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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.”

Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. West Ham

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LONDON — Arsenal beat West Ham United 5-1 at the London Stadium on Saturday as the Gunners remained unbeaten since the opening day of the Premier League season.

Mesut Ozil’s first half goal was added to by three from Alexis Sanchez and a stunner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second half as the Gunners ran riot.

Here’s what we learned from a one-sided London derby.


SANCHEZ THE DIFFERENCE

There was word going around the press room deep in the London Stadium that Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez had tweaked his groin muscle in the warmup and was struggling.

Arsenal fans everywhere panicked. They were right to do that.

Luckily, Sanchez shook it off  (he was stretching out his left groin readily early on in the game) and was ready to torment West Ham’s defense. He set up Mesut Ozil for Arsenal’s first and then scored three goals himself in the space of 14 second half minutes, with the first a thing of beauty.

Once again deployed in a central striking role, Sanchez showed exactly why he’s so important to Arsenal and why him signing a new contract must be a priority for Arsene Wenger.

With him they have a real chance of challenging for the title and they’re only three points off first-place Chelsea. Without him, they don’t. Alongside Ozil, they are the two world class talents Arsenal possess and the board must break the bank to keep the star attacking duo on board.


NO PAYET? MORE PROBLEMS

For most of the first half you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Dimitri Payet was on the pitch. The French international playmaker strolled around and barely broke into a sweat as he completely failed to control the ball on one occassion and gave it away readily.

He ballooned a shot 20-yards over the bar and din’t do much else. In the second half he drifted in and out of the game, whipping in a few good set pieces and setting up Manuel Lanzini in the box, plus he also casually walked the ball out of play from a goo crossing position in the box.

With a report circulating on Saturday that Arsenal were lining up a bid for Payet, 29, in January, some could argue that he has mentally checked out at West Ham. The Hammers look set to be embroiled in a relegation battle and Payet just isn’t up for that. His midweek performance in the EFL Cup at Manchester United suggested as much and this display reinforced those notions.

He only committed his future to the Hammers in the summer but if Arsenal come calling in January with a big bid, it’s clear that Payet would prefer to move on. West Ham’s owners would loathe selling Payet, an action which would put further presure on themselves given the tumultuous move to the London Stadium. But ask yourself this: is it better to get $45-50 million for Payet now (ballpark figure) and reinvest it in center backs and strikers you badly need? Or keep him around so he can saunter across the pitch so it’s basically like playing with 10 men?

There’s no doubting West Ham would miss Payet’s creativity in the final third but right now he should be the least of their worries.


BILIC ON THE ROPES

There’s no getting around it. The situation is bleak for the Hammers.

Slaven Bilic‘s team performed so well last season, his debut campaign as West Ham manager. They rode nostalgia-driven euphoria in their final season at Upton Park to finish seventh in the Premier League.

With three defeats in their last five and no wins in that stretch, Bilic seems to be on the brink. They are one point out of the relegation zone and three points off the bottom.

Yes, the Hammers have plenty of  issues in defense and that was exasperated by James Collins coming off injured early on, but the entire game was just a case of them hanging in and hoping Payet or Lanzini would bail them out. That was never likely to happen.

The team gave up on Bilic in the end as Arsenal struck three times in the final 10 minutes. Given the stadium issues and fans not being happy with the owners about the move and a multitude of issues, Bilic and his players have been cut plenty of slack so far.

That won’t go on for much longer. With a pivotal two week period from Dec. 14-31 coming up, Bilic will need wins against Burnley, Hull, Swansea and Leicester if he’s not only going to get West Ham out of trouble, but also keep his job.

Make no mistake about, West Ham is in freefall.

West Ham United 1-5 Arsenal: Electric Alexis lights up Olympic Stadium

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Mesut Oezil of Arsenal celebrates with team-mate Alexis Sanchez after scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images
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  • Ozil puts Gunners ahead
  • Hat trick, assist for Alexis
  • Arsenal on 31 points
  • Carroll pulls one back

Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain helped Arsenal to a 5-1 road win at West Ham United on Saturday.

The win boosts Arsenal into second, three points back of Chelsea, though Liverpool can pass the Gunners with a point on Sunday.

Andy Carroll added a goal for the Irons when Dimitri Payet‘s free kick rebounded off the cross bar and directly to the big man’s noggin.

The Irons continue to disappoint, now just a point above the drop zone in 17th. Hull would shove West Ham into 17th with a win over Middlesbrough on Monday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

An early injury to James Collins threatening to plague West Ham’s chances of a win, and the Gunners definitely had the better of the play.

Arsenal’s breakthrough came when West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna made a big mistake, his pass blocked into the path of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean worked Winston Reid quickly before passing across to Ozil for an easy tap-in.

The damage was limited into the break, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit a good chance woefully wide of the goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

West Ham’s second half started well, with both Dimitri Payet and Ashley Fletcher ripping shots toward the Arsenal goal.

The Irons kept up the pressure, with Ogbonna thwarting an Arsenal threat against the run of play by Theo Walcott.

Arsenal was countering for the second half’s first half hour, quite effectively. Darren Randolph was soon called upon to stop a pair of Gunner chances.

Turns out those counters were indicative of a change in control, and Sanchez scored a wonderful goal in the 72nd minute. Randolph was too deep in his goal, and the Chilean beat him far post.

He’d add another across the body of a sliding Randolph with 10 minutes to go, and this one was essentially over. Carroll, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Sanchez scored goals in the final 10 minutes.

Sanchez’s was a cute little dink over Randolph in the 87th minute.

Follow @NicholasMendola

VIDEO: Alexis Sanchez scores sensational twisting, spinning goal

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Alexis Sanchez is a beast.

On Saturday he scored a stunning solo goal at the London Stadium in Arsenal’s clash against West Ham.

First his first goal the ball was drilled into him by Shkodran Mustafi and in one movement he controlled the ball, spun his marker and was away.

He still had plenty to do but the Chilean striker drilled a perfect effort across goal and into the far corner to put the Gunners 2-0 up. He then added two more goals for a 14 minute hat trick.

What a menace.

Watch his first goal in the video above, as Sanchez shrugged off a groin issue he suffered in the warmup and tormented West Ham.

WATCH: 2 red cards for fight… between Preston teammates

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - APRIL 09:  Gaston Ramirez of Middlesbrough (C) is challenged by Dan Johnson (L) and Eoin Doyle of Preston North End during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Preston North End at the Riverside Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Middlesbrough, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
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Preston North End attacker Eoin Doyle scored a goal and saw a ridiculous red card within an eight-minute span in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Sheffield Wednesday.

It wasn’t ridiculous that he was given the card, rather how he earned the sending off.

[ MORE: El Clasico ends in late draw ]

Doyle and teammate Jermaine Beckford had to broken up by teammates and opponents after the pair failed to team up for a scoring chance.

Beckford thought he was open for a pass that never came from Doyle, and shoves were exchanged before referee Scott Duncan sent both players to the stands in the 90th minute.

Follow @NicholasMendola