Jimmy Nielsen, Aurelien Collin, Kelyn Rowe

What we learned from Saturday’s New England-Sporting Kansas City playoff match

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  • Football lines. Sigh

For all the wonderful strides in Major League Soccer, every now and then the smack in the face arrives, the one that reminds everyone the league still has miles to go.

Saturday the reminder blow came from both playoff venues, one outside Boston and one in Seattle. In both cases, games were played on artificial turf, as usual per the facility. The difference was in the dizzying American football lines, as both venues prepare to host NFL games to come.

It’s not just that it clobbers the game’s aesthetics. In New England’s case, the NFL’s Patriots – the Kraft family owns both teams that play at Gillette Stadium, the MLS club and the NFL organization – shorten the soccer field so that it won’t intrude on the Patriots’ end zone logo.

So the field plays at about 106 yards, just barely enough to comply with FIFA regulations. A shorter field, combined with the fast, skidding pace we always see from artificial turf, made for a hectic match. One that was pretty hard on the eyes, too – hardly what the league ideally wants to showcase in its post-season money matches.

  • Claudio Bieler did not travel for KC

When a Designated Player cannot get into the starting lineup, trouble is a’ brewin’.

When a DP doesn’t even travel, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Argentine striker Bieler lost his place in manager Peter Vermes’ starting lineup lately for Kansas City. It had to do with a groin injury, we think; from there it’s all kind of murky. Did he come back unfit? Or is he just turning out not to be what the club expected?

Bieler started well enough in his first year at Sporting Park, among the league’s leading scorers early in the season. But his scoring fell off the table in the summer – and then he lost his place in the lineup.

(MORE: New England’s 2-1 win provides tentative margin for second leg)

  • Talking about the refereeing, and the controversial goal

The game wasn’t without controversy, as Andy Dorman’s opener was very close to offside. (Hat tip to journalist Travis Clark, who summed it up best like this: “Consensus from my Twitter feed about that goal: clearly onside and offside.” Exactly.)

It was an extremely tough call. I keep watching it, and I still cannot be sure.

Otherwise, referee Ismail Elfath probably managed this helter-skelter mess of a match about as well as it could have been. Elfath is one of the less experienced MLS referees, but generally one who can manage players better than some of the older hands.

Remember, Sporting KC led the league in fouls. That’s a statistical fact. Not so easily proven through data is this: Sporting is the league’s best team at the cynical art of tactical fouling. So, that’s a lot for the man in the middle to sort out, and Elfath wasn’t completely overmatched by it.

Sporting KC right back Chance Myers may hear from the league about twice getting his hands to the face/head of New England players. And so may New England’s Dimitry Imbongo, who always had the elbows up high too often.

By the end, seven players were booked.

If notoriously physical KC to advance, its depth will surely be tested. Two post-season bookings will mean that a player sits out the following match.

  • Kansas City didn’t respond well

Sporting Kansas City got just a little lucky in getting that absolutely massive 69th minute goal, cutting New England’s lead in half. First, Imbongo’s bad foul along the flank gave the visitors a free kick, which turned into an opportunity and a goal.

It happened at a moment when Sporting KC was falling absolutely to pieces, not dealing at all with the controversial goal – or with the deficit that came with it. Clearly frustrated, they were fouling and missing runners – which is exactly how New England’s Kelyn Rowe slipped in for the Revs’ second strike.

It was all so reminiscent of last year’s playoff ouster – from which Sporting KC apparently learned absolutely nothing. Peter Vermes’ team fell behind by a goal at Houston. Rather than playing it safe and sticking with the original plan, SKC pushed forward. Instead of concocting an equalizer, they were exposed and gave up a second goal to Houston … which was one goal too many for the furious return leg.

It’s a two-game series, guys. You know that, right?

(MORE: Man of the Match is New England’s Matt Reis)

  • Revs young attackers have a hard time

Revolution 13-goal scorer Diego Fagundez? He was virtually nowhere to be found Saturday. It was, after all, the 18-year-old’s first playoff game. And dealing with Myers along SKC’s right side is never a bunch of fun.

And second-year man Kelyn Rowe certainly made a huge moment with his game-winner – but he wasn’t having a great match before that.

In all fairness, attacking players with good matches weren’t really to be found at all Saturday at Gillette. The field was small and fast, and both defenses were in charge.

The exception early was Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, who was able to find just enough space to do a little bit of creating for his team. Zusi was the conductor on the only three first-half chances, all from the visitors. But he was quiet after intermission, as the Revolution gained some possession and managed to put a foothold on the game.

Once again, the match highlights from NBCSN:

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Premier League Playback: Ranking the chance of relegation

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With 12 games to go in the Premier League season, the bottom seven teams are starting to get cut off from the rest of the league.

Just like at the top of the table, this is the “business end” of the campaign and strange things start to happen.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Team who looked dead and buried start to rise (see: Hull and Swansea, already) and others start to sink from midtable and towards the abyss with Bournemouth and particularly Leicester City struggling.

[ MORE: Premier League standings | Schedule

Below is a look at the seven main contenders for the three relegation spots, focusing on the toughest games they have remaining, their reasons for optimism and a percentage chance of relegation.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive ]

Even if you have points on the board right now, momentum means everything at this time of the season…


Bournemouth

Points: 26
Reason for optimism: The quality Eddie Howe‘s side possess on the ball will see them create chances, so there’s that. However, they have to score two or three goals a game recently to get a win. They have four of the the current top six coming up, then finish the season with four of their last five games against relegation rivals. That will test the nerve of this talented yet inexperienced team.
Toughest games remaining: at Man United (Mar. 4), at Liverpool (Apr. 5), vs. Chelsea (Apr. 8), at Tottenham (Apr. 15)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Swansea City

Points: 24
Reason for optimism: Things are looking much more solid in defense since Paul Clement arrived. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente continue to score and assist, plus the Swans look dangerous on the break. Plenty of reasons to believe they’ll continue to pull away from the bottom three. Will complacency set in though? Swans next four games are against Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth and Boro. Huge few weeks ahead and then an easier finish to the season, on paper.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Tottenham (Apr. 4), at Man United (Apr. 29), vs. Everton (May 6)
Relegation percentage: 20%

Middlesbrough
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: They’ve got the fifth defensive record in the PL, so they can hang in there. That’s a good trait to have when the pressure is on. They just need a goalscorer to pop up with the goods. A run of three games against relegation rivals at the beginning of April is likely to decide their fate with four very tough games to finish the season.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man United (Mar. 19), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 15), vs. Man City (Apr. 29), at Chelsea (May 6), at Liverpool (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Crystal Palace
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: Big Sam has never been relegated as a Premier League manager. Simple. That said, this task is tougher than he thought. The 1-0 win against Boro proved they can grind out a victory when they need to. Still, they have five of the current top six left to play in their final 12 games of the season. It will be a flip of the coin for the Eagles.
Toughest games remaining: At Chelsea (Apr. 1), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 8), at Liverpool (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 6), at Man United (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Leicester City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Scrapping the barrel here… Their incredible runs to safety in 2015 and then for the PL title in 2016 (that did happen, right!?) gives them experience in high-pressure situation. One big marquee win can help get momentum going again, either in the PL or by getting past Sevilla in the return leg. Claudio Ranieri‘s sacking could give the Foxes the jolt they badly need but it must happen soon.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Liverpool (Feb. 27), at Everton (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 13),
Relegation percentage: 50%

Hull City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Marco Silva’s side are much improved and have just two games remaining against the big boys. So many relegation scraps coming up. They look tough to break down and dangerous on the break. That’s a great combo at this point in the season. They have momentum among the teams at the bottom.
Toughest games remaining: at Everton (Mar. 18), at Man City (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (May 21),
Relegation percentage: 30%

Sunderland

Points: 19
Reason for optimism: Well, just look at pretty much the last four seasons. Down and out time and time again, somehow Sunderland survive. That’s the only reason for optimism. Oh, and Jermain Defoe‘s goals. David Moyes needs a miracle, especially what those remaining games…
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man City (Mar. 5), vs. Man United (Apr. 8), at Arsenal (Apr. 22), at Chelsea (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 70%


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

VIDEO: Remembering Jamie Vardy’s magic vs. Liverpool

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Just over 12 months ago Leicester City beat Liverpool on a raucous evening at the King Power Stadium to ignite real belief into their Premier League title charge.

We all know how that turned out…

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool

A year on and boy, Leicester could use some magic from Vardy as they host Liverpool on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes fired Claudio Ranieri last Thursday and the reigning champions have slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend as they’re in freefall with five defeats on the spin and they’ve failed to score in their last six PL games.

Click play on the video above to see Vardy’s wonderful volley from distance as the England international was in full flow on his way to 24 goals for the season. He has just five in the PL this season, three of which came in the 4-2 win against Manchester City at the KP back in December.

Again, caretaker Craig Shakespeare needs some magic from somewhere on Monday if the Foxes are going to gain momentum in their battle against relegation.

Report: Jordan Henderson out with foot injury

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 27:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool embraces Jordan Henderson of Liverpool after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield on December 27, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Liverpool will be without captain Jordan Henderson for the clash at Leicester City on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) according to multiple reports.

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool ]

Sky Sports are reporting that Henderson suffered a “badly bruised foot” injury in training over the weekend and will not be available to lead Jurgen Klopp‘s side against a Leicester side in freefall.

Henderson has struggled with injuries recently, missing two weeks in January with a heel injury.

The 26-year-old has become the main holding player in Klopp’s fluid 4-3-3 system and has built up a formidable partnership alongside Georginio Wijnaldum. Henderson provides energy and a wide-range of passing and he would’ve been key against a Leicester which will be fired up following the departure of manager Claudio Ranieri last week and having slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend.

In his absence either Emre Can or Lucas Leiva will seamlessly slot in to the lineup, both can play Henderson’s more defensive role admirably and provide balance to Klopp’s somewhat top-heavy time when you think of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino ahead of them.

Klopp has options but it’s still far from ideal to lose your captain after two weeks off and following a break to Spain for training.

Why Mourinho needs Zlatan to stay at Man United

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United congratulates Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Following Manchester United’s EFL Cup Final victory on Sunday, Jose Mourinho laughed off a question about Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season.

He shouldn’t be laughing. He should be taking this situation very seriously. United need Zlatan. End of.

[ MORE: United, Mourinho get lucky

Ibrahimovic, 35, scored twice in the 3-2 win against Southampton at Wembley, including the game-winner with a late header, to hand Mourinho his first piece of major silverware as United’s boss. The veteran Swedish striker has now scored 26 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, including six in his last four games.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

The incredible stats aside, his impact and influence on this team is clear for all to see. That’s why Zlatan needs to remain at United for at least one more season, and he could probably go on for longer. That said, he isn’t giving anything away about where he will be next season.

“We have another two months of the season to go,” Ibrahimovic said. “Let’s see how I feel, the situation. Somebody made up a story that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League I will not extend. It has nothing to do with that.”

Mourinho thinks otherwise.

“One day, Zlatan decided to [leave me and Inter Milan to join] Barcelona, I was very sad, but I did nothing to try to stop him to go, so I don’t beg for players,” Mourinho said. “But, if needed, maybe United fans can go to the door of his house, and stay there all night, if needed. We all want, and believe, that he is going to stay another season.”

It simply has to happen.

Zlatan has a contract until this summer with United with an option to extend it for another year. Mourinho has suggested in the past Zlatan will stay but we’ve never had too much of a definitive answer from the player himself.

Right now, aside from his play on the pitch, Zlatan is having a massive impact on the confidence and belief levels of his teammates. He has scored the game-winner on eight occasions this season and comparisons are being made about Eric Cantona and the impact he had.

Zlatan’s aura is helping United win games at the moment and even at the age of 35 he has played more Premier League minutes than any other United outfield player, plus he’s played in more games this season, in all competitions, than any other PL player.

He can play until he is 40. Mourinho said it last week and he’s right. Zlatan doesn’t rely on pace to play the game. He has always had power, panache and predatory instincts in abundance.

With United’s creative talents and other pacey forwards, not to mention the potential arrival of Antoine Griezmann in the summer, he not only brings the best out of them on the pitch but off it too. Mourinho clerly needs to rebuild parts of his defense to take United from top four hopefuls to title contenders next season and beyond, but without Zlatan’s goals this season they’d be in midtable.

United and Mourinho need Zlatan to stay next season, even if Griezmann arrives. Ibra knows it. He’s playing the game.

It would be a huge shock to see him anywhere other than Old Trafford next season. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him score the winner for United in the FA Cup and Europa League final this season, and then lead them to even greater glories next season and beyond. After his latest trophy, the 22nd of his playing career, Zlatan revealed he keeps all of his medals in one of his houses. He was also asked if United are building something special under Mourinho?

“I came. That’s special,” Ibrahimovic said.

Anyone who doubted Zlatan’s ability (something he has never done) last summer ahead of his move to the Premier League will be scratching their heads. Like United right now, he seems to always find a way to score goals and get the job done. In that sense, Mourinho needs him to be the focal point of United’s attack for as long as Zlatan can play.

And also, well, he’s Zlatan. In this mammoth rebuild of a roster and self-belief, he’s the X-Factor Mourinho can’t do without.