MLS Playoff Preview: Sporting KC at New England Revolution

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  • Kickoff from Gillette Stadium outside Boston is set for 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN
  • Saturday is the first of two legs in the aggregate goals series
  • The Revolution is playing its firsts playoff match since 2009
  • Sporting Kansas City was the league’s best road team this year, an 8-5-4 record, and also the best defensive team
  • Young scoring sensation Diego Fagundez, just 18, led the Revolution with 13 goals this year

In Saturday’s Eastern Conference semifinal opener, we have a textbook instance of a playoff newbie in terms of the current roster and team makeup (New England) against an old hand at this MLS playoff business.

New England, a team with so much MLS playoff success in the previous decade, is back into the post-season swing for the first time since 2009.

Meanwhile, not only has Sporting Kansas City made the playoffs for the third consecutive season, but Peter Vermes’ team delivered relatively strong post-season accounts the last two years. Sporting trounced Colorado in the 2011 conference semifinal before falling to Houston in a tight conference final.

And came the downfall from Houston again in 2012, although Vermes’ team was strong in the return leg in the Midwest, dominating the Dynamo at Sporting Park (out-shooting the visitors 20-3) but falling a goal short on aggregate.

So a big edge in playoff experience goes to the visitors Saturday, a team that certainly doesn’t mind playing on the road. Sporting KC’s 28 points earned away from home this year (an 8-5-3 record) was best in MLS by some distance.

Kansas City is also the league’s top defensive team, with just 30 goals allowed.

Plus, Sporting KC went undefeated in Group Stage of Champions League – in fact, only allowing two goals in four matches while advancing to next year’s quarterfinals – while adding even more “big-game” largesse to this year’s checklist of achievement. Mostly though, it’s that feeling of being close to accomplishing something special the last two years, taking hardy sides into the playoffs but coming up short, that is providing all the drive to this year’s post-season bid.

“We’ve got a good, core group of guys that have been through this the last three years,” Vermes said this week. “That gives us, not comparing us to anyone else in the league, that just gives us a much better foundation as we move through the playoffs.”

The “foundation” includes what is probably the top back five in the playoffs (back four plus goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, that is). Center back Matt Besler, a U.S. starter, provides the stabilizing arm alongside the more volatile side the duo, Frenchman Aurélien Collin. In fact, we talk so much about those two that we probably don’t spend enough time commenting on right back Chance Myers and left back Seth Sinovic, both of whom are tough one-on-one defenders who can contribute a little punch to the attack, too.

Sporting KC’s offense mostly goes through U.S. international Graham Zusi (pictured above), whose assist total was down this year (from 15 to 8), but who did drop a career-best in goals, with six. Zusi’s recent return from a minor fall injury setback was among the reasons Sporting Kansas City finished on a four-game undefeated streak. Vermes’ team also won six of its last eight matches – and that was all after Kei Kamara left for England in a summer transfer.

New England has a little momentum of its own, however. Jay Heaps’ team from outside Boston looked a bit dead in the Back Bay about a month ago, staring at a tough schedule of road games, in need of a bunch of points to punch its way into the post-season. Well, punch they did, gathering up huge road wins at Montreal and Columbus, in addition to a draw at Supporters Shield winners New York, all in the month of October.

source: Getty Images
New England’s Diego Fagundez, only 18 … but he just finished tied in league scoring with a team-leading 13 goals.

Heaps’ team clinched its playoff spot just last weekend, in fact, with that 1-0 win at Crew Stadium.

One of the great things about having New England back in the playoffs is another chance to see Diego Fagundez, the Revs’ 18-year-old scoring sensation. Fagundez, finished tied for fifth in league scoring – and imagine what he could have done had he been the Revs’ PK taker, as league scoring leaders so frequently are.

He usually lines up wide (left lately) in the Revs’ 4-1-4-1 arrangement.

At the other end of the experience spectrum is goalkeeper Matt Reis, who lost his place this year – a difficult year that included unfortunate family involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings. Reis got things together and will be big part of this playoff push. So will center back Jose Goncalves, one of the real finds of the Major League’s Soccer’s off-season.

Another intriguing figure in a team full of them is Juan Agudelo, a young U.S. international (a bit farther back in the pool) who shook off some late-season injury struggles to make the Revs’ last four starts. In fact, his first goal since Aug. 25 was the playoff clincher last weekend against Columbus. Agudelo has already signed to play for Stoke City in January.

(MORE on MLS playoffs: ProSoccerTalk’s post-season picks and predictions)

MLS Snapshot: TFC lose late in NE; Shield celebration delayed

AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
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The game in 100 words (or less): All Toronto FC had to do to clinch the 2017 Supporters’ Shield on Saturday was beat the New England Revolution, a side that had suffered back-to-back defeats by a combined score of 10-1 and fired head coach Jay Heaps on Tuesday. Instead, because this is MLS we’re talking about, the Revolution were galvanized and full of fighting spirit backed their way into a 2-1 victory over TFC in a game that saw all three goals scored during a five-minute period beginning in the 82nd. The Shield celebration will have to wait at least another week, with TFC hosting the New York Red Bulls next Saturday. The chance to clinch and celebrate at home will almost have been worth it. Still, the gap between TFC (62 points) and second-place New York City FC remains 10 points with just three games to go (NYCFC have a game in hand). The Revs, meanwhile, are four points out of the Eastern Conference’s sixth and final playoff place, and have played two more games than the sixth-place Red Bulls.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

82′ — Nguyen wrong-foots Irwin with a lucky deflection — It’s been a long, turbulent season for the Revs, so they were probably owed this bit of good fortune (and quite a few more).

84′ — Hasler gets on the end of Bradley’s ball for 1-1 — It’s been a long, turbulent season for the Revs, and they’ve grown used to unfortunate breaks like this.

87′ — Kamara rises up, heads home the winner — It’s been a long, turbulent season for the Revs, one without nearly enough alley-oops to Kamara.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Lee Nguyen

Goalscorers: Nguyen (82′), Hasler (84′), Kamara (87′)

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC, HOU play to 1-1 draw… in Connecticut

Photo credit: New York City FC / @NYCFC
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The game in 100 words (or less more): New York City FC entered the weekend having dropped just 12 points (two losses, three draws) at home all season. That, of course, is their record within the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, the third-year MLS club’s temporary home for the foreseeable future. In truth, it was a minor miracle NYCFC hadn’t been forced from their home in the Bronx before Saturday’s clash with the Houston Dynamo, which ended a 1-1 draw at Rentschler Field in Hartford, Conn. Attendance suffered, rightfully so. With the Yankees scheduled to play a make-up game Monday night, NYCFC were made to work out alternative stadium arrangements due to the amount of time required to convert Yankee Stadium into a baseball field once again. Anyway, Maxi Moralez and Mauro Manotas scored the goals, each inside the game’s opening 16 minutes. The point does very little for NYCFC (52 points), who remain 10 points off the pace of Eastern Conference- and Supporters’ Shield-leading Toronto FC, and just four points clear of third-place Chicago Fire; Houston (39) are buoyed a bit more, as they move ahead of Real Salt Lake for the Western Conference’s sixth and final playoff place (for the time being).

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Moralez rises up, heads NYCFC ahead — Chances are, when the shortest player on the field scores from a header, somebody missed their marking assignment.

16′ — Manotas beats Johnson off the quick FK — Chances are, when the opponent scores from a quick free kick, somebody fell asleep and wasn’t paying attention.

89′ — Deric protects the upper-90 to preserve a point — Jack Harrison probably thought he’d beaten Tyler Deric into the upper-90, but the Dynamo goalkeeper kept his side level with a stunning Save of the Week nominee.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tyler Deric

Goalscorers: Moralez (6′), Manotas (16′)

PL Sunday preview: Newcastle shoot for top-4 place at Brighton

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures offers up a meeting of two newly promoted sides in the only game of the day.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Newcastle United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Newcastle’s return to the PL had all the makings of another spectacular flame-out and an immediate return to the Championship — owner Mike Ashley promised manager Rafa Benitez a busy summer of signings, but that never materialized; Benitez’s discontent was widely reported, some going so far as to say he had considered stepping down; the Magpies lost their first two games of the season, failing to score in either — until Jamaal Lascelles decided he was having no more of it.

Lascelles, Newcastle’s 23-year-old captain and star center back, has helped Benitez’s boys to three straight victories, in which they’ve conceded just one goal (in last week’s 2-1 victory over Stoke City), has united a group of players which seemed headed for self-destruction just four short weeks ago. The key, according to Lascelles, is accountability evenly shared by every player in the dressing room.

[ MORE: Pochettino — “I am in love with Harry Kane” ]

“A couple of seasons back, we’d go a goal down or concede a goal and heads would drop,” Lascelles said. “We’d be looking at each other like, ‘who’s going to step up?’ But everyone steps up, the 11 of us. This group of boys are excellent, we just keep going.”

Three points on Sunday would see Newcastle leapfrog Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, two sides level on 11 points and presently fighting over fourth place, to finish the weekend in the PL’s final Champions League place (after six of 38 games, of course).

[ MORE: Mourinho bewildered by sending-off; Man United beat Southampton ]

As for Brighton, returning home to Falmer Stadium is a welcome development after losing twice at Bournemouth (first in the PL, then in the League Cup) in the span of four days. In charge of Brighton is another former Newcastle manager, Chris Hughton, who guided his new club to promotion from the Championship last season (just as he did for Newcastle in 2010). Brighton held the league lead heading into the season’s final days before the Seagulls faltered and Newcastle pounced, but Hughton says there isn’t any ill will onto which to be held.

“There shouldn’t be, because they deserved it,” Hughton said. “We had opportunities in the last three games to clinch the title and we weren’t good enough at that particular moment to do that. All credit goes to Newcastle for doing it and certainly there’s no revenge. We are up against a good team that’s in good form at the moment.”

INJURIES: Brighton — OUT: Steve Sidwell (back), Sam Baldock (calf), Beram Kayal (leg); QUESTIONABLE: Izzy Brown (hamstring) | Newcastle — OUT: Aleksandar Mitrovic (suspended), Paul Dummett (hamstring), Florian Lejeune (ankle), Karl Darlow (ankle)

Klopp, Henderson: Coutinho shows he’s “highest quality player”

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As it turns out, it was with good reason that Liverpool refused to lose superstar midfielder Philippe Coutinho this summer, despite big-money advances from Barcelona, and the player’s admission that he himself wanted to make the move.

[ PL roundup: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

On Saturday, the 25-year-old Brazilian made his second straight in Premier League play, and reminded everyone just why a club like Barcelona would pursue him with unrelenting vigor. He started with an assist to Mohamed Salah for the game’s opening goal, and chipped in a score of his own, a stunning free kick (WATCH HERE), to double the lead a few minutes later. The Reds would hang (just barely) for a 3-2 win away to Leicester City.

Following the game, Liverpool manager was full of praise for Coutinho, calling him “the highest quality player,” which is something he believes was never in doubt — quotes from the BBC:

“Nobody was in doubt about this. It is clear he is the highest quality player. We are happy to have him around.”

As for the performance overall, Klopp was largely pleased, even if being so required him to completely ignore the (continued) defensive frailties of his side:

“It is not a time to be completely cool but overall I was happy with our performance. The boys deserved the three points. The free kick for the first goal was not a free-kick and it was a foul on Simon [for the second goal].

“At the start of the second half we played the same football like Leicester — kind of hectic. Simon saved the penalty and then I think we really deserved the win.

“I really thought in a moment like this so many things are positive. The three points are the proof for the public that we are still here, everything is good. Let’s make the next step together.”

Captain Jordan Henderson joined Klopp in his praise for Coutinho, echoing similar sentiments about the best player employed at Anfield since the departure of Luis Suarez:

“Coutinho is a fantastic player. He produces magical things at crucial times of the game. This will give us good confidence going forward.”