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)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

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New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

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Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.

Report: Arsenal owner calls Bellerin to state intentions

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According to a report by Spanish radio station Cadena SER, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has personally called defender Hector Bellerin to tell the Spaniard he would not be sold.

The 22-year-old experienced a serious regression at the Emirates last season, and with media speculation surrounding his potential departure, Kroenke wanted to make sure his intentions were clear. Reports had linked Bellerin with a return to his home country, most notably to Barcelona.

With Bellerin under contract through 2021 having just signed his extension last summer, it’s clear the club has decided who they believe keeping should be a priority.

The defender lost his place briefly down the stretch run last season, finding himself on the bench in seven of the club’s final 17 Premier League matches. Despite that, Arsenal still clearly values Bellerin’s talent and durability and hope to ward Barcelona’s interest off. Bellerin didn’t help cool speculation when he bought a house in Barcelona just a short time ago.

Reports say that Arsenal would not take any less than $57 million for their right-back.