New England takes tentative control with a 2-1 playoff win over Sporting Kansas City

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In its first playoff contest since 2009, the New England Revolution scored twice after halftime to take a tentative one-goal margin into the return leg against Kansas City in the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Andy Dorman and Kelyn Rowe scored in the Revolution’s 2-1 win Saturday at Gillette Stadium, where the playoff energy, artificial turf and shortened field made for a fast, hectic and rugged match. And an eventful one, as the important first goal was highly controversial, and where seven players will go into this week’s return leg at Sporting Park on yellow card warning after bookings in Saturday’s scrappy match.

(MORE: What we learned from Saturday’s match)

Kansas City center back Aurelien Collin had a back-post tap-in to cut the deficit to 2-1 in the 69th minute – otherwise SKC would go home facing a hairy and eerily reminiscent two-goal deficit. That was the exact situation Sporting faced a year ago, returning home against Houston after a 2-0 playoff loss.

So, while New England is certainly excited to win its first playoff contest in four season, and the first for young manager Jay Heaps, a one-goal lead against favored Sporting KC looks just shaky enough to be uncomfortable.

The Revs, with no chances, sketchy passing accuracy and little possession before the break, looked night-and-day better after intermission. Dorman’s opener was surely controversial, as three New England Revolution attackers were very close to being offside as a ball pinged around inside the SKC goal area.

Sporting KC, clearly affected by the controversial sequence, looked irritated and unfocussed – and paid the price 12 minutes later. Rowe, having such a sensational second season in MLS, slipped inside KC left back Seth Sinovic to collect a loose ball and double his team’s lead after 67 minutes.

As rain began to fall in suburban Boston, Collin was in the right spot to clean up a free kick into the Revs area that the home team couldn’t clear properly.

(MORE: Man of the Match, New England goalkeeper Matt Reis)

The first half was choppy and nervous, with chances scant on either side, but especially for the home team. Graham Zusi was able to find the right passing speed on a ball down the right to create the game’s first chance. And his corner kick into Chance Myers needed to be cleared off the line by New England’s Lee Nguyen.

Later, surprise starter Teal Bunbury slipped through in the 35th minute on Zusi’s delicate, lobbed pass. A fabulously soft first touch from the young American striker left Bunbury with only Revs’ goalkeeper Matt Reis to beat. Apparently not sensing how much time he really had, Bunbury’s hurried volley from inside 12 yards was directly at New England’s goalkeeper.

Revolution manager Jay Heaps did, expected, choose to keep Andy Dorman in the lineup, the holding man in his 4-1-4-1. That was to help match the league’s most physical team.

On the other side, Vermes used Bunbury along his three-man front line rather than recent starter Soony Saad. Bunbury, still recovering from major knee surgery as the 2013 season began, had started just one match during the regular season.

Lineups:

New England: Matt Reis; Andrew Farrell, A.J. Soares, Jose Goncalves, Darius Barnes; Andy Dorman; Dimitry Imbongo, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez; Juan Agudelo.

Sporting Kansas City: Jimmy Nielsen; Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; Oriol Rosell, Lawrence Olum, Graham Zusi; Jacob Peterson, Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.