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)

Europa League: Arsenal, Dortmund, Leipzig survive 2nd-leg charges

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A roundup of all of Thursday’s action in the Europa League…

[ MORE: Premier League TV schedule | Man United vs. Chelsea ]

Arsenal 1-2 (4-2) Ostersunds FK

Ostersunds so nearly pulled off the most shocking upset of the 2017-18 season, as the Swedish side scored twice in 70 first-half seconds (WATCH HERE) to pull itself to within a goal of the Premier League giant.

Alas, the Gunners were awakened at halftime, and Sead Kolasinac restored a bit of order less than 90 seconds into the second half, putting Arsenal 4-2 ahead on aggregate and effectively ending the tie after one horrifically botched Ostersunds clearance.

The draw for the round of 16 will be held on Friday, at which point Arsenal and 15 other sides will learn their opponent for the next round.

RB Leipzig 0-2 (*3-3) Napoli

After a disastrous first leg at home, Napoli needed at least three goals to overcome the three away goals scored by RB Leipzig last week in Naples. The Serie A leaders controlled the game in every facet and created more than enough chances over the course of 90 minutes, but came up just short at the final whistle.

Piotr Zielinski bagged the opener after 32 minutes, but the following 50 would prove a frustrating exercise in futility for Napoli, as Lorenzo Insigne’s 86th-minute tally proved to be too little, too late. Now out of both domestic and European cup competitions, Maurizio Sarri’s side can turn its full focus to dethroning Juventus, the six-time defending Serie A champions.

Atalanta 1-1 (3-4) Borussia Dortmund

For the majority of Thursday’s second leg, Dortmund had one step out the door as they trailed Serie A side Atalanta 1-0 on the night, making the aggregate score 3-3 with no away goals of their own (two in the first leg for Atalanta).

Atalanta goalkeeper Etrit Berisha will have nightmares about his 83rd-minute howler, which turned a totally innocuous, speculative ball into a golden opportunity for Marcel Schmelzer to make it 4-3 on aggregate and bail Peter Stoger’s side out of embarrassment.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 (5-1) Copenhagen

Thanks to a 4-1 away victory in Copenhagen last week, Atletico Madrid had very little to play for on Thursday. That didn’t stop Diego Simeone from selecting a largely first-team lineup, a decision which was vindicated when Kevin Gameiro dashed any Danish dreams very early on, as the Frenchman bagged the game’s only goal after seven minutes.

Elsewhere in Europa League

Villarreal 0-1 (1-4) Lyon
Athletic Bilbao 1-2 (4-3) Spartak Moscow
Red Bull Salzburg 2-1 (4-3) Real Sociedad
AC Milan 1-0 (4-0) Ludogorets Razgrad
Lazio 5-1 (5-2) Steaua Bucharest
Zenit St. Petersburg 3-0 (3-1) Celtic
Braga 1-0 (1-3) Marseille
Lokomotiv Moscow 1-0 (4-2) Nice
Sporting CP 3-3 (6-4) FC Astana
Viktoria Plzen 2-0 (3-1) Partizan Belgrade
Dynamo Kyiv 0-0 (*1-1) AEK Athens
CSKA Moscow 1-0 (1-0) Red Star Belgrade

AT THE HALF: Arsenal 0-2 Ostersunds — Gunners on the ropes

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Arsenal were supposed to show up to the Emirates Stadium on Thursday, roll the ball out to midfield, kick it around a bit and, in just about any fathomable set of circumstances, advance to the Europa League round of 16 without breaking much of a sweat.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

Ostersunds FK had a very different idea how the round-of-32 second-leg clash would go, as the Swedish side hit the Gunners for a pair of goal just 70 seconds apart in the first half — the first courtesy of a Calum Chambers own goal, quickly followed by the second from Ken Sema — to pull themselves back to within 3-2 on aggregate.

With 45 minutes still to play, we’re one more Ostersunds goal from extra-time. Arsenal are in desperate need of a goal with only Danny Welbeck and Reiss Nelson as the only attacking changes available off the bench.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Week 28 of the Premier League is almost here as the battle for the top four and against relegation takes center stage at a pivotal moment in the season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for. 


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Crystal Palace 0-2 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 3-1 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) –  [STREAM

Leicester City 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]  

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Brighton 1-2 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Burnley 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-1 Newcastle – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Watford 1-2 Everton – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

West Brom 1-2 Huddersfield – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Manchester United 1-3 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Roma winger Under is a hero for Turkey’s government

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ROME (AP) From unknown status to Roma’s savior. From future star to national hero.

In the space of 2 1/2 weeks, Turkey winger Cengiz Under has undergone quite a transformation.

That’s what five goals in four matches do for a 20-year-old footballer.

Add in Under’s pro-military salute after his two-goal performance against Benevento this month, and it’s easy to see why he’s become an emblem for the government of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The salute was seen as supporting Turkey’s offensive against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

A day after the brace, Turkey Minister of Youth and Sports Osman Askin Bak tweeted “No need to explain” next to a photo of Under saluting. The tweet included emojis of a Turkish flag and clapping hands.

The reception comes in sharp contrast to what NBA player Enes Kanter has faced from his home country.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking more than four years in prison for the New York Knicks player on charges of insulting Erdogan.

Kanter cannot return to Turkey because his passport has been canceled. He is a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric blamed by Turkey for last year’s failed military coup.

Likewise, former national soccer team players Hakan Sukur and Arif Erdem have been stripped of their medals by the government for criticizing Erdogan.

As for Under, Erdogan reportedly called him in July to offer good luck when he completed a 13 million euros ($16 million) transfer from Basaksehir, an Istanbul club owned by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

But Under was not involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma and was starting to be seen as a misplaced acquisition by new sporting director Monchi.

Until he scored 43 seconds into a 1-0 win over Hellas Verona at the start of the month that ended Roma’s five-match winless streak in Serie A.

Then came the brace and an assist as Benevento was beaten 5-2.

“Under has done extraordinary things and improved a lot,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said. “Right now he’s a decisive player.”

In a 2-0 win at Udinese last weekend, Under scored the opener with a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area.

The fine form extended to Under’s Champions League debut against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. Under’s opener in a 2-1 loss kept alive Roma’s hopes of advancing after the second leg at home in three weeks.

While there have been no more salutes from Under since the Benevento match, that hasn’t lessened his popularity.

“Our national pride scored his first goal in the giants’ league,” the Haberturk newspaper headlined on Thursday.

Up next for third-place Roma and Under: AC Milan on Sunday.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf