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Where They Stand: Groups A through D after two rounds of UEFA Champions League

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The way UEFA Champions League schedules its group stage, the competition takes a drastic turn after two game. That’s because the third and fourth matches are a home-and-home series, allowing teams to zero-in on an opponent in a way normally reserved for the knockout round.

If you’re gotten off to a slow start, it’s probably because of a difficult schedule, one that will give you an easier opponent in the middle rounds. If you’re off to a fast start, you might be brought down to earth, and if you’ve missed opportunities to pick up points, the home-and-home can leave you regretting your start.

Take, for example, Schalke, who sit first in Group E after yesterday’s action. They’re 2-0-0, lead by three points, but they’ve also yet to face Chelsea. Over the next two rounds, they get the José Mourinho’s team twice, facing the prospect of regressing from their hot start.

[MORE: Where They Stand: Groups E through H after two rounds.]

But the home-and-homes become most interesting when they pair teams fighting for the same spot, and after Wednesday’s action in Groups A through D, each quartet is left with one showdown matchup over the competition’s next two rounds:

  • Group A: Shakhtar Donetsk, tied on points with group-leading Manchester United, are paired with Bayer Leverkusen, one point back but having got their trip to Old Trafford out-of-the-way. These teams were expected to compete for second behind the Red Devils, but if either team sweeps this series, they’ll have a chance of stealing first place from the favorites.
  • Group B: Copenhagen and Galatasaray sit third and fourth, but if one team can claim four or six points, they’ll volunteer to challenge Juventus for the spot behind Real Madrid. Juve, having only claimed two points thus far, will mull their regrets while matched with los Blancos.
  • Group C: Olympiacos and Benfica have each beaten Anderlecht and lost the Paris Saint-Germain, and while form has distinguished their performances, that’s all style points. Over rounds three and four, we’ll see if one of them can take control of the race for the group’s other knockout round spot.
  • Group D: Manchester City are heavily favored with advance with group-leading Bayern Munich, but two years ago, it was CSKA Moscow that found a way into the knockout round. Manchester City has never advanced beyond group stage.

[MORE: Wednesday roundup: Winners and highlights from Wednesday’s action.]

[MORE: Full-time snapshot: The numbers after Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League matches.]

Here’s where Groups A through D stand after Wednesday’s Champions League action:

* – To each of these standings we’ve added a column labeled +/-: a crude attempt to track how many points a team has dropped at home (minus) or picked up on the road (plus). It’s a very crude attempt to gauge the extent to which teams are holding serve.

Group A
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Manchester United 2 1 1 0 5 3 2 1-0-0 0-1-0 4 +1
Shakhtar Donetsk 2 1 1 0 3 1 2 0-0-1 1-0-0 4 +1
Bayer Leverkusen 2 1 0 1 4 5 -1 1-0-0 0-1-0 3 +0
Real Sociedad 2 0 0 2 1 4 -3 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

WIth a home-and-home with Real Sociedad up next, Manchester United are in good position. They’ve held serve at home, and they’ve taken a point in Donetsk that the rest of the group’s unlikely to replicable. David Moyes is off to a strong start to his first Champions League.

Look over at the +/- column and you can see why Shakhtar can afford to split their upcoming games with Bayer. The Ukrainian champions have already won on the road, and although they technically dropped points today against United, Bayer’s likely to do the same. If Shakhtar and Leverkusen split their teams’ upcoming series, Mircea Lucescu will have preserved his team’s advantage.

[MORE: Manchester United makes Danny Welbeck’s early opener hold up.]

Group B
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Real Madrid 2 2 0 0 10 1 9 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Juventus 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2 -1
Copenhagen 2 0 1 1 1 5 -4 0-1-0 0-0-1 1 -2
Galatasaray 2 0 0 2 1 5 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -2

Two ties in the group’s four games have helped Real Madrid extend their lead. Even they only take one point from Juventus in the next two round, they’ll still be first come round five. If, on the other hand, they claim four points, they’ll be able to click it into cruise.

At the other end of the group, Copenhagen and Galatasaray will either cancel each other out or identify a contender. Given Real will likely do some damage to Juve, four points for either team could see them pull even with (or, leapfrog) the Italian champions. And as we discussed in today’s reaction, if it’s Galatasaray that takes advantage Copenhagen, Juventus may be destined for a must-win in Istanbul to close out group stage.

[MORE: Home draw should raise concerns for Juventus.]

Group C
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Paris Saint-Germain 2 2 0 0 7 1 6 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Olympiacos 2 1 0 1 4 4 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
Benfica 2 1 0 1 2 3 -1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Anderlecht 2 0 0 2 0 5 -5 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

PSG’s not only three points up on the pack. They’ve put up huge results against their closest competition, and their upcoming home-and-home will be against the quartet’s cellar dwellers. Even if they’re not on 12 points at this time next month, they’ve accumulated some serious tiebreaker mojo. They may be in a better position than Real Madrid, despite a smaller lead.

As for the chasers, Olympiacos and Benfica will have a chance to step forward as the group’s number two. The Greek champions have looked the more impressive side, but at the far right, you see that both teams are treading water.

Group D
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Bayern Munich 2 2 0 0 6 1 5 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Manchester City 2 1 0 1 4 3 1 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
CSKA Moscow 2 1 0 1 3 5 -2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Viktoria Plzen 2 0 0 2 2 6 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

Is it really so far-fetched that Manchester City loses in Russia in three weeks? Long, unfamiliar trip. Team with a recent history of Champions League failures. An inconsistency born of their coaching change. Despite a convincing win in Plzen two weeks ago, City may yet become their former selves.

After Bayern takes care of business against Viktoria, City and CSKA be left to fight for second place, and while the Sky Blues will be favored to claim it, they’ve already dropped points at home. CSKA has not. The main reason for that is schedule (Bayern doesn’t visit Russia until round five), but as of now, there’s nothing that separates the English giants from Russia’s champions.

[MORE: Bayern brilliance, Joe Hart follies see Manchester City fall, 3-1.]

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)
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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.

Follow @NicholasMendola