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

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  • Questions at the back

Chris Tierney was New England’s regular left back, while Kevin Alston had returned to the starting XI by the end of the season. It didn’t matter on Saturday. Both of Jay Heaps’ preferred left backs were out for the Revolution’s playoff opener, forcing Darius Barnes into the starting lineup. To the extent there was a drop off, it didn’t matter. Kansas City’s only goal came after a free kick, not down their right.

Both Tierney (ankle) and Alston (hamstring) are questionable for tonight’s game, as is goalkeeper Matt Reis, who is also dealing with a left ankle sprain. If that tells us anything about the ‘questionable’ tag, it’s that all three should be options on Wednesday, giving Reis a chance to replicate his Man of the Match performance.

  • When to start holding out

If Reis has to be as good as he was on Saturday, something’s gone wrong. For a defense that performed as well as it did in the regular season (14 clean sheets), the quality of chances they gave up in the first half was uncharacteristic. Reis came up big, and if it wasn’t for some 69th minute penalty box chaos, his reflexes would have been enough to keep a clean sheet.

As we saw in their regular season finale, New England are still capable of playing as they did this spring – sitting back, hoping for counters, but willing to settle for a stalemate. They kept a clean sheet that day, keeping the Crew off the board in Columbus, and have allowed only four goals in their last four games. With Kansas City needing two to advance, it’s a rate that would get New England to penalty kicks, at worst.

The question is when to start holding out. The Revolution is capable of doing it from the opening whistle, but against players like Aurelien Collin and C.J. Sapong, it may not be wise to put yourself in a position to concede too many free kicks too early. B

ut at what point does it make sense to tip that balance, play for the shutout, and rely on your sometimes stifling defense to complete the upset?

  • Dealing with Kansas City’s midfield pressure

One of the main focuses coming out of Gillette was the effect of Kansas City’s pressure. Through the middle, Sporting’s midfielders are going to challenge you hight and hard, putting pressure on Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe to make quick decisions. Fail to do so, and the game will look a lot like Saturday’s first half: all KC.

The duo seemed to adjust at halftime, proving much more effective in the early parts of the second period. If that reflects an adjustment on their part — a realization of how to deal with Kansas City’s tactics — that improvement should carry over into Wednesday’s game.

Their second goal in New England showed the difference, though Juan Agudelo’s contribution had a lot to do with the score. But maybe that’s how the Revolution can break this one open in KC? By using their talented forward to help against Oriol Rosell and Lawrence Olum? Thus allowing Rowe and Nguyen to drift into the type of spaces they exploited on that goal?

They don’t have to completely solve Kansas City. One moment will do. If New England can get a third goal, you have to like their chances of reaching the conference final.

  • The last days of Juan Agudelo

When Juan Agudelo signed for Stoke City, agreeing to move in January, most wondered why New England didn’t just take whatever money they could, rely on Dmitry Imbongo and Saer Sene, and let the 20-year-old embrace his inevitable move to England. While it seemed a sensible enough question at the time, the U.S. international — who struggled to make an impact in Harrison or Carson — as proven what Jay Heaps obviously knew. He’s not only the Revolution’s most dangerous attacker but a necessary part of any potential postseason success. When he’s on, the team doesn’t have to rely entirely on Nguyen and Rowe’s creativity. When he’s not, he’s still capable of combining with the midfield duo, as he did on Saturday.

In that way, he could be New England’s most important player on Wednesday; at least, their most important player going forward. He’ll need to help in the battle against Rosell and Olum by finding, giving his teammates an option when they turn or out wide. When New England’s avoiding that problem, his runs will be important in opening up space for Diego Fagundez, Imbongo, Nguyen and Rowe as they pick-and-choose which spaces to prod.

  • Momentum isn’t important. Confidence is.

Unbeaten since Sept. 15, New England is riding a seven-match streak into Kansas City, having won their last four games. Yet more important than the momentum of that run is the confidence it imparts. After all, if you win four in a row but doubt your own results, there’s no mental edge to gain.

Right now, New England have that edge.

“We’re confident right now,” midfielder Lee Nguyen told the league’s website last week. “We’re on a good run. We know that as long as the game is close, we have players on our team that can create chances and change the game. As long as we keep it close, I think we’ll have the edge.”

Perhaps that’s the reason New England were able to break through last week, finally scoring a goal against Kansas City. And perhaps that’s why the Revolution, who few picked to make the postseason back in March, could see out one of the conference’s preseason favorites.

It’s one thing to get this far. The confidence to go farther? It could be crucial, especially if Kansas City pull back a goal.

LVG would only return to club football to get at Man Utd

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Leave it to The Daily Mirror to find that last bit of juice when it comes to Manchester United and former manager Louis Van Gaal.

Well, probably the last bit.

The Dutch manager said he does not expect to return to club football, unless one of the big boys in the Premier League offered him the chance to take a run at United. The Red Devils, of course, fired him shortly after an FA Cup title in order to hire Jose Mourinho.

[ MORE: WBA 1-2 Man Utd | Bournemouth 0-4 Liverpool ]

From The Mirror, quoting LVG at a Sunday night function in Rotterdam.

“I will probably not manage a club anymore,” Van Gaal said. “I would make one exception: If a big English club comes for me, than I would do it. Because then I can get the chance to get one over on Manchester United.’’

Could you see him getting a run at any of the Top Four contenders, even on a caretaker basis? Could Liverpool come calling if they tired of Jurgen Klopp one season, or might Arsenal or even Everton need a stopgap (should the Toffees spending come good)?

Suspended Villar says Spain in danger of missing World Cup

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The suspended president of the Spanish soccer federation, who is under investigation for corruption, tried Monday to stoke up fears that the country could be kicked out of the World Cup because of government interference.

Angel Maria Villar, who is free on bail, spoke at a news conference in Madrid and again denied any wrongdoing. He also blamed the government for meddling in the federation’s affairs by suspending him.

“This government is putting Spain’s participation in the World Cup at risk,” the 67-year-old Villar said in his first news conference since being arrested in July along with his son, Gorka Villar, and two other officials.

[ BLANC: I turned down USMNT talks ]

“The risk is serious,” Villar said. “The only party responsible for Spain not going to the World Cup will be the Spanish government.”

Villar spoke three days after FIFA said it was concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation and that it would soon send a delegation to analyze the situation. FIFA made no mention of a possible suspension of the federation, which could keep Spain out of next year’s World Cup in Russia or even knock Real Madrid and Barcelona out of the Champions League.

Villar, who has spent time behind bars to impede the possible destruction of evidence, and the other three officials are being investigated for alleged improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar resigned his vice presidencies of both FIFA and UEFA following his arrest. But he tried to stay on as the head of Spanish federation, a post he held for three decades.

His refusal to listen to pleas for him to step down led the Spanish government to suspend him from the post for one year pending the outcome of the investigation. Court documents allege that besides misappropriated funds, Villar is suspected of corrupting several regional federations by offering favors in exchange for votes.

Villar fired back at the government, saying his suspension had broken FIFA rules since it represented interference in the federation’s management.

“It’s easy to see that the source of concern was my arbitrary and unjustified removal from the presidency of the federation and for not respecting the presumption of innocence,” Villar said, adding that other teams are ready to take Spain’s place at the World Cup.

“Be careful. There are other powerful countries that didn’t qualify like Italy that are waiting to pounce and take our place,” Villar said.

Spain, which won the World Cup in 2010, is considered to be among the favorites for next year’s tournament.

Blanc: I turned down USMNT talks

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U.S. Soccer has not been inactive when it comes to the USMNT coaching search, despite its uncertainty with an impending presidential election.

Le Parisien has an interview with Laurent Blanc in which the ex-Bordeaux, France, and Paris Saint-Germain boss says he was approached by the United States Soccer Federation, but was not interested in the gig.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

Blanc said an international job would have to touch his roots, and he’s most certainly not American. The tall 52-year-old had a glittering playing career with Saint-Etienne, Barcelona, Marseille, Inter Milan, and Manchester United amongst other stops.

More important, it shows that Sunil Gulati and his men have to some degree moved forward with keeping their imprint on the national team.

That’s a little worrying on any team: A hierarchy that may not be around much longer may be working to fill a position arguably more important than its own. It’d be nice to have them commit to not hiring anyone until after February’s election.

Premier League Preview: Everton vs. Swansea City

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  • Everton leads all-time 15W-9D-3L
  • BUT Swans unbeaten in 7 vs. Toffees
  • Toffees go ninth with win
  • Swans four back of safety

Everton hopes its up-turn in form can end three seasons of futility against visiting Swansea City when the two sides meet at Goodison Park on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Gylfi Sigurdsson gets a chance to face his former club for the first time, while longtime Swans man Ashley Williams may also feature for Sam Allardyce.

Swansea has no time to focus on the past, as Paul Clement‘s men sit deep in the drop zone. The last place Swans are four points shy of safety.

What they’re saying

Everton’s Ashley Williams on facing his former club (again)“The game is a little bit more important to me, I would be lying I said it wasn’t. You always want to play against your old teams and it’s a fixture you always look for.  I have been looking forward to this one and it will be nice to see old faces and old friends. It is a game we want to win and to keep a clean sheet in, especially at home, in order to keep our momentum going.”

Swansea City’s Roque Mesa on the match“This is a massive game for us. We need to pick up points because we are bottom and we need to improve our position. Everton have a new manager and their players have done very well under him – you can see their confidence has grown since he joined. But we did well against West Brom and picked up three points, which was very important. Then we faced Manchester City and they proved too good for us. They are the best team in the league, and unfortunately, we couldn’t match them on the night.”

Prediction

Swans need to move past that Man City loss and build on a 1-0 win over West Brom a few days previous. That may not be possible at Goodison, and the Welsh side would be thrilled to escape with a draw. It seems unlikely. Everton 2-1.