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)

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Arsenal board will be told decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.