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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Griezmann’s advisor namechecks Man Utd, Man City, 3 others

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Antoine Griezmann has maintained a desire to stay at Atletico Madrid, but his advisor says the French striker has five realistic destinations for next season if he doesn’t stay at the Vicente Calderon.

Speaking on the French outlet Telefoot, advisor Eric Olhats says the 26-year-old Griezmann is limited by his $109 million release clause.

[ MORE: Zlatan’s comeback vow; Mata close ]

Griezmann has 25 goals and 11 assists this season, slightly lighter on the goals and a step up in helpers with Atleti alive in two competitions this season. He’s still played centrally and wide right, and Yannick Carrasco is starring on the left.

From Sky Sports:

“There is an unavoidable 100m clause so that restricts the number of candidates. You have United, City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

“United were the first to come and see us and the most concrete in their wishes.”

Griezmann to the Premier League is a move many would love to see, or at least a new challenge for the fantastic attacker. With respect to Barcelona and Real Madrid, we’ve seen plenty of top La Liga talents move within the division.

Of course, there would be something special to both Diego Simeone and Griezmann winning the UEFA Champions League and defending it at Atleti. Something tells us their fate in this year’s semifinal against Real Madrid may tip the scales for both men, or at least Griezmann.

Zlatan posts comeback vow; Mata nears return

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One of the more unique personalities in the sports world, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has released comments and a leggy photo following news that he’ll need ACL and PCL surgery.

The Swedish star was injured in stoppage time of Manchester United’s UEFA Europa League quarterfinal win over Anderlecht, and tests revealed the injury was serious.

Ibrahimovic, 35, had not signed his contract extension with United, but it seemed more likely as time wore on. He finishes his first season with 28 goals and 10 assists, an unfettered success in his Premier League bow.

Despite the severe nature of his injury, Ibrahimovic vowed to return by posting a picture of his massive, uncovered legs in front of a fireplace (See full Instagram message at bottom).

“One thing is for sure, I decide when it’s time to stop and nothing else. Giving up is not an option. See you soon.”

One of United’s locker room leaders is backing him. Ander Herrera told a Swedish outlet that Ibrahimovic spoke to the team and wished them luck with the rest of the season.

“But he did not say much, really. He wished us only good luck with the rest of the season. He has an incredible mentality and a great physique, I have never seen such a good football body.”

I don’t think anyone doubts that Ibrahimovic will come back and play at a high level, but a starring role in the Premier League is a big ask. Because of that, will he be more motivated to reprove himself with United and less motivated to test out MLS or another league?

There is some good news for United, as Juan Mata says he hopes to be back with the team soon.

PL title & FA Cup in sight, Conte says Chelsea still rebuilding

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Antonio Conte might be just seven games away from guiding Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup double this season, but the Blues’ first-year Italian manager insists his squad is nowhere near being a finished product.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal triumph over Tottenham Hotspur, Conte insisted that the team he inherited last summer, after a disastrous 10th-place finish in the PL, is “in a period of transition” and that “[they] need time” as the club moves on from an accomplished, foundational generation — quotes from Sky Sports:

“I think that now at Chelsea we are in a period of transition. In this season, we have lost (Branislav) Ivanovic, (John Obi) Mikel and next season we lose John Terry.

“We are talking about players who wrote the history of this club. They won a lot. Now we have to find the right substitutes for these players and then work to put these players at the same level.

“I think that in the period with Carlo (Ancelotti) — and Carlo is the best Italian coach, I have great respect for him — he arrived at Chelsea when they had a really strong squad. Now we are building. We are building something important. We need time.”

[ MORE: Kante takes home PFA Player of the Year | Dele wins Young Player ]

Conte is doing two things with the above comments: 1) he’s tempering expectations for next season, when Chelsea will be back in the UEFA Champions League and automatically expected to repeat as PL champions — not to mention, taking a bit of pressure off in these final two months of the 2016-17 season; and, 2) pointing out just how impressive his work to date has been, the fact he’s potentially seven games away from lifting two trophies in seven days’ time next month.

Ligue 1: Mbappe, Falcao fire Monaco top again

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PARIS (AP) Strikers Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe continued their fine form with a goal each to help Monaco secure a 2-1 win at Lyon and reclaim top spot in the French league on Sunday.

Monaco moves above defending champion Paris Saint-Germain on goal difference, with Monaco having played a game less. PSG has four games left.

“It wasn’t easy and it was a big win for us tonight,” Monaco center half Andrea Raggi said. “We all play for each other and it’s now or never.”

It has been an astonishing season for Monaco, which has now scored 143 goals in all competitions and remains on course for the treble. Monaco faces PSG in the French Cup semifinals next Wednesday.

Falcao and Mbappe scored in midweek when Monaco beat German side Borussia Dortmund 3-1 in the return leg of their Champions League quarterfinal to reach the last four 6-3 on aggregate.

Lyon also did well in Europe, going through on penalty kicks away to Turkish club Besiktas to reach the last four in the Europa League.

Falcao and the 18-year-old Mbappe have combined for 51 goals.

Falcao put Monaco ahead in the 36th minute with a header from close range – his 28th goal of the season – and Mbappe made it 2-0 just before halftime with a trademark surging run and cool finish for his 23rd.

“I just try and give my best whenever I play,” said Mbappe, who has recently been called into the France team. “I wasn’t playing much at the start of the season, so I’m still quite fresh and I hope I can help us win the remaining games.”

PSG beat Montpellier 2-0 at home on Saturday with Edinson Cavani scoring his 31st league goal of the season and 44th overall.

Nice has already guaranteed third place and a spot in the qualifying round for next season’s Champions League.

But with four games remaining, it is six points behind Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Nice hosts PSG next Sunday.

Striker Corentin Jean gave mid-table Toulouse the lead in the 57th minute. Midfielder Valentin Eysseric continued his fine form with the equalizer three minutes later.

The game was briefly halted early in the first half after a group of Saint-Etienne supporters forced themselves into the stadium.

The match was supposed to be played behind closed doors as a punishment for unruly supporters during Saint-Etienne’s local derby against Lyon.

After a brief delay for police to remove the fans, Slovakia striker Robert Beric put the home side ahead in the 39th and center half Edson Mexer leveled just before the break.

Saint-Etienne is in seventh place, while Rennes is ninth.