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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.”

Watch: Bobby Wood opens scoring account at Hamburg

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Bobby Wood #7 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Bobby Wood set the German second division on fire a season ago, but now the U.S. Men’s National Team forward has turned his attention to the Bundesliga.

Making his debut with Hamburg SV on Saturday, Wood didn’t waste any time in getting on the score sheet, netting just beyond the half hour mark with a tremendous strike.

While it appeared to be a tame long ball into the path of the U.S. attacker, Wood did well to head the ball in front with his first touch, before muscling the Ingolstadt defender off of him and powering his shot into the back of the net prior to halftime.

Check out Wood’s debut goal below.

Jurgen Klopp refuses to comment on Christian Pulisic rumors

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Jurgen Klopp is remaining tight-lipped over any move for U.S. international Christian Pulisic.

Liverpool were linked with a move for the 17-year-old attacking midfielder who is finding it tough to break through at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Spurs 1-1 Liverpool ]

Pulisic was brought to Dortmund by Klopp in January 2015 and it is believed the Hersey, Pennsylvania native is frustrated with the lack of match action he is getting in the Bundesliga. Pulisic has also been linked with a move to Stoke City and RB Leipzig among others.

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Tottenham on Saturday, ProSoccerTalk asked Klopp if there was any interest in Pulisic and what he thought about the player.

The German coach refused to comment.

“No transfer rumors. I have no comment for this. Absolutely nothing to speak about,” Klopp said. “That’s for all the other cases too. When we know something and when we are close to doing something then we will inform you… or a little bit later.”

So, a flat out denial from Klopp and you can read into that however you want.

The German manager is usually quite tight-lipped when it comes to transfer rumors and with the summer window shutting on Aug. 31, there will be no more word from him in public about potential signings.

To add further fuel to the fire, Pulisic was left out of the 18-man squad for Dortmund’s opening game of the 2016-17 Bundesliga season on Saturday.

STREAM: Watch Premier League “Goal Rush” live at 10am ET

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At 10 a.m. ET this Saturday you will be able to access NBC Sports Digital’s newest product, Premier League Goal Rush.

It will be available on the NBC Sports App and on NBCSports.com as goals from all six matches in the 10 a.m. ET window will be shown simultaneously as live look-ins occurs around all the grounds in the Premier League.

STREAM “GOAL RUSH” HERE

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of NFL RedZone-like action from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window.

More info is available here, plus the schedule for all six games at 10 a.m. ET is below.


10 a.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Burnley 
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Arsenal 
10 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Stoke City 
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Bournemouth  
10 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Swansea City
10 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Sunderland

Three things we learned from Tottenham vs. Liverpool

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Mauricio Pochettino, Manager of Tottenham Hotspur L) and Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool (R) embrace prior to kick off during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool drew 1-1 at White Hart Lane on Saturday as a first half penalty from James Milner was canceled out by Danny Rose‘s equalizer with less than 20 minutes to go.

[ MORE: Spurs 1-1 Liverpool ]

In a breathtaking encounter both teams had multiple chances but a draw was probably a fair result.

Here’s what we learned from an epic encounter at the Lane.


BATTLE OF THE HIGH-PRESS

This game was played at a breathtaking pace from start to finish.

With both Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp proponents of high-pressing, their teams delivered that approach on the pitch. There were chances galore for both teams and both managers will need a lie down after going toe-to-toe on the sidelines, sharing the occasional hug and then roaring their players on.

Neither teams look fine-tuned at this point but the effort and endeavor was their for all to see. Both Liverpool and Tottenham will be relatively pleased with their starts to the season as we head into the international break as Spurs have five points on the board and Liverpool have four.

As the season wears on the toll of this high-pressing tempo will impact both teams though. Without the rigors of a European campaign, Liverpool may have an edge this season but this clash showed there’s nothing between these two teams who not only have top four aspirations but dream of winning the title.

Both teams look a little disjointed for title-winning talk right now but with plenty of players returning late from a summer full of international duty, these two teams full of incredible athletes will soon be up to full speed. The fact they weren’t on Saturday is quite frightening.


KLOPP’S BOYS GETTING THERE

Three games into the new Premier League season we’ve so far seen the best and worst of Liverpool. Saturday’s win at Tottenham was a bit of both. They looked much more solid defensively than they did in their opening 4-3 win at Arsenal and away at Burnley in their shock 2-0 defeat last weekend, but the midfield area is still one they need to improve on.

With Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield, they saw plenty of the ball but didn’t force the issue. Too often there were sideways passes and they couldn’t get Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana involved in the game for large periods.

Klopp’s project has now been in place for 10 months and we now see that Liverpool has a clear playing style under him. The dynamic cutting edge to make the most of their counter attacks will come, especially with Daniel Sturridge returning to full fitness soon and only fit enough for a late cameo role against Spurs.

We are all still waiting for Klopp’s revolution to kick in for good but the signs are, once again, promising that his team understands how he wants them to play. Slotting everything together for a full 90 minutes is the hard part.


MISSING MOUSA

It is clear that there’s a Mousa Dembele sized hole in Tottenham’s midfield.

The Belgian international is serving a six-game ban for gouging Diego Costa in the eye in a heated London derby at Chelsea last May, as their title hopes were ended in the 2-2 draw and the red midst descended on the two-way midfielder.

Dembele, 29, will be available for Spurs’ game against Sunderland on Sept. 18 and his return can’t come soon enough.

With Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama in the two central positions Spurs looked solid but cumbersome and couldn’t provide Harry Kane with the service he needed. When Kyle Walker went off and Dele Alli moved into midfield with Wanyama they suffered even more.

Dembele is so smooth on the ball and was the unsung hero of Spurs’ third-place finish last season. He is able to slow things down when Spurs need it and it stops them from just flying back and forth without control on the game. When Dembele returns it will knit everything together rather nicely. Until then, Spurs look disjointed in an area of the field they never struggled in last season.