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.

Watch Live: Swansea host Manchester United

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Swansea City welcome Manchester United to the Liberty Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s side aiming to stay top of the Premier League table.

[ STREAM: Swansea v. Man United ]

Yes, it’s early days, but the Red Devils were imperious in their thumping 4-0 win against West Ham United to open their season. Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic dominated and Mourinho’s men are now a powerful, well-oiled machine.

As for Swansea, they struggled at Southampton but came away with a draw, however the main storyline surrounding the South Wales side this week has been losing Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton for over $60 million. Paul Clement will have to act fast to spend that cash wisely, but there is no doubt the Swans will miss their Icelandic playmaker.

In team news Swansea bring in Kyle Bartley and Roque Mesa as they line up in a 3-5-2 formation with Jordan Ayew and Tammy Abraham up top.

Man United are, unsurprisingly, unchanged.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski; Fernandez, Bartley, Mawson; Naughton, Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Olsson; Ayew, Abraham. Subs: Nordfeldt, Rangel, van der Hoorn, Fulton, Narsingh, Routledge, McBurnie.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Blind; Matic, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Smalling, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Martial

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.