Pedro strike sends Barcelona through on away goals

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Their nightmare unfolded for 70 minutes, Barcelona fans left ruminate over a Paris Saint-Germain performance that had not only stole an early second half lead but monopolized all the chances on goal. Seventeen times the likes of David Villa and Cesc Fabregas had tried to test Salvatore Sirigu, but with each errant hope’s collision with the side netting, flight into the stands, or meeting with a phalanx of PSG defenders, Blaugrana supporters were reminded of the two things that were about to see them out of Champions League: Lionel Messi was hurt; and their side had been second best.

When Messi’s 62nd minute arrival failed to pay immediate dividends, the feeling started to grow: PSG’s 3-2 (aggregate) lead might actually hold up.  Then, in a piece of sublime execution that could have been written on Jordi Roura’s whiteboard, Barcelona’s focal point ignited the move that secured his team’s Champions League survival.

(MORE: Bayern advances, and the state of Italian soccer.)

In the 71st minute, Messi received a pass in his office – the area right above the arc. His short ball forward found David Villa making a run through the box, with the Spanish international able to carry the ball across two defenders. Drawing in the opposition, Villa laid off for Pedro Rodríguez, whose assured strike into the right of goal hit PSG’s defense with a realization of the inevitable. As their shoulders sank under the burden of their new reality, you knew Barcelona was going through.

The feeling was familiar but still surprising, given how the match had unfolded. The idea that Barcelona would, of course, find a way to dismiss Paris Saint-Germain felt right, even if that idea had no place in the match’s first 71 minutes. The speed of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura gave Barcelona problems from the opening kickoff, and while the home side was initially able to match the Parisians’ chances with half-threats of their own, eventually PSG became the dictating force. By halftime, Barcelona’s possession gave them little more than reprieves between PSG attacks, and when Zlatan Ibrahimovic set Javier Pastore past Dani Alves early in the second half, the visitors finally translated pressure into product.

For the next 20 minutes, two banks of four formed PSG’s line. It wasn’t Chelsea-esque, but it was single-minded: Survive the next 40 minutes, and Barcelona’s out. Ultimately, Barça found a crack, leaving the Parisians to ponder where they could have found one more goal over the match’s 180 minutes.

source: APThat Barcelona was forced to lean on away goals to eliminate them might evolve into a point of pride, but when they think back over this year’s quarterfinal, PSG may see themselves as the better side for much of the tie. And rightfully so. Yes, Barcelona controlled the ball, but Paris Saint-Germain created more chances. They were able to play within their comfort zone for most of the round. The tie unfolded exactly as they would have requested. All that’s left is for them to regret that  planning and fortune couldn’t be parlayed into results.

But some credit is due Victor Valdes (right), a man whose recent performances for club and country are starting to justify the lofty praise his club’s supporters have constantly adorned. Gerard Piqué is also due some plaudits, the defender who has struggled for much of the season raising his level over the quarterfinals. Andres Iniesta deserves credit for pushing the team before Messi’s arrival, and of course, there’s Messi, whose first leg score and second leg contribution played a part in Barcelona’s only open play goals.

When 180 minutes ends 3-3, you can afford some mealy-mouthed conclusions, like Barcelona’s individuals carrying their squad past the better team. Those are the type of vagaries often used while try to explain that one side (PSG) had the better plan, superior organization, and would be more likely to win if the circumstances unfolded again. But in the talents of players like Messi, Iniesta, and Valdes, Barcelona has equalizers – the type of performers you need to advance through round after round knowing somewhere along the way, you just might be outplayed.

It’s a testament to Barcelona that they can face one of the most talented teams in the world, have an inferior plan, generally be outplayed (if only slightly), and advance despite the temporary loss of their best player. They may face a more talented squad in the semifinals, but they’re unlikely to face as many obstacles.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.