Oriol Rosell

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)

Report: West Ham offer $22 million for AC Milan striker Carlos Bacca

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 20:  Carlos Bacca of AC Milan celebrates his goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SS Lazio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on March 20, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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West Ham’s search for an elite striker continues, with their newest target AC Milan’s Carlos Bacca.

According to Sky Sports, the Hammers have bid $22 million for the striker, who led Milan with 18 goals in Serie A play last season.

However, after paying $34 million to sign the striker last summer, it is believed Milan would be unwilling to sell their top scorer for less than $30 million.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

At 29-years-old, Bacca has been one of Europe’s most consistent forwards over the past few seasons. After bagging 49 goals in 108 appearances for Sevilla, he earned a move to Milan last July, finishing third in Serie A scoring in his first year with the club.

West Ham’s chairman David Gold has been open about his desire to sign a world-class striker, with Lyon confirming that they rejected a $45 million bid from the Hammers for Alexandre Lacazette.

VIDEO: Neymar takes batting practice before New York Mets game

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 31:  Brazilian soccer player  Neymar Jr stands in the New York Mets dugout before the game against the Chicago White Sox at Citi Field on May 31, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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We all know Neymar’s skills with a soccer ball, but what about with a baseball bat?

Spoiler alert: He’s better with his feet.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Copa coverage ]

The Barcelona and Brazil superstar was in New York on Tuesday night and hit up the batting cages at Citi Field before the Mets game against the Chicago White Sox.

Taking swings lefty, Neymar made some contact but didn’t necessarily have the smoothest stroke…

He then hit the field and got back to his roots, showing off some footskills while juggling a baseball.

I’m not too sure if Neymar is a baseball fan, but this may make him the Mets’ newest, most famous supporter (sorry Jerry Seinfeld).

Neymar is in the United States as he has some time off after the long Barcelona season. He is not playing in the Copa America with Brazil, but will instead play in the Olympics in August.

Messi’s tax fraud case begins with player avoiding court

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 17:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on  during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on April 17, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Lionel Messi’s tax trial began Tuesday with the player deciding not to appear in court for early proceedings.

Messi is facing a prison sentence of nearly two years on charges he failed to properly pay taxes for part of his earnings from Barcelona from 2007-09.

[ FOLLOW: All of PSTS’s Copa coverage ]

The Argentina playmaker is not obligated to appear in the Barcelona court until Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify before a judge. Sentencing is not expected until next week.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud for allegedly defrauding Spain’s tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million).

Because of the trial, Messi is missing Argentina’s preparation for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Saturday in the United States. He is expected to fly straight to the U.S. to join his teammates after the trial ends. Argentina debuts in the tournament on Monday against defending champion Chile.

Even if found guilty, it is highly unlikely that Messi or his father will face any jail time. They have denied wrongdoing.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

“Everything is good. Everybody is calm,” said Messi’s lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, as he arrived at the Barcelona court on Tuesday.

The trial is centered on alleged unlawful activities of Messi’s father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case. Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

In addition to each facing a prison sentence of 22 months and 15 days, Messi and his father could also be fined in the amount defrauded and ordered to pay all legal proceedings and the loss of any possible tax benefits for a year and a half.

Messi is just the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain’s tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

[ MORE: Marcelo giving away UCL winners’ medal…on Facebook ]

Mascherano, Messi’s teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011 and 2012. Brazil striker Neymar recently had to testify before a judge because of alleged irregularities involving his transfer to Barcelona. He and the club were accused of withholding the real amount of the transfer fee, in part to avoid paying the full amount of taxes.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.

VIDEO: Bayern’s David Alaba scores brutal own goal for Austria

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David Alaba is going to want this one back…

While playing in a friendly for Austria, the Bayern Munich left-back scored a cringe-worthy own-goal that his teammates will surely never let him forget.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO coverage ]

With Austria leading Malta 2-0, goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan played out of the back to Alaba. As pressure come from Malta’s strikers, Alaba turned and played a blind pass back to his keeper.

The only problem is, his keeper wasn’t there.

Ozcan did the right thing and moved outside of his goal to give Alaba support, only the defender never picked up his head to realize. Austria would hold on to win the match 2-1.

[ MORE: Klinsmann treating USMNT’s Copa opener vs. Colombia like a final ]

After winning their EURO qualification group with nine wins from ten matches, Austria has high hopes of making a run in the tournament. They will play in Group F with Portugal, Iceland, and Hungary.