Chelsea v Swansea City - Capital One Cup Semi-Final

Swansea, Bradford City turn England’s League Cup on its head


Are you ready for a Swansea City-Bradford City meeting at Wembley? We’re not there yet, but after the last two day’s League Cup results, the matchup looks probable. Bradford City took a 3-1 lead out of Tuesday’s leg one with Aston Villa while Swans pulled of a 2-0 upset at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. With both semifinals at their halfway marks, the underdogs are on course to complete their improbable runs.

The stunning thing about fourth-tier Bradford City was not that they took a two-goal lead out of the first leg. They were the better side. Aston Villa is a Premier League team which, while struggling at the top level, should have no problem at least holding their ground over an initial 90 minutes.

Yet the same Villa we’ve seen try to play themselves into the Championship showed up on Tuesday. Goals by Nahki Wells and Rory McArdle had Bradford up two after 77 minutes, and while an Andres Wiemann goal seemed to salvage a workable road deficit, Carl McHugh’s late tally restored Bradford’s 3-1 lead.

As embarrassing as the result is, it’s not unworkable. Bradford are still a League Two side, albeit a decent one. Aston Villa are still a far superior Premier League side, albeit a bad one. Villa should be able to post a lopsided result in their home leg, but having won only once in their last six (beating a Championship side in the FA Cup), it’s foolish to assume too much from Paul Lambert’s team.

We’re getting to the point where Villa may have to make a change. If Paul Lambert can’t get his team past a League Two side, it doesn’t speak well for his ability to accomplish the ultimate goal: Surviving the Premier League.

Yet this team may have gone through too many coaching changes since Martin O’Neill left at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. Kevin MacDonald, Gerard Houllier, Gary McAllister, Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert – I’m including the caretakers just to underscore how many different faces players like Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ciaran Clark have had to take instructions from over the last two-plus years. Add in O’Neill (who was still around in the fall of `10) and that’s six different men prodding the underachieving squad. Will adding a seventh name to the list really solve the problem?

Take Chelsea, for example. As you may have heard (ad nauseam over the past three months), the European champions changed managers earlier this season. Out went Roberto Di Matteo, himself a mid-season replacement the previous season, and in came Rafa Benítez.

Results have been mixed. While the Chelsea ended 2012 on a four-game winning streak, they began the year with a home loss to QPR. After an impressive FA Cup win at Southampton this weekend, the Blues lost at home today, 2-0 to Swansea City.

Chelsea looked very good in the first half but still went into intermission down a goal after a defensive mistake by Branislav Ivanovic allowed Michu to put Swans in front. In the second half, another Ivanovic mistake let Danny Graham double Swans’ lead, Swansea taking a 2-0 win out of Stamford Bridge.

It was a strange game because Chelsea didn’t play that bad, particularly after Demba Ba came on for Fernando Torres. He had a goal waved off for offsides and drew a yellow card when he was judged to have drove when trying to round the keeper. But he was influential, and Chelsea were close to getting on the board.

Yet with a team that has Chelsea’s talents, there shouldn’t be the need for asterisks – the rationalizing for poor results in terms of a progress this group should never have had to make. This inconsistent world they inhabit under Rafa Benítez is inexplicable. Whatever Chelsea is doing to succeed against Aston Villa and Southampton needs to be harnessed and implemented against QPR and Swansea.

Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Chelsea’s not the first inconsistent team ever, but the challenge remains the same. How does Benítez get them to be good Chelsea more often?

He doesn’t know. He’s only been on the job a couple of months. Perhaps he’ll eventually find out, but by the time he does, his team may be out of the League Cup and further mired in a fight for a Champions League spot.

There’s also the chance they’ll be headed to Wembley. When Chelsea goes to the Liberty Stadium for their second leg, they may play like the team that crushed Saints at St. Marys. And if they do, they’ll eliminate Swansea, move on to the final, and hope Dr. Hyde shows up against Bradford (or Villa).

“Sorry to kill your stories”: Klopp not seeking new Liverpool GK

during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and FC Girondins de Bordeaux at Anfield on November 26, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
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The topic of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a lightning rod for a certain subset of Liverpool fans, but you can count Jurgen Klopp in the group that likes him just fine, thank you.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

The 27-year-old Belgian has been the man between the sticks for Klopp since the manager took over at Anfield, and Klopp is already tiring of the rumors that he’s looking for better in the goalkeeping department.

From the BBC:

“I’m absolutely satisfied with our goalkeeper situation.

“I’m sorry to kill your stories about German goalkeepers and different goalkeepers from Stoke – we are not looking for another goalkeeper.”

Pretty clear cut there. Jack Butland would be nice and all, but Klopp’s fine with Mignolet and ex-Bolton man Adam Bogdan.

Do you think they need better?

Klinsmann backs Altidore ahead of busy 2016; USMNT star “back on board”

Jurgen Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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Jurgen Klinsmann thinks Jozy Altidore‘s tumultuous year ended on an upswing, and expects it to continued into an important 2016.

The Toronto FC hitman had plenty of ups and downs for club, and just as many for country. Whether injuries or form, Altidore wasn’t often the player USMNT fans remember from years past.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But the recently-turned 26-year-old scored six times in his last nine games with TFC to give him 13 on the season, and Klinsmann seems to think his big striker is out of the woods.

From US Soccer:

“Everybody saw that 2015 for Jozy Altidore has been very difficult, a tricky year, but it has become a year toward the end of it where it got stronger and stronger. He had some injury issues and some fitness issues in the beginning of the year. Obviously we had the episode in the Gold Cup where he was not in the shape he needed to be. In then towards July, August, September, he got more and more into the flow. He started to score goals for Toronto, and he got stronger and stronger for the national team as well. This is a very positive sign for us to have Jozy back on board, to plan with Jozy into a very busy 2016, obviously the biggest highlight is the Copa America in June.”

It’s great for the coach to have faith in the United States’ fourth all-time leading scorer, who should catch Eric Wynalda for third this season. Whether Klinsmann will be rewarded for his faith in the striker is another thing altogether, especially in that pivotal, U.S. hosted tournament this summer.

The tricky thing for Altidore, in the run up to the 2018 World Cup, will be for him to prove his merit if players like Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson and Jordan Morris continue their rises as scoring options.

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
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For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
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It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.