MLS playoffs: Top story lines for the post-season

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Ten quick stories to follow through Major League Soccer’s 18th post-season:

1. Can the Galaxy become the league’s first three-time defending champion?

No team has won three MLS Cups consecutively through 17 previous MLS seasons – and here is LA, standing on two in a row. So much of the Galaxy’s chances will come down to the health of DP center back Omar Gonzalez and DP attacker Landon Donovan, both dealing with injuries. By the way, we’ve heard a lot lately about Mike Magee and about Marco Di Vaio and others … but the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane (pictured) is the best player in the MLS playoffs.

2. Will Landon Donovan’s ankle hold up?

The LA Galaxy star says his ankle, injured back in September, needs about six weeks to completely heal up. But he is soldiering through it. So can the league’s all-time leading scorer make it through the post-season? And what of his effectiveness? Seems like he’s one more ankle knock away from being the “Little Donovan” we saw through parts of 2012 and early 2013, not the “Big Donovan” we saw through so much of the summer.

3. For New York, with Supporters Shield in pocket, a bigger prize awaits

Congrats to the New York Red Bulls, who needed 18 years, 13 managers and hundreds of players to lay hands on the club’s first major trophy (Supporters Shield). While the debate rages about where Supporters Shield compares to MLS Cup on the continuum of league-related accomplishment, perhaps we should also consider this: only six Supporters Shield winners have gone on to win MLS Cup.

4. Red Bull leaders Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill

New York’s first two goals Sunday in an impressive 5-2 win over Chicago said it all: one absolute beauty from the stylish Thierry Henry, and one textbook scrapper via Dax McCarty (that dude should be nicknamed “Scrappy”) and impassioned grinder Tim Cahill. That is the perfect picture of this team’s useful blend under manager Mike Petke of substance and style.

5. Can the Seattle Sounders turn it around?

Seattle’s flailing fall, the team’s stunning late collapse, has been the story of October around MLS. The Sounders will tiptoe quietly into playoffs on the anti-momentum of a seven-game winless streak.

But the phrase most often repeated around MLS through the years is surely this: “You just have to get there; anything can happen in the playoffs.” Sounders manager Sigi Schmid sounded pretty sensitive recently as he defended his team for having arrived safely into the post-season, regardless of having backed in.

Yes, Sigi … you did get in. And credit for that. And now …

source:  6. And can Clint Dempsey contribute to any turnaround?

Clint Dempsey (pictured, left), the league’s highest paid man, a splashy summer addition at CenturyLink Field, was nine games into his second MLS go-round before finally getting a goal last Sunday. Who could have imagined it would take so long? But he did break that doggone seal … so can that be a springboard for more?

7. Are we forgetting about Kansas City?

New York swiped a bunch of the final day headlines, and everyone is all aflutter over the Timbers’ evocative turnaround tale. But can Sporting Kansas City, fronted by U.S. internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, really be so far behind? The team is, after all, 7-1-3 over all competitions since a little dip in mid-August. And lessons have presumably been learned over two close post-season calls of the last two years, right?

8. The compressed playoff schedule

It takes eight months to get into the MLS playoffs. They end for two teams just three or four days later. Within 11 days, six of 10 teams will have been eliminated. That’s too quick! Surely there’s a better way to extend the drama.

9. How will the refereeing hold up?

Refereeing in MLS is a hot topic pretty much every week, so there’s no real reason to expect any difference now. I mean, Pierluigi Collina isn’t coming through the door here, right? MLS officiating keeps slowly improving, but mark this down: There will be a highly controversial moment that helps decide a series. Probably more than one.

10. The dark horse in Utah

How can Real Salt Lake be a dark horse? Jason Kreis team won a league championship not so long back (2009). And they were U.S. Open Cup runner-up this year. Still, RSL has lots of young parts, and they just aren’t as fashionable as a championship favorite. Still, Kreis’ team only finished behind the Timbers (everyone’s favorite now) by a single point.

(MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

Rapinoe named to USWNT roster ahead of April friendlies

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The U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t at its best the last time they stepped out for the SheBelieves Cup, but Jill Ellis’ group will have a chance to find their feet again next month as they prepare to face Russia in a pair of friendlies.

[ MORE: Five questions for USMNT ahead of Honduras WCQ ]

Ellis announced her 24-player roster on Thursday, which was headlined by the inclusion of Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe.

“This is our last chance to get together before the NWSL starts and we’ll take full advantage of the training time as well as the two matches against a team in preparation for the European championships,” said Ellis. “Following these matches, my staff and I will begin a heavy investment in attending and evaluating the NWSL games as well as tracking our players overseas before we get back together for our European trip in the summer. I’m very much looking forward to our domestic league starting.”

Back-to-back losses to England and France in the SheBelieves Cup gave the USWNT an unwanted start to 2017, however, the Russians will give the U.S. another strong test in April.

The USWNT will play the first of the two friendlies on April 6 in Dallas at Toyota Stadium before meeting the Russians three days later in Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Here’s the entire 24-player roster for the USWNT ahead of their Russia friendlies.

Goalkeepers (3): Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders (6): Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Megan Oyster (Boston Breakers), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars)

Midfielders (8): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Rose Lavelle (Boston Breakers), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash/Manchester City), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Samantha Mewis (NC Courage), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign)

Forwards (7): Crystal Dunn (Chelsea FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride/Olympique Lyonnais, FRA), Kealia Ohai (Houston Dash), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (UCLA), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Lynn Williams (NC Courage)

Shorthanded USMNT looks to build momentum against Honduras

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Avaya Stadium will have a different feel on Friday night when the U.S. Men’s National Team hosts Honduras as CONCACAF World Cup qualifying resumes.

[ MORE: Five questions for USMNT ahead of Honduras WCQ ]

USMNT manager Bruce Arena will be coaching his first competitive match with the Stars and Stripes since the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and now it’s his job to help guide the squad back to the World Cup after stumbling early on in qualifying under previous manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

[ MORE: Wondolowski grateful for USMNT call up after Wood injury ]

The U.S. currently sits bottom in the Hexagonal with zero points through its first two matches, while Friday’s opponent — Honduras — holds three points after picking up a victory over Trinidad & Tobago on Matchday 2.

Arena will have his hands full though, not only with the U.S. opposition, but also with his lineup, which is set to see some serious changes both due to injuries and suspensions.

Jermaine Jones won’t feature for the USMNT as he serves a yellow-card suspension against Honduras, while Bobby Wood, DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson and Brad Guzan are among those left off the 26-man roster after sustaining injuries in the lead up to the match.

There is some good news for the U.S. though, as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Geoff Cameron return to the squad after going through their own injury layoffs. Dempsey has already scored twice for the Seattle Sounders since MLS action resumed earlier in March, while Howard has also found his form through the opening three weeks for the Colorado Rapids.

Meanwhile, Honduras will look to make matters worse for the Americans as Los Catrachos attempt to beat the USMNT for the second time on U.S. soil. The only time the USMNT has lost to Honduras in the U.S. was back in September 2001 when the Americans fell 3-2 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.

Several familiar faces will take the field for Los Catrachos, including five MLS players and various other former MLSers. Houston Dynamo trio Boniek Garcia, Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis all figure to play a role for Honduras, while Sporting KC’s Roger Espinoza and captain Maynor Figueroa of FC Dallas will also play dangerous roles for the visitors.

One name to keep an eye on will be 24-year-old midfielder Andy Najar, who now plays for Belgian side Anderlecht after previously plying his trade in MLS with D.C. United.

Schedule, preview for UEFA World Cup qualifying

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Three full days of 2018 World Cup qualifying are coming your way.

This will be a lot of fun.

[ MORE: 5 key questions for USMNT ]

Plenty of crunch qualifiers will be pivotal in deciding the fate of teams across Europe as just the top team from the nine groups goes automatically through to the finals in Russia, plus the eight best second-placed teams earn their spot in a home and away playoff for the four remaining spots.

The main game to look out for on Friday is the Republic of Ireland hosting Wales in Dublin with Group D finely poised. Ireland currently leads the group with 10 points but Austria is in second on eight points and Wales in third on six points. Just like he did at EURO 2016 (remember Chris Coleman’s Wales made the semifinals) Gareth Bale will be the talisman for the Welsh at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland knows that a draw isn’t disastrous but a win would put them in a very strong position to reach their first World Cup since 2002.

[ VIDEO: Podolski bows out in style for Germany

Elsewhere on Friday, Spain host Israel in Gijon with the Israeli’s knowing a win would take them above the Spanish in a very congested Group G that has Italy and Spain at the top on 10 points with Israel on nine. Plus Croatia welcome Ukraine to Zagreb in Group I with the hosts top of the group but a big away win for Ukraine would see them climb to top spot.

On Saturday three games stick out with the Netherlands heading to Bulgaria in Group A as Danny Blind’s men look to strengthen their grip on second place and try to hunt down first-place France. Meanwhile in Group B, EURO 2016 champs Portugal host upstarts Hungary in a similar scenario as Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. have nine points to Hungary’s seven but both trail leaders Switzerland who have a 100 percent record so far in qualifying.

Speaking of perfect records, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium host Greece in Group H with the talented Belgian outfit looking to make it five wins out of five in qualifying but Greece, who sit on 10 points, knows a win would see them leapfrog Belgium into top spot.

On Sunday England’s quest to make it four wins from five sees them host Lithuania in Group F as Gareth Southgate‘s men warmed up with a good performance but a disappointing defeat at Germany in a friendly. Elsewhere in Group F Scotland simply must beat Slovenia to have any chance of advancing to their first World Cup since 1998.

Group C leaders Germany head to Azerbaijan with Joachim Low’s men winning all four of their games so far, scoring 16 goals and not conceding in the process, while Northern Ireland host Norway in an intriguing clash as Michael O’Neil’s side hope to clinch second spot to continue their fine showing at EURO 2016.

Below is the full schedule for the next three days, while we will have reaction and analysis on all the World Cup qualifying games from the UEFA region.


Friday

Group D
Georgia vs. Serbia – 1 p.m. ET
Austria vs. Moldova – 3:45 p.m. ET
Republic of Ireland vs. Wales – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group G
Italy vs. Albania – 3:45 p.m. ET
Liechtenstein vs. FYR Macedonia – 3:45 p.m. ET
Spain vs. Israel – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group I
Turkey vs. Finland – 1 p.m. ET
Croatia vs. Ukraine – 3:45 p.m. ET
Kosovo vs. Iceland – 3:45 p.m. ET

Saturday

Group A
Sweden vs. Belarus – 1 p.m. ET
Bulgaria vs. Netherlands – 3:45 p.m. ET
Luxembourg vs. France – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group B
Andorra vs. Faroe Islands – 1 p.m. ET
Switzerland vs. Latvia – 1 p.m. ET
Portugal vs. Hungary – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group H
Cyprus vs. Estonia – 1 p.m. ET
Bosnia vs. Gibraltar – 1 p.m. ET
Belgium vs. Greece – 3:45 p.m. ET

Sunday

Group C
San Marino vs. Czech Republic – 1 p.m. ET
Azerbaijan vs. Germany – 1 p.m. ET
Northern Ireland vs. Norway – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group E
Armenia vs. Kazakhstan – 1 p.m. ET
Montenegro vs. Poland – 3:45 p.m. ET
Romania vs. Denmark – 3:45 p.m. ET

Group F
England vs. Lithuania – 1 p.m. ET
Scotland vs. Slovenia – 3:45 p.m. ET
Malta vs. Slovakia – 3:45 p.m. ET

PHOTOS: New aerials show rapid Tottenham stadium progress

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Tottenham Hotspur’s new home at White Hart Lane continues to take shape at a rather impressive rate.

[ MORE: Everton to get new stadium? ]

With this season expected to be Spurs’ final in their historic home, their stunning new 61,000 capacity stadium is being built around the Lane.

To anyone who has visited recently, Tottenham’s new home is starting to take shape.

[ MORE: A behind-the-scenes look at Spurs’ new home ]

All in all, it’s a very exciting time to be involved with Spurs as Mauricio Pochettino‘s men are in the FA Cup semifinal and are in second place in the Premier League table, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea.

On and off the pitch, the future is looking bright for Tottenham.

Take a look at the photos below for incredible aerial shots of the work, while the video above is from a recent episode of Premier League Download with Spurs.