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Two games, six points make for an unexpectedly perfect start for Montréal

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Marco Schällibaum may be new to Major League Soccer, but you couldn’t tell by the way he’s set up his team. Two games and six points into his Montréal Impact career, Schällibaum may as well have taken a page out of the books of Bruce Arena, Dominic Kinnear, and the other veteran coaches who’ve had consistent success in MLS. He’s kept it simple.

Using the same compact, conservative setup that earned a 1-0 win last week in Seattle, Montréal defeated Portland 2-1 on Saturday night, a match that was never in any real doubt. To look at the numbers alone you’d never know, with Portland holding large advantages in possession (64 percent) and shots (19-9). Aside from two chances for Ryan Johnson, the second of which was converted off a Ben Zemanski cross in the 81st minute, Portland failed to seriously stress Troy Perkins.

The Impact, on the other hand, proved dangerous early and often. In the eighth minute, Felipe pulled an open shot from inside the penalty area just wide of Donovan Ricketts’ goal. Three minutes later, Marco Di Vaio’s header was kept out by a spectacular save from Ricketts. The resulting corner kick saw an unmarked Hassoun Camara’s flick from the near post go just wide, while an open chance for Davy Arnaud in the 21st minute went for naught after the Montréal midfielder failed to control a cross from Jed Brovsky.

Montreal finally broke through in the 30th minute and spectacularly so, with Camara’s overhead kick from 16 yards going into the left side netting.  With Portland pushing for a second half equalizer, Felipe doubled the Impact’s lead in the 60th minute. A pristine pass from Patrice Bernier was converted to into the backbreaker by a sharp cutback pass from Andrea Pisanu.

It was the second straight week Schällibaum’s team had put on a clinic, his veteran squad content to sit back and wait for a mistake before pouncing. In Seattle, it was Arnaud and Di Vaio taking advantage of some momentary Sounder disorganization. Against Portland, a first half foul from Darlington Nagbe led to the first, while a spectacular pass and run that exploited Michael Harrington delivered the second.

It’s a plan that could blow up on other teams. But Schällibaum has the experience of Alessandro Nesta, Matteo Ferrari, and Patrice Bernier as the foundation of the defense. He has Di Vaio to control the attack, with Felipe and Davy Arnaud to run off him.

“It means a lot, when you have a group of guys who have played in big games and big moments,” Arnaud, the team’s captain said of his team’s experience. “We’ve had a lot of guys who’ve experienced that. When the times were kind of hectic on the field at different times of the game, there’s never a real sense of panic amongst the group, and that’s good.”

To his credit, Schällibaum has left it to his players. He has out a 4-1-4-1, instilled some basic tactical precepts, and let his talent do their thing. If he had his team executing a complicated scheme that relied on more than veteran guile and an opportunism, his team could have struggled starting the season so far from home.

Instead, Montréal has six points. Perhaps unexpectedly so.

AFCON wrap: Tunisia joins Senegal in knockout rounds (video)

Tunisia's Wahbi Khazri smiles during a press conference in Libreville, Gabon, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match against Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Half of the field is set for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations knockout rounds, as Group B completed his final day of group play on Monday in Gabon.

[ FIFA: World Cup draw date at Kremlin ]

Senegal will move onto play Cameroon on Saturday, while Tunisia will take on Burkina Faso.

Senegal 2-2 Algeria

Leicester City’s Islam Slimani scored twice, but it wasn’t enough to get Algeria into the knockout rounds of AFCON.

Papakouly Diop and Moussa Sow answered Slimani’s goals, and Senegal enforced its hold on the group it had already clinched after two matches.

Algeria needed a win and help, and looked to get it when Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani carried over their chemistry from the Foxes of England to the Fennecs of Algeria.

Zimbabwe 2-4 Tunisia

Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri scored of the fourth of Tunisia’s first half goals as the Eagles of Carthage emphatically clinched their knockout round spot. Tunisia lost in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Lille’s Naïm Sliti was also among the goal scorers for Tunisia, with Youssef Msakni (Lekhwiya) and Taha Yassine Khenissi (Esperance de Tunis) also netting markers.

Tendai Ndoro (Orlando Pirates) and Knowledge Musona (Oostende) scored for Zimbabwe.

Three USMNT players leave camp, two with injuries

Kekuta Manneh chases the ball during practice of the U.S. men's national soccer team Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. Manneh has become a U.S. citizen, moving the Vancouver Whitecaps forward closer to eligibility for the men's national team. U.S. Soccer announced Manneh received his citizenship Wednesday, after the opening practice of January training camp under new coach Bruce Arena. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Less than a week from Bruce Arena’s second debut as USMNT boss, we know three players who won’t be in the Starting XI.

Injuries have felled FC Dallas duo Kellyn Acosta and Matt Hedges, while Vancouver attacker Kekuta Manneh is leaving the squad to join his ‘Caps teammates for preseason in Wales.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League Playback ]

Acosta has a mild left ankle sprain and Hedges has a mild right knee sprain.

While Manneh may have been a long shot to see significant playing time on Sunday against Serbia or Feb. 4 versus Jamaica, Hedges had a chance to start at center back and Acosta has been capped before as well.

FIFA going to Kremlin for World Cup draw in December

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  Vladimir Putin, President of Russia speaks as FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter looks on during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) FIFA says it will stage the 2018 World Cup draw on Dec. 1 at a Kremlin concert hall in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been allowing FIFA to use high-profile venues for World Cup ceremonies.

In July 2015, the qualifying program draw was made on the grounds of one of Putin’s official residences, Konstantin Palace near St. Petersburg. The summer was home built at the direction of Peter the Great.

The World Cup in Russia kicks off on June 14 at Luzhniki Stadium in the Russian capital, and returns there for the final on July 15.

Jurgen Klopp discusses Liverpool’s title chances

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool reacts during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Swansea City at Anfield on January 21, 2017 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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It was a disappointing weekend for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

[ MORE: New odds for title contenders ]

The German coach watched on as his side lost 3-2 to Swansea City on Saturday in the Premier League and the Reds fell 10 points behind leaders Chelsea with 16 games to go.

Klopp’s men have only won once in six outings in all competitions in January, and ahead of their EFL Cup semifinal second leg against Southampton at Anfield (they trail 1-0 from the first leg) he was asked if they still have hope of overhauling Chelsea and winning the Premier League.

Speaking to the media, Klopp revealed that his team are good enough to at least be in the top four battle.

“We fight in each game, that’s maybe the most important thing. Then we have to see what happens around,” Klopp said. “Of course, in cup competitions the target is to win the competition. In the Premier League, it’s probably the same but it’s not that easy to plan or whatever. In this case, if Chelsea win all their games – which they pretty much do – there is no chance for any other team. For us, it’s still absolutely important to finish the season as well as possible – whatever that means. We’ll see after the season.

“You can imagine we have the quality to fight for the Champions League, that’s what we should do. If we do this and we are then close enough in the decisive moment of the season, you can still fight for a little bit more. But in this moment, it’s nothing we have to think about or we should think about. We now have two games and then we play Chelsea, so that’s when I’ll think about Chelsea but not how we can get them or whatever. We fight for everything we are able to, that’s all.”

He’s right. Liverpool finishing in the top four this season would be a great achievement at this stage of his project.

Perhaps more worrying for Klopp is that his side may now capitulate and finish outside of the top four for a second-straight season.

There’s no doubting that Liverpool have exceeded the expectations of most people so far in 2016-17 but Klopp’s men faded badly last season to finish in eighth place and with no wins in their last three games in the Premier League the pressure is on.

Without leading scorer Sadio Mane, who is away at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, they’ve struggled to break opponents down and their defensive issues came to the fore against Swansea with sloppy mistakes costing them dear.

No team in the top seven has conceded more than Liverpool and with the Reds in fourth place and just four points ahead of sixth-place Manchester United and two points ahead of Manchester City who sit in fifth, all of a sudden they are looking over their shoulders instead of up at Chelsea.

Liverpool has lost momentum.

Boy do they need a big win in the EFL Cup against Southampton on Wednesday to regain some confidence and take that into their next PL clash, which just so happens to be against Chelsea at Anfield on Jan. 31.

Whatever he says publicly, Klopp must know that Liverpool cannot afford to lose to Chelsea. If they do and fall 13 points behind the Blues, the Kop can kiss goodbye to their title hopes for another season.