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

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

  • The kids are alright …

Given the slowly diminishing significance of MLS’s Draft, it’s remarkable Colorado found two starters in the 2013 crop, even if one is iffy for tomorrow’s game in Seattle. Deshorn Brown, the 22-year-old  out of Central Florida, will likely be in Oscar Pareja’s attack, though Dillon Powers, a Notre Dame alum who’s been so crucial to the Rapid’s midfield, is still coming back from concussion symptoms. He missed Sunday’s game in Vancouver.

Add in goalkeeper Clint Irwin, defenders Chris Klute and Shane O’Neill, and Panamanian attacker Gaby Torres, and over half of Pareja’s starting XI could be 24-or-younger. Contrast that with the Sounders who’ll only start one player (DeAndre Yedlin, 20) younger than 26.

For Colorado, their youngest starter may be their most important. At least, facing a potential matchup with U.S. international Eddie Johnson, the 20-year-old O’Neill will have to be at his best. In his first year as a starter, the Ireland-born U.S. U-level regular has show all the tools necessary to be one of the league’s best central defenders, but like the rest of his teammates, the question is whether he can apply them in the playoffs.

  • Though they’ll get help from some key veterans, additions.

Gaby Torres’s mid-season acquisition was the big one, the Panamanian international becoming the club’s first Designated Player, but there have been a number of other key additions that have rounded out the Rapid’s youth movement. Acquired from Los Angeles this offseason, Edson Buddle has given Colorado a consistent presence up top, even if that presence is sometimes short on production. Midfielders Nick Labrocca and Nathan Sturgis provide valuable depth, particularly if Powers can’t go.

Vicente Sanchez may have been the team’s most influential addition, however, though the 33-year-old Uruguayan is also a fitness doubt for Wednesday’s game. When healthy, his presence on the left of midfield combines with Klute to form one of the most dangerous wide attacks in Major League Soccer.

  • But will inexperience be their undoing?

It’s not so much the kids can’t perform. Some youngsters don’t perform in the postseason, but veterans aren’t immune a post season dip, either. You either raise your game in response to a more competitive environment or you don’t. Mentality and talent are more important than age.

Where youth could come into play is in realizing the stakes. If Colorado’s lack of playoff experience sees players default to a “just another game” mentality, they’ll be sorely mistaken. A playoff game in Seattle is not just another game, and while you have to remain focused on your team’s plan and your responsibilities, you also need to match the energy of the occasion.

Young players are fully capable of doing that, but that youth often comes with an a lack of experience. While that can be overcome, it also could lead to a naiveté that will undermine Colorado’s hopes.

  • Chris Klute’s going to be a handful

Chris Klute just finished his first full year in MLS, but he’s already the league’s best left back, combining a threat going forward with strength and athleticism that allows him to maintain a presence at the back. For years we’ve been waiting for this type of fullback to become more prevalent in Major League Soccer, and that day may have finally arrived. Leading all defenders in assists (seven), he deserves to be in this year’s Best XI.

Seattle has their own talented attacking fullback, though on Wednesday, DeAndre Yedlin’s defensive acumen may prove more important than his ability going forward. If Sanchez plays, he’ll have to deal with a tandem that’s capable of deciding the game. If the former Schalke midfielder’s out, Yedlin will likely see Deshorn Brown combine with Klute.

Compounding Yedlin’s concerns is a formation tweak that could expose the 20-year-old defender. If the Sounders do go with a diamond midfield, there won’t be a player dedicated to the right flank, potentially freeing up space for Klute to come into the attack.

  • Hendry Thomas is capable of containing Clint Dempsey

The success of Seattle’s diamond (if Schmid even deploys one) will rest on Clint Dempsey’s ability to create for Eddie Johnson and Lamar Neagle, but with a formation that uses two defensive midfielders, Colorado should be well-equipped to contain the U.S. international.

But even if Nathan Sturgis wasn’t helping in front of the line, Hendry Thomas would be a handful for the U.S. international. The Honduran is one of the roughest destroyers in the league, his single-minded, unrelenting approach straddling that line between disruptive and dirty. Thomas’s willingness to get stuck in can be intimidating, and while a player of Dempsey’s experience is unlikely to wilt, he may have to adjust his game to deal with the Rapids’ midfielder.

Unfortunately for Seattle, notorious whistle-swallower Silviu Petrescu will be officiating tomorrow’s game, and while you could argue that also benefits Sounders’ destroyer Osvaldo Alonso, “Ossie” is not dealing with a Dempsey-like game changer. Petrescu’s presence could give Thomas an extra edge.

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Man City reportedly agrees $86m price for Laporte

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Sky Sports reporter Guillem Balague is reporting that Manchester City is set to seal an $86 million purchase of center back Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao, and all that’s left is for City to agree to contract terms with the player.

[ MORE: MCFC into League Cup Final ]

The 23-year-old has been with the Basque outfit since 2012, making more than 200 appearances for Athletic. Balague issued a Tweet saying Man City opted for Laporte over $34 million Jonny Evans of West Brom.

Laporte is a smooth and technical passer at center back who shouldn’t have a problem with the physical nature of the Premier League either. He’s yet to break into the French national team, and is only the second French player to play for Bilbao.

Rumors have circulated for some time, though a Tuesday report was dismissed because Laporte was in advanced discussions with Man City during a previous transfer window when he changed his mind.

It’s more big money from City, a boon for Athletic Bilbao, and terrific competition for John Stones and any Man City center back not named Nicolas Otamendi (and Vincent Kompany when healthy).

Rapids hire Patel as director; Highest ranking female exec in MLS

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The Colorado Rapids have hired Ena Patel as their new director of player personnel. She becomes Major League Soccer highest ranking female executive, according to the Denver Post.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to the Rapids, she’ll report to club GM Padraig Smith and “oversee player contracts, salary budget, regulatory compliance, and soccer operations protocols.”

The move comes about a month-and-a-half after Sporting KC hired Megan Cameron as an assistant director of player personnel, the first woman hired to an MLS team’s technical staff.

Patel’s resume is outlandishly strong, though this is her first foray into the sports world. Here are some words from Smith, from ColoradoRapids.com:

“Ena’s hiring is the final piece of the puzzle for us on the front office side,” Smith, the Rapids executive vice president and general manager, said in a statement released by the club. “Bringing in a sharp, legal mind who can oversee our contractual processes and complex league mechanisms is a really important part of ensuring that we’re fielding the best possible team. We can’t wait for her to get started.”