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)

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday