MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of Saturday’s match at New England

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

  • Benny Feilhaber or Paulo Nagamura … or neither?

The big choice for Sporting manager Peter Vermes isn’t just about his midfield personnel options – it’s more about how he wants to approach this first leg, the away leg for his team. And that will dictate his most pressing midfield personnel decision.

If the visitors want to defend-and-counter, Vermes could go with veteran Paulo Nagamura, who is back to full training. (Vermes says a second-leg appearance is more likely; but who could put a little lineup gamesmanship past any MLS manager?) Nagamura, a tough tackler who isn’t afraid of taking a few fouls, will make things even harder on New England, a team that tilts more toward the technical and less toward the tenacious as it is.

If Vermes senses any defensive vulnerability and the chance to really seize control of this series before it heads back to the Midwest, he might insert Benny Feilhaber into the starting lineup. Feilhaber adds more sophistication to the SKC’s passing, especially as it concerns finding chief playmaker Graham Zusi faster, and in better spots.

Of course, the manager could also just leave things be: that’s having Oriol Rosell (pictured) and Lawrence Olum line up as dual holding mids, with Zusi playing ahead of them in the central midfield arrangement. That’s how the team lined up last week in a 1-0 win at Philadelphia, a match where Sporting needed to retain Supporters Shield hopes.

Zusi has been asked to man central roles at time this year and flank roles at other times, which is where he plays for the national team.

(MORE: Previewing Sporting KC at New England)

  • Contrast in styles

New England just doesn’t really do flank play.

Well, they do … kind of. The preferred route (with its 4-1-4-1 formation) is always through the middle, on the ground. They’ll work through target play and combination play, often involving the quick feet of Lee Nguyen or Diego Fagundez. The Revs had the fewest crosses from the wings of an MLS side this year.

Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, scores goals with a balance of flank play and counter attacking through selectively applied high pressure. Vermes’ team, always in a 4-3-3, isn’t the hell-bent constant high-pressure beast of the last two years, but they do understand when to press as a unit – and it can be devastating to the opponent who is careless with the ball in midfield.

  • Dom Dwyer’s recent rise … and what of Claudio Bieler?

Hard to say why the club’s Argentine Designated Player, who started so well but faded through the summer, isn’t playing lately. Is it a groin strain … or is the guy just not in the manager’s good graces right now.

Either way, he has been left to languish recently, stuck to the bench – and providing young striker Dom Dwyer the chance he needed to rise.

The team certainly gets more pressure and pursuit from Dwyer, perhaps less skillful and less instinctive about finding the ball inside the penalty area – but easily the more active in terms of trying to immediately regain the ball in the first third of the field.

Dwyer’s year has certainly been memorable. The second year forward went on loan to Orlando City, where he helped lead the Lions to their second USL PRO title in three years. Then, back in place at Sporting Park, Dwyer has done good things lately, including a huge game-winning goal at D.C. United late in the year as SKC pressed for Supporters Shield.

  • Jimmy Nielsen, still dominating MLS stats

No MLS goalkeeper has dominated statistically over the last three years the way KC’s Jimmy Nielsen has.

Obviously, a lot of this is about a tremendous defense in front of him. Still, we love stats in this country. Plus, the guy is good.

Nielsen matched New York’s Luis Robles in league wins (17) and finished second in the league in goals-against average (0.88) and shutouts (13).

His 546-minute shutout streak early in the year held up all season, easily the longest of anyone in the league through the entire campaign.

As mentioned, this is absolutely nothing new for the Dane, nicknamed the “White Puma.”  Nielsen was named 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and was named a Best XI selection after finishing second in goals against average with one of the best numbers in league history (0.79).

Nielsen, in his fourth year with the club, has already set a number of club records.

(MORE: Notes on New England ahead of Saturday’s match)

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

De Gea remarks on that save after Man Utd draws Sevilla

AP Photo/Miguel Morenatti)
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It was probably the save of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16’s first legs, as David De Gea slapped away Luis Muriel’s bid to give Sevilla a halftime lead over Manchester United on Wednesday in Spain.

[ MORE: Recap | Mourinho reacts ]

Playing in his home country, De Gea had a massive outing in the scoreless draw.

The defiance of Muriel was De Gea’s second big save of the first half’s closing moments, and one of eight in the match.

“It was a good moment, a good save of course, especially because of the moment in the game. It was the last minute of the first half, it was important to not concede a goal. We defended well. They had control of the game, but it remains open.”

Watch the save below, and then catch De Gea against Chelsea on Sunday as two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs duke it out for Top Four positioning at Old Trafford (Watch live Sunday at 9:05 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

New York City FC adds Stuttgart mid with option to buy

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New York City FC might’ve found its dynamic box-to-box midfielder.

Ebenezer Ofori, 22, is bringing his relentless motor and eight Ghanaian caps to the Bronx from Stuttgart on a one year loan deal with an option to buy.

[ MORE: Mourinho on Pogba performance ]

Ofori joined Stuttgart from Swedish side AIK Solna in the January 2017 transfer window, and played a role in the club’s promotion to the Bundesliga. He was a signficant part of Solna’s three-round run in Europa League qualification.

But he found very little time on the pitch once Stuttgart rejoined Germany’s top flight, and is taking his talents to MLS.

Here’s NYCFC boss Patrick Vieira:

“I’m really excited to bring in Ebenezer – he’s a young player who is looking to improve, he is really dynamic and can cover ground. He’s really aggressive but he’s good with the ball too. I’m really pleased that we managed to bring him to the football club.

“He’s a competitor, he’s a guy who likes to win, he’s a strong character. He’s coming to this club to compete with the midfielders we have and, like I always say, that will bring the best out of all of the players we have at this football club.”

Ofori joins a midfield with Alexander Ring, Maxi Moralez, and Yangel Herrera. It’s a promising signing, and a name with the potential to take big steps on the club and international scene.

And moves like this are going to continue to happen for NYCFC, because players will feel the allure of being under the eye of Manchester City and the pull of becoming City property. It’s a different dynamic than Chelsea’s loanees in that young players can make their name and be a star in a gigantic world city while attempting to ingratiate themselves with one of the world’s biggest clubs.

Mourinho: “Paul made a big effort”

AP Photo/Miguel Morenatti
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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho had fine words for Paul Pogba, but was tickled by the performance of 21-year-old Scott McTominay in the Red Devils scoreless draw with Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Sevilla 0-0 Man Utd ]

The visitors emerged unscathed, though without an away goal, and Mourinho raised eyebrows when he kept Pogba on the bench to start the match. The young McTominay started the match, and was paired with Pogba once Ander Herrera left the match with injury.

When a reporter asked Mourinho about McTominay after the match, the boss asked if he could give the reporter a hug before elaborating (via the BBC):

“In the press conference, the questions were about Paul [Pogba] but the question should be about the kid. He was fantastic. He did everything well. He put pressure on Ever Banega and stopped him playing, he’s their playmaker. I think Scott was brilliant.

“I think Paul made a big effort to try to give the team what I asked of him. Paul replaced Ander, he tried to bring to the game the same kind of qualities. He lost a couple of possessions but he also gave us stability because we had a good percentage of possession for the way we played.”

Mourinho was sure to include Nemanja Matic as a big part of the midfield trio.

The Pogba-Mourinho questions aren’t going to go away any time soon, though it should be noted — perhaps strongly — that the player was ill this weekend and United has to face Chelsea in Premier League play this weekend.

Still, he couldn’t help but mention how much he believes “Old Trafford has missed a big European night,” and how he’s looking forward to a potentially big win come March 13.

Nil-nil in Seville as De Gea stars

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  • English sides unbeaten vs. La Liga in UCL season (2-6)
  • Pogba subs into match for Herrera, 17′
  • De Gea with seven saves for United

David De Gea was the star as Manchester United escaped Sevilla with a scoreless draw in the first leg of the two sides’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sevilla won a corner kick within 90 seconds, but the ball made its way through the 18 without finding a receiver.

Ander Herrera sprung Alexis Sanchez down the middle, but Jesus Navas cut across to catch the Chilean and thwart the United chance.

Navas then dragged a shot across goal and past a diving David De Gea but inches wide of the far post.

A Herrera injury — yes, another injury United supporters — meant Paul Pogba would join the fray after just 17 minutes with the key position in the 4-3-3.

Lukaku botched a terrific diagonal cross from Sanchez with a blast over the goal in the 25th minute.

The 38th minute saw Scott McTominay pump a ball right at Sergio Rico for the Sevilla backstop’s first save, and Angl Correa’s low shot was collected by De Gea for a third Red Devils save.

De Gea then made a leaping save on Steven N’Zonzi’s redirection of a bicycle kick just before halftime, and then slapped Luis Muriel’s header over the bar before the whistle.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

De Gea nabbed another save, his sixth in the contest, when Clement Lenglet got his head on an Ever Banega free kick in the 64th minute.

A Sanchez giveaway provided Sevilla the chance to counter, and Muriel couldn’t get the step back needed to power a header past De Gea.

United had a goal pulled back in the 83rd minute as the ball struck Lukaku’s arm in the build-up.