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

Leave a comment

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)

Mourinho: League Cup “important to” Man Utd, but asks if it’s necessary?

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Marcus Rashford‘s heroics helped Manchester United cruise past visiting Burton Albion, 4-1, in a League Cup third round match at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Mourinho said the League Cup is important to Manchester United because it’s an official tournament, and United wants to win everything it can as a club.

[ WATCH: Rashford’s sensational second ]

Yet he stopped short of endorsing the Cup’s long-term future, a tournament which his side won last season but is perhaps the major obstacle towards the Premier League joining other European leagues with winter breaks. From ManUtd.com:

“If the competition is an official competition then it is important for Manchester United and for me as a manager. If you ask me could the English football survive or even be better without this competition? Maybe, maybe we would be fresher for European competition for example. But we have this competition, we have to respect the sponsors, we have to respect the opponents and a lot of us are trying to do our best.”

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap | La Liga | Serie A ]

United drew a trip to Swansea for the fourth round, and is certainly among the favorites to win the whole thing with their solid depth (See their Starting XI below).

Would you miss the League Cup if it went away?

Serie A: Mertens scores unreal goal; Napoli, Milan, Juve win (video)

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Leave a comment

It’s early but signs of an actual title race in Italy are truly delightful.

Juventus and Napoli remain perfect, with the latter above the former in the Serie A table this early season following Wednesday wins.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap | La Liga | League Cup ]

Roma and Atalanta posted blowout wins, while AC Milan won a day after their Milanese rivals Inter needed a 77th minute penalty to draw at Bologna.

Lazio 1-4 Napoli

There were five goals in this one, but the only one you need to witness comes on this unreal shot from an odd angle by the world’s top under-appreciated scorer: Dries Mertens.

Juventus 1-0 Fiorentina

Mario Mandzukic scored the lone goal as The Old Lady slipped further behind Napoli in goal difference.

AC Milan 2-0 SPAL

I Rossoneri scored on a penalty in each half, with new boys Ricardo Rodriguez and Franck Kessie converting the chances.

Benevento 0-4 Roma

Edin Dzeko buried a pair of goals and the hosts gifted i Lupi a pair of own goals.

Elsewhere
Bologna 1-1 Inter Milan — Tuesday
Cagliari 0-1 Sassuolo
Genoa 1-1 Chievo
Verona 0-0 Sampdoria
Udinese 2-3 Torino

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Napoli 5 5 0 0 19 3 16 2-0-0 3-0-0 15
 Juventus 5 5 0 0 14 3 11 3-0-0 2-0-0 15
 Inter Milan 5 4 1 0 11 2 9 2-0-0 2-1-0 13
 AC Milan 5 4 0 1 10 6 4 3-0-0 1-0-1 12
 Torino 5 3 2 0 10 5 5 1-1-0 2-1-0 11
 Lazio 5 3 1 1 10 8 2 1-1-1 2-0-0 10
 Roma 4 3 0 1 9 3 6 1-0-1 2-0-0 9
 Sampdoria 4 2 2 0 6 4 2 1-0-0 1-2-0 8
 Atalanta 5 2 1 2 9 7 2 2-0-1 0-1-1 7
 Fiorentina 5 2 0 3 8 7 1 1-0-1 1-0-2 6
 Cagliari 5 2 0 3 4 6 -2 1-0-1 1-0-2 6
 Chievo 5 1 2 2 5 8 -3 0-1-1 1-1-1 5
 Bologna 5 1 2 2 4 7 -3 0-2-1 1-0-1 5
 SPAL 5 1 1 3 3 8 -5 1-0-1 0-1-2 4
 Sassuolo 5 1 1 3 3 8 -5 0-1-1 1-0-2 4
 Udinese 5 1 0 4 7 10 -3 1-0-2 0-0-2 3
 Genoa 5 0 2 3 5 9 -4 0-1-2 0-1-1 2
 Verona 5 0 2 3 1 11 -10 0-1-2 0-1-1 2
 Crotone 5 0 1 4 1 11 -10 0-1-2 0-0-2 1
 Benevento 5 0 0 5 1 14 -13 0-0-3 0-0-2 0

History denied! Real Madrid loses, fails in bid to beat Pele-led record (video)

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Leave a comment

Real Madrid did everything but score, and now find themselves denied a chance at unparalleled history and in a relatively deep early hole in La Liga’s table.

A stoppage time loss to visiting Real Betis ended the club’s 73-match run of matches with a goal, and it came on the day it could’ve passed Pele’s Santos for sole possession of the longest scoring streak in history.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

Perhaps more important, Madrid now sits seven points back of first place Barcelona. Their eight points leave them sixth.

Real Madrid 0-1 Real Betis

The hosts looked so good, and so fluid… and provided any number of finishes which would’ve been goals on another day. Unfortunately for them, the only goal came from Paraguay’s Antonio Sanabria in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time.

That’s because Real Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adan was sensational, including a stunning stop on Gareth Bale‘s backheeled volley in the final quarter hour.

It could’ve gone worse for Madrid, as Mexico’s Andres Guardado had an assist called back for offside.

Before that, there was this from one of the best in history:

Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Atletico Madrid

Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco helped the visitors go second in La Liga, as ex-Atleti midfielder Raul Garcia provided Athletic’s only goal deep into stoppage time.

Elsewhere
Leganes 0-0 Girona
Deportivo de la Coruna 1-0 Alaves
Sevilla 1-0 Las Palmas

League Cup draw: Spurs host Hammers; Everton off to Chelsea

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sixteen teams are five wins from a berth in the Europa League following the fourth round draw for the League Cup.

Eleven of the 16 belong to the Premier League, leaving Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Norwich City, Bristol City, and Middlesbrough to dream of dream runs to Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

There are only a trio of all-Premier League ties in the bunch, including a high-profile London clash between Spurs and West Ham.

Chelsea will host Everton, while Manchester United heads to Wales for a date with Swansea City.

All-in-all, we could have quarterfinals without a single Cinderella story.

Full draw
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Ham United
Bristol City vs. Crystal Palace
Arsenal vs. Norwich City
Chelsea vs. Everton
Swansea City vs. Manchester United
Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough
Leicester City vs. Leeds United