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Tottenham’s new-look midfield still a work in progress

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LONDON — Andre Villas-Boas was understandably a happy man following Tottenham’s narrow 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.

Spurs’ manager was delighted with the three points in their first game of the 2013-14 season and praised his team for a disciplined display.

“Very happy. It was a good performance. It was a surprise against Palace because of the amount of new signings that they brought and the fact that we don’t know them so well,” Villas-Boas said. “I am extremely happy with the performance, we had plenty of chances to put the game to bed. We can only be pleased and overall we were the deserved winners.”

Inevitably AVB was asked about the future of Gareth Bale but he declined to comment on a potential transfer, instead stating he is injured and will not be featuring for the foreseeable future.

“The player is injured and unavailable for selection as is not likely to start neither the Tbilisi [Europa League qualifier] or the Swansea game [next Sunday].”

But with Tottenham grinding out a win without their influential attacker, Villas-Boas’ side were lacking a cutting edge with their Welsh wizard sidelined. Spurs deployed two holding midfielders against Palace as Paulinho and Mousa Dembele battled it out with Mile Jedinak in the engine room.

(MORE: Crystal Palace 0 – Tottenham 1, Soldado’s penalty seals the win for Spurs)

Villas-Boas accepted that Palace made Spurs’ job extremely difficult.

“I think Palace set up really, really well. Because they put three players behind the striker very, very narrow. Plus two more in midfield so it made it extremely difficult for us to play through the middle. We were outnumbered in the middle.”

Belgian international Dembele, 26, also believed Spurs did as well as they could on a hot and sticky day in South London.

“It was not easy,” Dembele said. “The pitch was very dry, so it took a bit out of our game because we want to play fast and everything. In the end we had some good chances. They are a good side but we should have been ahead by more.”

Dembele’s fellow Belgian international Nacer Chadli carved out a few chances and did well out on the left. Leaving Spurs fans optimistic that they’re covered even if Bale does leave. And Icelandic attacker Gylfi Sigurdsson was sharp and creative in the No. 10 role.

Sigurdsson was happy with his performance and to return to his favored position behind the front man.

“It was nice to play there again and I enjoy playing there. Hopefully I will stay there behind the striker. I think that is probably what I prefer, but I will play wherever the manager wants to play me.”

source: Getty Images
Paulinho, and Spurs, battled well in the engine room.

Capping off a whole host of new faces in Spurs’ midfield, Brazilian midfielder Paulinho looked bright and sharp in the tackle. Palace’s midfield was marshaled by Jedinak who was the pick of their players and made the Spurs midfield work for every single ball.

AVB was pleased with his new midfield terrier. Although Tottenham’s Portuguese boss wasn’t too pleased about Paulinho playing the full 90 minutes for Brazil in midweek, as the Samba Boys lost to Switzerland.

“I don’t understand why he was the only player involved for Brazil for 90 minutes against Switzerland. And he probably should have been taken off a little bit earlier,” Villas-Boas continued. “We didn’t speak to Scolari [Brazilian national team manager] and we didn’t get involved. I was mentioning it because he hasn’t had a 90 minutes for a while. So it was a great, great effort for someone who hasn’t done that in preseason.”

With Paulinho, Dembele and new signing Etienne Capoue — who came on as a second half substitute — shoring up the midfield, Spurs looked solid and dependable as Palace cranked up the heat late on. They certainly looked less fragile than they had last season, as a late onslaught was thwarted with Spurs claiming the shutout.

Last year Spurs conceded easily at times, but they had Bale to rescue them late in games. This season they might not be able to rely on his clutch goal scoring exploits, so a solid midfield core is a necessity. Will it be a different Tottenham team this season?

“I don’t think so,” Villas-Boas said. “Not in terms of the system because we will keep on what we did last season. Between the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2. These are the systems that we will continue to work on, it gives us flexibility.”

On this showing, Spurs’ new midfield is more then capable of providing flexibility and solidity.

It will just take time.

Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
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When it comes down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clear.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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Three things we learned from Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph

Seattle Sounders players chase defender Roman Torres (29) after he scored the game-winning shootout goal to defeat the Toronto FC during shoot out MLS Cup soccer final action in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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MLS Cup 2016 was the most well-played game of soccer all year — far from it, in fact — but the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions for the first time in their eight-year history anyway.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

Three thoughts on a poorly-played, but thoroughly intense 2016 finale…

A cup final, it most certainly was

The numbers of cup finals which feature brilliant, composed attacking play is hugely outweighed by the number of cup finals featuring a total lack thereof. Whether it was down to nerves, the frigid conditions in which the game was played, or a combination of the two, Saturday’s final at BMO Field was yet another example of the latter.

The telling stats: 40 fouls between the two sides (just three yellow cards shown); zero first-half shots attempted by the Sounders, and just three shots in total over 120 minutes (zero on target).

The only moment of true quality came in the 108th minute, when Stefan Frei made the best save you’ve seen all year to deny Jozy Altidore and keep the Sounders on level terms (WATCH HERE).

Michael Bradley, man of the match (until his PK)

As we’ve come to expect, Bradley was anywhere and everywhere on the field for TFC, at all the right times. With Osvaldo Alonso playing the part of warrior in the Sounders midfield, and Jonathan Osorio’s attacking prowess preferred to the defensive chops of Will Johnson alonside Bradley, it was up to the U.S. national team captain to singlehandedly track and mark Nicolas Lodeiro out of the game. He did just that, and so much more.

Then, came his penalty kick, TFC’s second, which was hit with so little pace and no more than three feet to Frei’s left for the easiest save he’d make all night.

The greatest comeback in MLS history

You’ve heard it all by now, but it doesn’t make what the Sounders did from August to December any less remarkable — from ninth place on the day Sigi Schmid was fired (two days before Lodeiro arrived), to the MLS summit in four and a half months. No team in MLS history had ever overcome a points gap that large (10) that late in the season to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance in said playoffs, reach MLS Cup, and lift the trophy.

Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and member of the Sounders family since his own playing days beginning in 1980, replaced Schmid with (presumably) the idea that he’d see out the lost season as interim head coach before making way for a big-name hire this winter. He won eight of his first 14 games as a head coach instead, led the Sounders to the four-seed in the Western Conference, and delivered to his hometown the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Watching the Portland Timbers lift MLS Cup 2015 was undoubtedly the toughest pill to swallow for anyone in Rave Green, but to end their Cascaida Cup rivals’ reign as defending champions by winning that very piece of silverware themselves … that’s a one-up that’ll last a lifetime.

Frei leads Sounders to first MLS Cup title in penalty kicks

Members of the Seattle Sounders celebrate after winning the MLS Cup soccer final over Toronto FC in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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TORONTO — With tackles that matched the bitter temperature, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders had little trouble providing intensity.

Goals were another story.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

In a game only its champion could love, the Sounders defeated TFC in penalty kicks at BMO Field on Saturday after 120 minutes of 0-0 play with precious few threats on goal.

After the teams traded goals to start PKs, Michael Bradley flubbed his shot right to Stefan Frei. But Clint Irwin stopped Alvaro Fernandez’s shot, Seattle’s third attempt, to keep things 2-2.

It went to bonus kicks, and Justin Morrow hit the bar to set the table for Roman Torres. Yes, the big man, and he nailed it.

The first chance belonged to Altidore, who took a classy ball from Giovinco and had his far post shot deflected off Roman Torres for a corner.

Giovinco had trouble with his service in the cold, and a fifth minute offering was returned by Joevin Jones on a long counter which finished in the hands of Clint Irwin.

Seattle gained its footing and held the ball deep in Toronto’s end, but wasn’t able to trouble Irwin. Jonathan Osorio was next to trouble a keeper, though ex-Reds backstop Frei collected his effort.

[ MORE: Frei makes the most amazing, unbelievable save in ET ]

A scary moment arrived in the 27th minute, as Giovinco ripped a left-footed effort into Roman Torres’ face just inside the 18. The Sounders defender fell hard (and surely the 25 degree weather didn’t help the impact).

Justin Morrow then supplied a lofted cross from the left fringe that Altidore headed down to a sliding Frei. Still 0-0, 30′

Service left a lot to be desired on set pieces, and Giovinco earned a free kick before firing it off the wall in the 39th minute.

Giovinco teed one up right after the break, but hit it off the outside of the net with the outside of his boot and it remained scoreless.

Though the chances remained scarce, the hosts had a few. Bradley picked out Giovinco with a diagonal ball that the Italian slid square for Altidore. The striker was held from getting to the ball, but no call came and Toronto won a corner that came to nothing.

The chippy play continued, and the chances remained few. Seattle called upon Andreas Ivanschitz  and Toronto turned to Will Johnson and ECF hero Benoit Cheyrou. Extra time seemed predestined, and so it came to pass.

Cheyrou won a corner with a left-footed shot just after play resumed. Giovinco teed him up for a similar chance three minutes later, but Frei collected the low offering. That was about it for the first 15 of ET.

Toronto’s third sub was Tosaint Ricketts, and he took a ball out of the air from 15 yards only to miss wide of the right post. Kicks were looming. Ricketts then picked out Altidore in the center of the box, but Frei flew to palm the headed ball off the line (WATCH HERE).

Seattle nearly went on top via a deep throw-in, as Lodeiro spied Torres at the back post and Beitashour whiffed on his attempted clearance. Irwin grabbed the loose ball first.

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