Colorado Rapids v Seattle Sounders

MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Seattle ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with Colorado

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Ahead of Wednesday’s first round playoff between Seattle and Colorado, here are the most knows about the Sounders ahead of the 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff (NBCSN):

  • This is not your normal Sigi defense

Seattle’s used to having one of the best defenses in the league, a combination of Sigi Schmid’s approach, Osvaldo Alonso’s ball-winning, and Michael Gspurning’s quality in goal. But Gspurning has struggled, the team’s shakeup (Dempsey, Moffat additions) has left questions through the middle, and Schmid’s failed to find answers. As a result, a solid-if-beatable core of defenders has been left exposed.

While the team’s moved on from performances that conceded nine goals over two games (Oct. 5, 9), fans have only seen stopgaps, not solutions. Seattle’s 42 regular season goals allowed is second-worst amongst teams that qualified for the playoffs, leaving questions as to how they’ll handle Deshorn Brown, Gaby Torres, and Vicente Sanchez.

  • Obafemi Martins is probably out

Dempsey continues to be the focus, but Obafemi Martins was the Sounders’ original statement of intent, albeit one that’s limited to 17 starts. Word out Seattle this morning leaves Martins unlikely to play on Wednesday, the Nigerian international skipping Tuesday’s training with a groin injury that’s cost him four of the Sounders’ last five games.

With Sigi Schmid switching to a diamond midfield (deploying Dempsey at its tip), Martins’ fitness seems to absolve Seattle of a tough decision, though it’s looking less-and-less likely a choice between Martins and Lamar Neagle will have to be made. This late in the season, you wonder a healthy Martins may be relegated to a super-sub’s role, Seattle needing to find a winning formula before the big-ticket acquisition can have an impact on this postseason.

  • Confidence has got to be an issue

Seattle played well in Sunday’s first half against Los Angeles but came out of intermission with a different mindset, eventually regressing into a defensive posture that saw them holding on for dear life far too early in the match. Robbie Keane’s 78th winner would cost them full points, relegating them to Wednesday’s playoff.

Those aren’t the actions of a confident side, a mentality that shouldn’t be surprising given the team’s October swoon. But with a squad full of veteran, accomplished players, Schmid should be able to convince his team they can do better. It’s not as if his crew have no history of success to draw on.

If the Sounders pull ahead of the Rapids, they need to kill off the match, not sit back and pray Colorado won’t find a goal. That mentality cost them on Sunday. On Wednesday, they have no room for error.

  • In Eddie, they may have to trust

Eddie Johnson provides a great Get Out of Jail Free card. When all else fails — when tactics or the confidence of a broken team can’t be turned around — Seattle can always play it to Johnson. They can win corner kicks, try to earn fouls, and hope the U.S. international can get the best of Drew Moor or Shane O’Neill.

It’s not the most complicated plan, but it’s one even a struggling team can execute. If all else continues to fall, Seattle may have to rely on the matchup they can win: EJ against that Rapids central defense.

  • The obvious: This game is very important to Siegfried Schmid

Speculating about a coach’s job is always precarious, more so when you’re talking about a unique situation like Seattle’s. After joining the Sounders at the dawn of their MLS adventure, the 60-year-old became the face of the franchise. He’s become much more than a coach.

But there’s no appetite for failure right now. If Seattle bows out in the first round, it will be hard to justify keeping him on. Joe Roth has made the financial commitment, and Adrian Hanauer expected this team to compete for titles (even before acquiring Dempsey and Martins).

If they come up five games short, Schmid may be gone, opening up the most attractive coaching job in Major League Soccer.

Juventus win 15th straight to take Serie A lead from Napoli

Juventus' Simone Zaza, second from right, celebrates with is teammates after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Napoli at the Juventus stadium, in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
AP Photo/Massimo Pinca
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(AP) — Substitute Simone Zaza scored two minutes from time and Juventus beat visiting Napoli 1-0 on Saturday to take the Serie A lead from the southern club.

[ MORE: Napoli fans support racially abused Koulibaly ]

Seeking its fifth consecutive title, Juventus moved one point ahead of Napoli with 13 rounds remaining in the Italian league.

Near the end of a match in Turin that had been characterized by few chances for either side, Zaza’s goal came with a long, curving shot that deflected slightly off defender Raul Albiol.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s next manager? Juve GM tells Allegri to “think twice” ]

It was Juventus’ 15th straight win, moving the Bianconeri within two victories of the Serie A record established by Inter Milan in 2006-07.

Earlier, Daniel Ciofani scored twice as promoted Frosinone beat Empoli 2-1 for its first away win in the top division. Also, Chievo Verona and Sassuolo drew 1-1.

Bundesliga wrap: Leverkusen win without Chicharito, drop Hertha to 4th

Leverkusen's Omer Toprak, right, celebrates his side's equalizing goal during a German Bundesliga soccer match between SV Darmstadt 98 and Bayer Leverkusen in Darmstadt, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
AP Photo/Michael Probst
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Hannover

Bayern Munich’s lead has been cut to five points (for the time being – they play on Sunday) after Borussia Dortmund (48 points) returned to winning ways via Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s game-winning goal in the 57th minute (below video).

Darmstadt 1-2 Bayer Leverkusen

No Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, no problem for Bayer Leverkusen, who went third in the Bundesliga with a 2-1 away victory over 12th-place Darmstadt. After going down a goal in the 28th minute, the game swung on a pair of goals 15 minutes apart just after the hour mark. Aytac Sulu put the ball into his own net for Leverkusen’s equalizer on 62 minutes, and Julian Brandt scored the winner in the 77th minute. Now on 35 points with a +9 goal differential, Leverkusen have leapfrogged Hertha Berlin for the third and final automatic qualification spot into the UEFA Champions League.

Stuttgart 2-0 Hertha Berlin

Hertha are now four league games without a win (three draws) after falling 2-0 away to Stuttgart. Serey Die and Filip Kostic were the goalscorers on Saturday, as U.S. national team defender John Brooks completed his 12th straight 90-minute shift (all competitions). With 35 points and a +6 goal differential, Hertha now sit just two points ahead of Schalke and Mainz in the race for the Bundesliga’s fourth and final Champions League place.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Wolfsburg 2-0 Ingolstadt
Werder Bremen 1-1 Hoffenheim
Koln 3-1 Eintracht Frankfurt

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (9:30 a.m. ET)
Augsburg vs. Bayern Munich (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 21 15 3 3 53 24 29 9-1-0 6-2-3 48
Bayer Leverkusen 21 10 5 6 31 22 9 5-3-2 5-2-4 35
Hertha BSC Berlin 21 10 5 6 29 23 6 6-3-1 4-2-5 35
FC Schalke 04 21 10 3 8 30 28 2 6-2-3 4-1-5 33
FSV Mainz 05 21 10 3 8 27 25 2 6-1-4 4-2-4 33
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
VfL Wolfsburg 21 8 6 7 31 28 3 7-3-1 1-3-6 30
1. FC Köln 21 7 8 6 24 27 -3 4-4-3 3-4-3 29
VfB Stuttgart 21 8 3 10 33 41 -8 5-1-5 3-2-5 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 21 7 5 9 14 23 -9 4-2-4 3-3-5 26
Darmstadt 21 6 6 9 22 31 -9 1-4-6 5-2-3 24
Hamburger SV 20 6 5 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 4-2-4 23
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 21 5 6 10 27 37 -10 3-3-4 2-3-6 21
Werder Bremen 21 5 5 11 25 42 -17 1-3-6 4-2-5 20
1899 Hoffenheim 21 2 9 10 19 31 -12 1-5-4 1-4-6 15
Hannover 96 21 4 2 15 19 36 -17 2-0-8 2-2-7 14

USWNT tops Mexico, advances to Olympic qualifying semis on late Lloyd PK

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The U.S. women’s national team is one step closer to qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in after the Lady Yanks, on the back of Carli Lloyd’s 79th minute, knocked off their North American rivals, Mexico, in a narrow, physical affair at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex., on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

With only bottom-of-the-group Puerto Rico (0 points, -15 goal differential through two games) still to face, the USWNT are through to the semifinal round, at which point they’ll be one more win away from qualifying for this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

The first half of Saturday’s clash was much different from what either side saw in their opening game — USWNT beat Costa Rica, 5-0, while Mexico routed Puerto Rick, 6-0 — as both sides engaged in a rough-and-tumble affair, racked up plenty of fouls and failed to create much of anything in terms of quality scoring chances.

The USWNT’s best chance early in the second half came in the 53rd minute, when Christen Press rifled a right-footed effort toward the far post from 15 yards out, but found nothing but woodwork before the ball caromed back into the field of play.

[ MORE: USWNT routs Costa Rica in Olympic qualifying opener ]

Alex Morgan very nearly opened the scoring in the 67th minute. Becky Sauerbrunn’s long throw was flicked on by Lindsey Horan’s header inside the penalty area, and eventually made its way to Morgan near the top of the six-yard box, from where her volleyed effort was sent inches over the crossbar.

With 77 minutes on the clock, Horan followed suit with a shot of her own off the post. From 20 yards out, her right-footed effort had beaten the goalkeeper, only to hit the same far post and bounce across the face of goal, where not a single American player was waiting to tap home the rebound.

All of Mexico’s dogged defensive work was undone in the 79th minute, though, as the USWNT was awarded a controversial penalty for handball. Lloyd’s initial effort from the penalty spot was saved, but the reigning World Player of the Year was first to the rebound and slotted the ball into an empty net (below video).

PL Sunday preview: Arsenal-Leicester, Man City-Spurs in top-four defining day

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, center, scores their third goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (Paul Harding/PA via AP)     UNITED KINGDOM OUT       -     NO SALES      -      NO ARCHIVES
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The Premier League top-four’s defining day is upon us, as 3rd-in-the-league Arsenal hosts 1st-in-the-league Leicester City, and 4th-in-the-league Manchester City hosts 2nd-in-the-league Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It’s also another important day in Aston Villa’s bid to avoid relegation, as they host (very, very faint) UEFA Champions League hopefuls Liverpool.

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

No side in the Premier League has won more points away from home this season (28) than Leicester, which will no doubt have Arsenal fans feeling terrified for the whole of Saturday evening as Sunday morning looms.

When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Sept. 26, Arsenal walked out of the King Power Stadium with a resounding 5-2 victory, with many thanks to an Alexis Sanchez hat trick. Since that early Autumn day, Leicester have lost just once in the league (two PL losses all season), to Liverpool on Boxing Day. Jamie Vardy, who failed to score a single goal in six league games from Dec. 19 to Jan. 16, has scored three in his last three games (Leicester have beaten Stoke City, Liverpool and Man City by a combined score of 8-1 during that period).

On the injury front, the Gunners are mostly healthy, with Santi Cazorla (knee) the only first-teamer of real consequence due to miss Sunday’s game. The same goes for Leicester, who have a totally clean bill of health in terms of players who have featured this season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Sunderland shock Man United, Chelsea roll ]

Aston Villa vs. Liverpool — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Bottom-of-the-table Villa need wins in the very worst of ways — with 13 games left in their season, Rudi Garde’s side is currently eight points from safety; the magical 40-point marks remains a whopping 24 points ahead of them. Liverpool currently sit 12 points behind Man City for the fourth and final Champions League place, thus Sunday’s trip to Villa Park is a must-win for Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds. When these teams met back in late September, Daniel Sturridge was the hero in a 3-2 victory at Anfield.

On the injury front, Villa will be without Jordan Ayew (suspension), Jack Grealish (ankle) and Adama Troare (foot), while Carlos Sanchez (hamstring) and Rudy Gestede (hamstring). Liverpool’s latest injury report, meanwhile, is an utter disaster that weakens every unit of their squad, though Sturridge is (finally) back in action.

[ MORE: Suarez — I’d only play for Liverpool in the Premier League ]

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 11:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

A single point separates the PL’s second- and fourth-place teams, who are set to face off at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Tottenham, who are two or three years ahead of Mauricio Pochettino‘s perceived timetable turning Spurs into PL contenders, are very much in the title race. When they welcomed Man City to White Hart Lane in September, the final score was 4-1 to Pochettino’s side, and the warning had been heard loud and clear. Harry Kane has scored four goals in his last four PL games.

City, somehow, still haven’t won back-to-back league games since the middle of October, and that’ll not be changing on Sunday, given their 3-1 defeat to Leicester last weekend. City’s talisman, Sergio Aguero, has remained healthy of late and displayed the kind of form that makes him capable of winning any game on his own on a given day (7 goals in last 6 PL appearances). With Vincent Kompany expected to make his return from a calf injury that has sidelined the Sky Blues captain since Boxing Day, now is the time for City’s defense to begin to match Aguero’s attacking brilliance if they are to push on and send Manuel Pellegrini out with another PL title.

On the injury front, Man City will once again be without Kevin De Bruyne (knee), as well as Eliaquim Mangala (hamstring), Jesus Navas (hamstring) and perhaps Wilfried Bony (calf). For Spurs, only Jan Vertonghen (knee) is expected to be unavailable.