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.

Rapinoe, Morgan, Ertz lift US past South Korea, 3-1

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Alex Morgan scored in a fourth straight game, Julie Ertz scored for the fourth time in five games, and the United States women beat South Korea 3-1 on Thursday night.

Megan Rapinoe added her 34th international goal and her 42nd assist.

Having assisted on Ertz’s diving header in the first half, Rapinoe scored on a penalty kick she drew in the 49th minute when pounced on a loose ball about 12 yards in front of the goal and was tripped by Ji Sohyun.

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Han Chaerin scored her first international goal in her South Korea debut to make it 2-1 just before the end of the first half.

U.S. forward Mallory Pugh had to leave the game late in the first half with a right hamstring injury. There was no immediate word on the severity of her injury after she was helped off the field by trainers.

Meanwhile, Carli Lloyd returned from a nine-week absence because of ankle injury, entering the game as a substitute in the 77th minute.

Midfielder Andi Sullivan started for the U.S. about 11 months after having reconstructive knee surgery. Her third minute shot narrowly missed the far post from about 18 yards. She was substituted out, as planned, at halftime.

South Korea began the game in a defensive posture and the U.S. maintained a decisive edge in possession, forcing Kang Gaae to make several sprawling saves before breaking though on Ertz goal in the 24th minute

Ertz dove in front of two defenders to redirect Rapinoe’s hard, low corner kick between the legs of Kang as the goal keeper tried to respond at the near post.

Morgan scored in the 40th minute, using her right foot to settle Kelley O’Hara’s bouncing pass from the end line, then pivoting and whipping her left foot through the ball from point-blank range. The goal was the 28-year-old Morgan’s 78th for the national squad.

Han scored against the run of play with a hard shot from about 25 yards that sailed beyond U.S. goal keeper Alyssa Naher’s reach before dipping under the cross bar.

Lloyd’s introduction drew an enthusiastic response from nearly 10,000 spectators in the Superdome. The two-time FIFA World Player of the Year missed a pair of U.S. exhibition wins over New Zealand last month because of an Aug. 13 ankle sprain in a National Women’s Soccer League match.

Forward Tobin Heath, who has an ankle injury, and defender Taylor Smith, who has an injured shoulder, were not in the lineup and are not expected to play in a second friendly scheduled between South Korea and the U.S. on Sunday in Cary, North Carolina.

Both women were hurt in the NWSL championship match.

UEFA charge Roma after racist chanting witnessed

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AS Roma and its fans could face severe penalties after alleged racist chants were hurled in the direction of Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger.

It appears via broadcast footage from Chelsea’s 3-3 UEFA Champions League draw with Roma at Stamford Bridge this week that after shepherding a ball out of play, Rudiger was subjected to monkey noises and other racist abuse from the away end where the AS Roma fans were congregated.

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In the past, UEFA has ordered either partial or full closures of stadiums and announced fines to the clubs, though it doesn’t seem to have stamped out the problem of racist chanting in Europe.

Hopefully, UEFA will investigate this fully and ban the individuals who allegedly committed the chants.

Rudiger signed for Chelsea this past summer for a reported $44.8 million.

FIFA says deal close to resolve transfer system complaint

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ZURICH (AP) A complaint to the European Commission challenging soccer’s transfer market is set to be withdrawn by the global group of players’ unions, according to FIFA.

A formal complaint that the trading system is “anti-competitive, unjustified and illegal” was filed in Brussels two years ago by FIFPro.

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After a meeting Thursday of the FIFA stakeholders committee, soccer’s world governing body said a tentative agreement relating to unpaid player wages and transfer fees reached with FIFPro, European clubs and a global leagues’ group can help end the dispute next year.

“It was an issue that was stewing for a long, long, long time,” FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani told reporters after chairing the meeting. “Because of our impetus they came to an agreement.”

FIFPro, which has campaigned to let players terminate contracts after going unpaid for several weeks, cautiously welcomed its “constructive talks with FIFA.”

“(It’s) premature to discuss what might happen next regarding our legal complaint against the transfer system, or any prospective deal until we are satisfied with the proposals put forth,” the Netherlands-based union said.

FIFA has been open to reviewing a transfer system which has seemed weighted in favor of wealthy clubs and was widely criticized in the European summer trading window. Salary caps, limits on squad sizes and restricting loan deals have been suggested.

Representing 65,000 players, FIFPro had suggested its September 2015 filing threatened the biggest upheaval in transfer rules since the Bosman case in 1995.

Then, a European Court of Justice ruling gave players more freedom to move within the European Union and drove up salaries by letting clubs sign out-of-contract players without paying a transfer fee.

The tentative accord FIFA announced Thursday seeks to amend complex transfer regulations and better protect players and clubs from unpaid salaries and transfer fees.

Another shared goal is enforcing cases more efficiently with a clearer path to applying sanctions. Players can wait many months – and even years – pursuing claims for unpaid wages in FIFA judicial bodies.

FIFA’s ruling council must approve the accord next week at a meeting in India. A new draft of transfer regulations could then be put to the Council next March in Zurich, clearing FIFPro to drop its complaint case.

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Delegates at FIFA headquarters Thursday included English Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore and two-time Champions League winner Edwin van der Sar, now CEO at Ajax.

The session also discussed changing rules that govern players’ eligibility for national teams and switching allegiance, FIFA said.

However, talking points such as club salary caps, allowing an extra Copa America tournament in 2020 on the international match calendar, and issues around the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were not raised.

Report: USMNT interim manager to be named this weekend

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What’s next for the U.S. Men’s National Team?

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The first of many dominos may fall this weekend, according to ESPN FC.

The report states that the USMNT is likely to name its interim manager “some time this weekend,” however, U.S. Under-20 manager Tab Ramos likely won’t be the one named.

Ramos is reportedly seeking a full-time position as the USMNT boss, and the interim tag could be a turn off for the 51-year-old former national team midfielder.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had stated following former U.S. manager Bruce Arena’s departure that he expected to make a decision in “seven to 10 days.” A decision this weekend would stick with Gulati’s original intentions.

The Americans will reconvene next month when they take on Portugal on Nov. 14 in an international friendly in Leiria.

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The match was originally scheduled to be played in Faro, but due to recent devastation in the are the fixture will be played in Leiria and all proceeds will go to the victims of wildfire damage. Portugal will also play a friendly four days prior to taking on the U.S. against Saudi Arabia at the same stadium.