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.”

WATCH: West Ham star Dimitri Payet juggles chewing gum in warmups

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Dimitri Payet has dazzled many Premier League fans with his amazing skill since joining West Ham.

The Frenchman has produced feats of ball control, touch, and sheer power both to score goals from outrageous positions, or to create chances for his teammates out of nothing.

None may be better than this.

In the prematch warmups before West Ham’s 1-0 win over Sunderland on Saturday, Payet was caught on camera juggling his chewing gum. For a moment, his gum transformed into a tiny, bite-sized football and the 29-year-old smirked after keeping it off the ground before depositing it back into his mouth. Hygene issues aside, this is a stunning bit of skill.

Take. A. Bow.

Carlo Ancelotti admits he would consider England job

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Carlo Ancelotti, Manager of Bayern Muenchen looks on before the UEFA Champions League group D match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 28, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich manager Carlo Ancelotti has admitted he would absolutely be up for taking the England job, but only after spending “a bit longer” in his current situation.

When asked during a profile by the Daily Mail if he would take the job, he said that both the England job and the position in his native Italy would be attractive positions to him.

“They ask me in Italy to come back for the national team,” Ancelotti said. “Usually I stay in one club for two years, like at Chelsea; in Paris, one year and a half; two years in Madrid. I would like to stay here a little bit more, a bit longer and then after that I have to choose England or Italy.”

“But Southgate…Why not? But later. You ask me now. And before there is Italian national team.”

Clearly the Italy job is his top choice, and who can blame him for wanting to coach the national team in his home country? But Ancelotti has proven himself in both attractive setups and project positions, and would be a fantastic long-term choice for England.

Also interesting is Ancelotti’s admission of two years at a club. He’s often been given a raw deal at many of his stops, either at Chelsea just a year after claiming a double, or at Real Madrid a year after winning the Champions League. However, Ancelotti’s comments suggest that it’s been his choice to stay at clubs for such short periods of time.

Watch Live: Manchester City vs. Southampton (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City kisses the ball to celebrate a goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at Etihad Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola faces his first serious bout of adversity as head of Manchester City as they host Southampton at the Etihad live at 8:30am E.T. on NBCSN, or live online at NBCSports.com. The hosts will look to buck a streak of four winless matches across all competitions, two in the Premier League and two in the Champions League.

Who does the storied Spaniard turn back to? The man he benched the last two times out, Sergio Aguero. With rumors suddenly swirling that the Argentinian ace isn’t part of the long-term future of the club – rumors which Guardiola shrugged off – Aguero is suddenly the man Guardiola needs the most.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester City vs. Southampton live on NBCSports.com

Also in the lineup is Vincent Kompany, making his first Premier League start since April and just his sixth Premier League start of the calendar year back from yet another injury problem. Kompany’s return will be welcome, as the club is without a clean sheet since September 17th when they blanked Bournemouth.

In the absence of the injured Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta, Guardiola has selected to play with a back three, but a more attacking variety with no full-backs to track back and support. He could have started Aleksandar Kolarov on the right and Gael Clichy on the left, but instead chooses to include Kolarov as one of the three, and keep Clichy on the bench.

On the other side, Southampton is unbeaten in league play since early September, a run of five matches, but they fell midweek in the Europa League to Inter Milan, failing to score in the process. They lost Shane Long to a hamstring injury in the process, and Charlie Austin remains the starter up front with Jay Rodriguez on the bench to back him up. Ryan Bertrand also misses out with an injury, as 21-year-old Sam McQueen comes in for the first Premier League start of his career.

Southampton have slumped to six straight defeats at the Etihad Stadium, last winning at City in April of 2004.


Manchester City: Bravo, Stones, Kompany, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Gundogan, Silva, De Bruyne, Sterling, Sane, Aguero.
Caballero, Fernando, Nolito, Navas, Clichy, Otamendi, Iheanacho.

Southampton: Forster; Martina, Van Dijk, Fonte, McQueen; Clasie, Romeu; Davis, Tadić, Redmond; Austin.
Subs: McCarthy, Yoshida, Rodriguez, Ward-Prowse, Boufal, Hojbjerg, Stephens.

Conte: My Chelsea will never play for a draw, home or away

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts to his team scoring during the Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KCOM Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows what he’s doing — he’s playing the game made popular the world over by his predecessor and Sunday opponent, Jose Mourinho, and so many others who went before him.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Where other managers shy away from the controversy and the spotlight brought upon themselves by the psychological warfare waged by so many of the giants of the managerial profession, Conte has embraced the added attention he’ll now face when Chelsea host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

While Mourinho hasn’t been quiet in the build-up to his return to Stamford Bridge — how could he, given the considerable demand for comment? — he has mostly kept the cheap shots to himself and attempted to treat the affair like any other. Of course, it’s not that for him; for the Chelsea fans; for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who made the decision to fire Mourinho 10 months ago; and now, for Conte, who’s suddenly thrust onto the other side of the battlefield ahead of Mourinho’s grudge match — quotes from Goal.com:

“No, I think it is always right to play for a win. I try to transfer these thoughts to my players always. If you play at home or away, it must be the same.

“You must start the game with only one target: to win. Not to play for a draw. I don’t like this. It is not football. I don’t like this.”

“I think it is important to win, but for me also, it is important to win in the right way. Because, sometimes, it happened to me. I won in the past with other clubs, but I wasn’t satisfied with the performance.

“When you win is important, but it is important to also play good football, to play with a good intensity, to show always the will to win, the passion. For me, that’s important.”

The obvious inference here is that Mourinho’s teams have always been set out to play in a defensive manner — often times aiming for, or, at the very least, achieving 0-0 draws — something the Portuguese did earlier this week, away to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Conte didn’t ask to be the anti-Mourinho when he was named Chelsea’s new boss — not directly so, at least — but it comes as part of the territory when taking over from a mountain of a manager like Mourinho. Cool as ever, Conte is relishing his new role.