MLS Cup final: what we learned from the Galaxy win

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CARSON, Calif. – So much of the talk in bigger sports circles will be about David Beckham finishing his MLS career with a flourish, with a 3-1 win at the Home Depot Center. But the moment clearly also belongs to the Galaxy, to Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez and the rest.

Here are the five important points to be gathered from the 17th MLS Cup, where Bruce Arena’s Los Angeles Galaxy successfully defended its MLS Cup title.

The stars do matter

In the early DP years, the narrative was built that MLS teams could still win without the pricey Designated Players who were slowly being added to rosters. But now, with the most DPed-up of MLS sides claiming a second consecutive Major League Soccer crown, it’s pretty clear that the big salaries do matter in the MLS Cup chase.

Donovan and Robbie Keane each scored from the penalty spot. Beckham did his part, especially early, essentially supplying all of the Galaxy offense with those laser-targeted balls over 40, 50 or 60 yards. Truly, his long-range passing early Saturday was even more deadly than usual.

The talk now will be how Los Angeles and manager Bruce Arena use the DP slots going forward. Who will replace Beckham? Will they have another one to replace in Donovan?

But this much is clear: using the slots wisely (and spending lavishly surely helps) can beat the path to glory that works in MLS.

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk Man of the Match)

Home field matters

Not that it’s any surprise, but the team with home field advantage just won for a second consecutive year. Going forward, teams will work even harder to be the higher seed, gaining a deeper understanding of what it means to get those few extra points, to advance a little higher up the combined table.

Talking to the Dynamo players and staff this week, they understand that they slipped in the standings because of too many draws at home against teams they probably should have beaten.

In critical moments the home field was the difference, especially during those telling, harried second-half minutes when the Galaxy found the way through and effectively finished off the contest, riding the momentum of vocal home ground support.

Experience matters

The Galaxy lost the plot for about 20-30 minutes in the middle of the match, as Houston hit the opener and then kept the home team from looking too threatening. But no worries … they have the kind of experienced soldiers who won’t collapse under the moment.

Said Man of the Match Omar Gonzalez: “None of us were actually worried. Me and Robbie were talking after and said that we didn’t see any other outcome other than us winning.”

The Galaxy won this match by recognizing an opponent left reeling. A quick succession of events midway through the second half. with the match tied, put the Dynamo on its heels – and the Galaxy pounced.

That’s not as simple as it sounds. It takes experience to recognize the moment, to seize the initiative and really finish a stumbling foe. The Galaxy has men with the chops and the experience.

In the last 10-15 minutes, the Galaxy brilliantly managed out the match. Not only did Bruce Arena’s side keep tidy in the back and the midfield, preventing the Dynamo from getting many real opportunities.

That’s the experience working, too.

“We were putting a lot of pressure on them,” Donovan said. “It seemed inevitable that the second goal was going to come.”

Omar Gonzalez is bound for the national team

On Friday, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann mentioned his intentions to get Omar Gonzalez more firmly hammered into the U.S. plans.

Gonzalez did a little hammering of his own Saturday, hammering away ball after ball along the Galaxy back line, hammering his way into position for the second-half equalizer and leaving absolutely no doubt about his value to this club.

Klinsmann was at the Home Depot Center, and surely a little wide-eyed like the rest of us as the 2011 Defender of the Year put on such a stunning show.

It wasn’t just the physical attributes, either. Gonzalez was expertly positioned all afternoon, always seeming to find just the right spot.

Oh, on the Galaxy’s second goal, it was Gonzalez who knocked the telling ball back into position for the mad scramble to follow.

MORE: Omar Gonzalez PST’s MLS Cup Man of the Match

Big-game feel

The afternoon had a big-game feel to it – and these events need such a thing.

This was the first year of a major MLS playoff tweak, where the higher seed among finalists get host rights. And it means so much. For L.A. players to dance with such delight before their home fans during the trophy presentation, to get the big noise as the Galaxy seized control over a telling three or four minutes, to get such sections full of impassioned supporters – these are things that just don’t happen during neutral site finals.

It makes the events far more memorable and, in the long run, will boost MLS to places it wants to be that much faster.

(Keep checking back; lots more to come on the Galaxy win)

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday