing well for his club (That’s because Sam Allardyce isn’t using him much at all. His substitute appearance against Liverpool was his first action since Jan. 9).

New England midfielder Lee Nguyen impressed Jurgen Klinsmann during January camp, and it’s hard to ignore the impact of Steve Birnbaum’s goal and assist.

Assuming health, here’s our best guess at who’s making the squad for Guatemala on March 25 and 29. It’s worth noting that six MLS clubs play on March 26 (NYC, New England, Vancouver, Houston, DC and Dallas):

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson

Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Jonathan Spector, Tim Ream

Midfielders: Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Lee Nguyen, Darlington Nagbe

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson