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Hey Nerds! Zonal Marking geeked out on your MLS Cup!

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Just imagine Liz Lemon saying that headline …

… and please, don’t take offensive to it.. Anybody who reads the site regularly (a) is a saint!, and (b) knows I’m not above digging deep into the tactical side of things (as you’ll see in about 300 words).

Of course, if the virtual mecca for that kind of stuff is Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking, which once a year casts its eye west for Major League Soccer’s final.

The first time I remember Cox doing this was for the Colorado-Dallas final in Toronto (2010). Hopefully he didn’t make too many judgments based on that game, because that was rough 120 minutes (albeit with a decent payoff).

The last two seasons have given ZM some better soccer to write about, with Saturday’s match turning into an exhibition of what MLS 2.0 has to offer.

Click here to get all of Zonal Marking’s thoughts, but the general points:

  • 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2 made for a straight forward battle;
  • Kofie Sarkodie overlapping a pinched-in Boniek Garcia made Houston’s right the first half’s key battle zone;
  • Unusual for today’s style of soccer, a working the channels approach dominated the game on both sides;
  • Calen Carr’s departure hurt Houston’s ability to utilize that approach in the second half;
  • LA’s dominance on set pieces defined the second half, Houston lacking somebody to counter Omar Gonzalez’s aerial dominance.

A couple of things that help round out the picture, things that are difficult to pick up without watching the teams throughout the season:

  • Part of LA’s success on set pieces was due to Tally Hall’s tendency to stay on his line. On the second goal, Gonzalez was able to cut him off, winning Beckham’s chip;
  • Houston was playing a higher line than usual, perhaps a consequence of Kinnear asking Clark to venture forward more to try and contain Beckham (and moving his defense up to keep from being stretched). At one point in the first half, LA was called for offside within five yards of the center line;
  • I would say the freedom Beckham had was less to do with Clark playing deep than LA’s adjusting to Clark staying at the same level as his wide midfielders (if not higher). Beckham ended up dropping deep and to the right, at times drawing Calen Carr’s attention because of how far he’d drifted;
  • Landon Donovan was pulling Houston’s center backs all over the place. The 12th minute long ball from Beckham to Robbie Keane (which ended in Donovan missing a sitter) was created by Donovan pulling Bobby Boswell out of position. Jermaine Taylor also had trouble deciding when to release and when to track Donovan.
  • Aside from Adam Moffat’s assist on Calen Carr’s goal, Houston’s central midfield really struggled in the offensive phase. Ricardo Clark continually let himself get lost between Beckham and Juninho, while neither he nor Moffat where getting the ball to Garcia and Brad Davis quick enough.

UEFA Champions League final preview — Madrid’s finest Real or Atleti?

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 27:  Diego Simeone head coach of Atletico Madrid looks on during an Atletico de Madrid training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 27, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final isn’t quite the unstoppable force against the immovable object — Real’s defense is good and Atleti has plenty of attacking intent — but it’s fair if you’re expecting the Madrid Derby final to be Diego Simeone’s diligent defenders attempting to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s potent attack.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed ]

Simeone’s built his name on tight teamwork, and La Liga teams broke Atleti down a mere 18 times in 38 matches this season. Before you crow about the weakness of Spain’s top flight from top to bottom, Real only managed a single goal against Atleti in a 1-1 draw that came at the Vicente Calderon. Atleti triumphed 1-0 at the Bernabeu to take four of six points from their derby mates.

But this is the big one, and a rematch of the late thriller we saw in the 2014 final. That’s when Diego Godin’s 36th minute goal came within seconds of being the difference, only for Sergio Ramos to net in stoppage time and Real to score three goals in extra time for a 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Torres ready for “game of my life” ]

Ronaldo will be fine to go, which is obviously bad news for Atleti. While his goal at the end of the 2014 final was just chiseled-ab window dressing, he has scored in both of his UCL finals (He scored for Manchester United in the 26th minute of their 2008 defeat of Chelsea).

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The beauty of Atleti’s defense is how well it springs into the attack, with Godin and Filipe Luis both capable of providing offense.

But really, with respect to Gabi and Antoine Griezmann… that defense! Atleti allowed three goals in the group stage, and just seven across its 12 UCL matches.

How will Simeone aim to stop Real this time around? Will it be banks of four or five, with Torres and Griezmann waiting to strike on a fleet-footed counter? That could serve their disciplined unit well, but something tells me Simeone has something special cooked up for this much-anticipated rematch, and manager is a distinct edge for Atleti against a still-learning Zinedine Zidane.

As an aside, Griezmann has been fantastic, scoring 32 times this year with seven coming in the UCL. Torres is second in scoring, with 12.

Championship playoff preview: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hull City

DERBY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 14:  Eldin Jakupovic of Hull City celebrates as Andrew Robertson of Hull City scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off semi final first leg match between Derby County and Hull City at the iPro Stadium on May 14, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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One is hoping to rejoin the Premier League at the first time of asking, while the other to see its first top flight action since 2000 with a win in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

Hull City did not make the top flight from its inception in 1904 until winning the playoffs in 2008. Since, the Tigers have spent a pair of 2-season stints in the Premier League.

Sheffield Wednesday, for its part, spent nine seasons in the top tier from 1991-2000, but fell as low as League One in the 21st century before a run to the playoffs this season.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Hull’s stingy defense allowed 35 goals this season, tied for the second-best mark in the league, while scoring the fourth-most goals (69). The Tigers finished in fourth place to Wednesday’s sixth, and the sides drew 0-0 at Hull and 1-1 in the reverse fixture.

Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was far and away Hull’s most deadly scorer, notching 21 goals in the Championship this season, while Sam Clucas paced the club with 8 assists.

Wednesday’s scoring was paced by former Watford attacker Fernando Forestieri’s 15 goals. Veteran Gary Hooper added 13 for the Owls, who got a team-best eight assists from Ross Wallace.

It’s the “richest game in sports”, and kicks off at Noon ET Saturday.

Sturridge injured again, Rashford set for England debut

England v Norway - International Friendly
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GATESHEAD, England (AP) England striker Daniel Sturridge has picked up another injury, potentially affecting his chances of being selected for the European Championship.

England manager Roy Hodgson says Sturridge has a calf injury that has prevented him from training and is a doubt to play in the warmup match against Australia on Friday. Hodgson has until Tuesday to finalize his 23-man squad for the tournament in France.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Sturridge has been beset by injury problems in recent years.

His latest injury increases the possibility of 18-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford‘s fairytale season being extended to include Euro 2016.

Hodgson said Thursday that Rashford will make his debut against Australia in Sunderland – as a starter if Sturridge isn’t fit. Rashford only made his United debut in February.

Ex-Leicester boss Pearson hired by Derby County

Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC
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Nigel Pearson lives.

The combustible former manager of Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City will now lead Derby County in the hopes of Premier League promotion.

Derby has been on the edge of promotion to the Premier League for several seasons, but neither Steve McClaren and Darren Wassall could do the trick.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Enter Pearson, 52, who has been hired on a three-year deal. It’s his first stop since a roller coaster ride saw him guide Leicester into the Premier League, only to be fired in the aftermath of some players being involved in a racist sex tape incident on a tour of Thailand.

This was after a bizarre season that saw him put his hands on an opposing player’s throat, call a journalist an ostrich, and ultimately save Leicester from the drop.

From Derby County’s site:

“I am honoured to be named as the Manager of Derby County, which is one of the biggest clubs in the country, a club in excellent shape and one with strong ambitions. It is firmly focused on achieving Premier League football.

“I will give absolutely everything I have to this role and do all I can to bring exciting, entertaining and winning football which our supporters can be proud of.”

At the very least, the Rams will be interesting to watch next season.