Juan Agudelo-Revs 2

MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on New England ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Sporting KC

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Ahead of Saturdays’ first-leg of this conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about the New England Revolution: (Saturday’s match kicks off at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN):

  •  Jay Heaps is youngest MLS playoff coach

He isn’t by much, but New England Revolution coach Jay Heaps is the league’s youngest playoff coach. Heaps is 37, same age as Mike Petke, but about six months younger than the Red Bulls’ boss.

Heaps, in his second year in charge at Gillette Stadium, is the second youngest coach in the league, period, behind only D.C. United’s Ben Olsen. Olsen and United did not advance into the post-season.

Speaking of Heaps, he just oversaw the league’s second-best improvement of 2013. From last year to this year the Revs improved by 16 points to 51 points. That was second best only to the Portland Timbers’ 23-point increase.

  • No goals for the Revs this year versus KC

New England won’t find these in the “confidence inspiring” department:

First, Heaps’ team scored zero goals in two matches this year against Sporting Kansas City. The teams drew, 0-0, at Gillette back in March – although it was an odd duck of a match, played in a ferocious wind.  The only good to say about a 3-0 loss to KC in August is this: two of the goals came from Kei Kamara, who is no longer with the team.

Well, maybe this, too: the Revs’ didn’t have Agudelo for either of those matches. He’ll be in the Saturday’s starting lineup.

That August match extended the Revs’ run of struggles against SKC; The Revolution hasn’t beaten Sporting since July of 2011, 0-3-3 in that time.

  • Heaps’ big choice in midfield

Heaps has a big decision to make at holding midfielder, where Revolution Academy product Scott Caldwell, just 22, has done so well this year. (Considering the way big lineup choices worked out in the playoffs this week for Colorado’s Oscar Pareja and Montreal’s Marco Schallibaum, both of whom paid the price for what sure looked like some serious over-thinking, we know these can be monumental choices, in fact.)

Andy Dorman has been strong in starting the last two matches as the screener in the Revs’ 4-1-4-1 look. He doesn’t have Caldwell’s passing skill, so the distribution into Lee Nguyen and other Revs’ attackers tends not to be as smooth. Plus, the way Kanas City can press and force turnovers in bad spots, Dorman could be the shakier choice.

On the other hand, Dorman is far more physical and looks like a much better matchup for SKC, one of the league’s most physical teams. (Probably the most physical in the playoffs, in fact.)

In fact, it was Dorman who got a straight red for a brutal tackle on Kei Kamara as the teams met in the Midwest back in August. And don’t think the SKC fans have forgotten about that one.

  • Matt Reis in charge

Matt Reis, the longtime fixture in goal around Gillette Stadium, had some difficulties in 2012. His struggles continued into 2013, as Reis even lost his starting spot for a stretch to the younger Bobby Shuttleworth. (Some of that was about Reis doing his part to create family stability after his father-in-law was wounded during the Boston Marathon bombings.)

But the man certainly rebounded. Re-focused and apparently re-energized, the 38-year-old keeper, now in his 16th MLS season, has been on top of things lately – and then some. In fact, Reis just carved out a little place in history: by finishing with a 7-0-4 record, he became the first MLS goalkeeper to play at least 10 games and finish unbeaten in a season.

Reis isn’t just providing saves and swell stats, either. Given the relative youth of the team, having one of the old hands on MLS (no pun intended … hands) adds some useful balance.

  • About the underrated Kelyn Rowe

If second-year midfielder Kelyn Rowe doesn’t make your All-Underrated Team in MLS, he must surely be close.

Rowe is versatile enough to play centrally or along the wing (and did split his 26 starts this year, although 22 were in the middle.) Along with a team-high eight assists, Rowe contributed seven goals. Those are stats that most MLS midfielders would take, never mind the two game-winners, and never mind that he’s a young American rather than a high-paid DP.

Left back Chris Tierney is another underrated man, probably the team’s top crosser.

And if you believe some, sturdy center back Jose Goncalves falls on the underrated side, although the Revs’ first-year man from Portugal is likely to get some mentions for Defender of the Year. So, it probably depends on your definition of underrated … and on how much you “rate” the Revs’ smooth center back in the first place.

(MORE: Previewing Sporting KC at New England)

17-year-old Donnarumma could leave AC Milan over contract dispute

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extremely youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Railoa is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.

Europa League: Spurs sent packing, Ajax advances, Gladbach comes back

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur reacts during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 second leg match between Tottenham Hotspur and KAA Gent at Wembley Stadium on February 23, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Tottenham Hotspur was sent home in the Europa League Round of 32 after a 2-2 draw with Belgian side Gent at Wembley Stadium, leaving them down 3-2 on aggregate.

Christian Eriksen and Victor Wanyama scored for Spurs, but the road back was too long after Dele Alli was sent off in the 39th minute for a horrible challenge on Brecht Dejaegere that left the referee with no choice but to show the English international the first straight red card of his career.

With Spurs down to 10 men for the majority of the match, they were still able to press forward and pummel the Gent penalty area, but they wasted chances and were open on the counter, and that’s how they struck. With Spurs leading 2-1 and pressing for the third they needed to advance, Jeremy Prebert followed up his goal in the first leg with one in the second, punishing Spurs for throwing men forward to settle things in the 82nd minute.

Elsewhere, Ajax advanced thanks to a goal from Nick Viergever who bagged the only score of either leg in the 49th minute after Legia Warsaw goalkeeper Arkadiusz Malarz spilled an initial shot from Amin Younes. The Dutch side is through to the Round of 16 for the second time in the last three years.

Fiorentina held a 1-0 lead over Borussia Monchengladbach after the first leg, and they scored twice in the first half of the second leg, but the German side shattered that with a remarkable comeback. Finding themselves down 3-0, Gladbach scored four times in 16 minutes to put themselves into the Round of 16 on a 4-3 aggregate score. Lars Stindl was the man of the hour, as he scored a hat-trick, including one from the penalty spot to start the comeback. The incredible stunt was completed by an Andreas Christensen header in the 60th minute, and Gladbach held on from there to advance.

AS Roma eased into the Round of 16 thanks to their huge first-leg advantage, falling 1-0 to Villareal but still advancing 4-1 on aggregate.

Anderlecht clung on to a Round of 16 place in thrilling fashion despite falling 3-1 to Zenit St. Petersburg, moving on thanks to an away goal after a 3-3 aggregate draw. 24-year-old Swede Isaac Kiese Thelin scored in the 90th minute in Russia to give Anderlecht the away goal it needed.

Lyon obliterated Dutch side AZ Alkmaar 7-1 en route to a huge 11-2 aggregate victory. Nabil Fekir scored a hat-trick, while Maxwel Cornet, Sergi Darder, Houssem Aouar, Mouctar Diakhaby all bagged goals as well to put the French club through with ease.

Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia earned a come-from-behind berth in the Round of 16 despite being reduced to 10 men with a half-hour to go. After a 3-2 defeat in Spain, they scored two at home to beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 and advance 4-3 on aggregate. Pieros Soteriou and Giannis Gianniotas scored before the hour mark, and while Soteriou was sent off for a second yellow in the 65th minute, Apoel held on for the slim win as Athletic needed two more to advance.

Celta Vigo completed a comeback over Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk. Down 1-0 after the first leg in Spain, Celta hit the road and seemed on its way out until Iago Aspas hit from the penalty spot in injury time, forcing extra time where they scored again via Gustavo Cabral which saw them through.

The Round of 16 draw will be Friday at 7 a.m. ET, while the matches begin on March 9th.

RESULTS(team in bold advances)

Tottenham 2-2 KAA Gent
AS Roma 0-1 Villareal
Fiorentina 2-4 Borussia Monchengladbach
Ajax 1-0 Legia Warsaw
Zenit St. Petersburg 3-1 Anderlecht
Shakhtar Donetsk 0-2 Celta Vigo (AET)
Lyon 7-1 AZ Alkmaar
Osmanlispor 0-3 Olympiakos
Apoel Nicosia 
2-0 Athletic Bilbao
FC Copenhagen 0-0 Ludogorets
Racing Genk 1-0 Astra Giurgiu
Sparta Prague 1-1 FC Rostov
Besiktas 
2-1 Hapoel Be’er Sheva

How Twitter reacted to Leicester City firing Claudio Ranieri

SEVILLE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City reacts on the touchline during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Sevilla FC and Leicester City at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 22, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri was fired by Leicester City on Thursday, just a point above the relegation zone a season removed from one of the most improbable title runs in sports history.

While there’s been noise of the possibility for weeks, the decision still uncorked plenty of emotions from people in England and around the world. Just as the title did less than a year ago, people had strong feelings about Leicester’s choice to remove its best-ever manager.

Some suggested that winning the Premier League is now a tainted award, with the last two managers to win (Mourinho, Ranieri) both fired during the following season. Others expressed rage towards Leicester City for treating a legend of the game so harshly so soon after his incredible accomplishment.

[ MORE: Firing Claudio Ranieri was the correct decision ]

Some still suggested that the decision was correct, and still does not take away from what last season brought the Premier League history books.

See the most notable takes on what remains a controversial move by the Foxes:

Claudio Ranieri dug his own grave at Leicester City

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Christian Fuchs of Leicester City reacts during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Leicester City at the Vitality Stadium on December 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri admitted last week that he’s been too loyal to his title-winning players who aren’t performing up to standards this season. He followed that up by handing starting spots to out-of-form Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy, and Wes Morgan in the Champions League loss to Sevilla.

Now Ranieri has been sacked. It’s a sad story, but it’s easy to see why.

Should the eventual replacement truly hope to salvage Leicester City’s Premier League status, he must do what Ranieri failed to, and what he will be better equipped to do: put aside loyalties built from overachieving last season and and sit both Fuchs and Morgan, two critical players from last season’s incredible run who have sorely underperformed since. Just against Sevilla on Wednesday, Morgan gave away a blatant penalty with an ugly, petulant hack at Joaquin Correa’s legs, while Fuchs completely misjudged a cross en route to Pablo Sarabia’s opening goal.

Both have been equally as miserable in Premier League play. Morgan, the Leicester City captain, has looked every bit of his 33 years old, lumbering around the pitch unable to keep up with attackers slicing through the box. His successful tackle percentage is just 33%, and his pass accuracy is 69%, a shambolic combination for a defender. Fuchs, meanwhile, has been just as bad. Turning 31 himself in April, Fuchs was one of the worst players on the pitch in the 3-0 loss to Manchester United, and was yanked at halftime in the 2-0 loss to Swansea as he continued to struggle.

It’s surprising that Ranieri had kept faith in the two players after his comments on loyalty. One of the truest managers to his word in European soccer, the Italian said two weeks ago, “I could be [too loyal], could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good, you want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much. Of course I must change something because it is not possible to continue in this way.” He never backed up his words.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Ranieri had started his two aging defenders time and time again hoping they will recapture last season’s lightning. That’s flat out not happening. Just prior to Ranieri’s comments on loyalty, I wrote about how the failing defense was most responsible for this season’s struggles. Since that moment, despite both the obvious shortcomings of which were written and the manager’s statement on failing loyalty, nothing has changed.

Now, after they struggled again midweek, the two must sit immediately to avoid the otherwise inevitable. The last time Christian Fuchs started the game on the bench was the last time Leicester City won in the league, when young Ben Chilwell started at left-back and the Foxes shut out West Ham. Wes Morgan hasn’t sat a single minute in Premier League play, but he was rested for an FA Cup win over Derby County plus the subsequent loss to Millwall.

No, the manager can’t step out on the field and perform. He must be judged by the players he puts on the pitch, his tactics on the field, and his man-management off the pitch. Ranieri will always have last season, but he never left the title run behind. With Fuchs and Morgan – and to an extend Vardy as well – failing to perform to the standards of a Premier League team, Ranieri failed to leave last season in context and base his decisions in the present on what stared him right in the face.

Obviously this won’t solve the problem up front, with the Foxes still goalless in league play since Islam Slimani‘s winner against West Ham an appalling 610 minutes ago. The midfield is being overrun, the attack can’t deliver a competent cross, and set pieces appear to be the only time Leicester looks dangerous. Still, if the Foxes are to give themselves a chance of survival, now it’s up to the new manager to do what is right.

Claudio Ranieri will always be remembered for what he was able to achieve rather than what he was not. There’s plenty that isn’t his fault: the full makeup of the squad, the sale of N'Golo Kante, the failure by the board to truly spend the newfound coffers wisely. The end to the Italian’s Leicester City story is a sad, harsh one, but he only has himself to blame.