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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.

UEFA orders Dynamo Kiev to close stadium doors for racist incidents

KIEV, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 19:  FC Dynamo Kyiv supporters during the UEFA Europa League group stage match between FC Dynamo Kyiv and KRC Genk held on September 19, 2013 at the Olympic Stadium, in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Genya Savilov/EuroFootball/Getty Images)
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UEFA handed down a two-match closed door ban to Dynamo Kiev after racist incidents during a Champions League match against Chelsea, with a third match suspended for three probationary years.

Anti-discrimation body Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) brought footage to UEFA of four black fans who appeared to be harassed in the stands at the match on October 20. UEFA charged Dynamo for racist behavior, crowd disturbances, and blocked stairways.

Dynamo was also fined €100,000 for the incidents.

As a result, Dynamo will play in an empty stadium on December 9 in a group stage match against Maccabi Tel Aviv, and their second match will either be in the Champions League Round of 16, or in the Europa League Round of 32 should they finish third in their group, which seems more likely.

Last season, Dynamo was punished by UEFA for racist behavior at Europa League matches, ordered to close part of their stadium on two separate occasions.

Roma goalkeeper Szczesny calls rout to Barcelona “beautiful”

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 05:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona competes for the ball with Radja Nainggolan of AS Roma during the Joan Gamper trophy match at Camp Nou on August 5, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Roma was trounced by Barcelona 6-1 in the Champions League on Tuesday, and while the Italians will have to pick up the pieces and continue the battle for second place in Group E, one player is still peeking back at the destruction.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, on loan from Arsenal, played the full 90 minutes  on the losing side and while he has struggled to cope with the massive defeat, he also appreciates what he saw – what all of us saw.

“It was beautiful to watch because we played against a team from another planet,” Szczesny told BT Sport after the game. “I was in goal playing for Roma but I appreciated what I saw from Barcelona. They were ridiculously good. As hard as it is to lose 6-1 it was beautiful to watch.”

Under normal circumstances, this would not be an appropriate reaction for the losing team to have. These are not normal circumstances. This Barcelona team is anything but normal. In fact, it might be one of the most dominant teams we have seen in recent memory.

[ RELATED: How can Chelsea qualify for knockout stage? ]

Szczesny wasn’t the only Roma player to feel Barcelona’s wrath. Defender Maicon told BT Sport, “We were lucky to lose only 6-1 actually.”

Even without an injured Lionel Messi, Barcelona has torn up La Liga and the world. They suffered a 2-1 loss to Sevilla in Messi’s first game out, but went on to win their next five league games by a combined 17-3 score. Neymar scored eight of those 17, while Luis Suarez scored another eight himself. Tack on a pair of Champions League wins without Messi by a 5-0 combined score (both against BATE Borisov) and it’s been total domination.

Now with Messi back, it’s completely unfair. The Argentinian bagged a brace against Roma along with Suarez, while Neymar remained a force out on the left.

Defoe: Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore reminds me of Gareth Bale

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Sunderland at Selhurst Park on November 23, 2015 in London, England.
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Duncan Watmore is highly regarded at Sunderland, as the 21-year-old was rewarded with a new four-year contract with the club earlier this week.

While the club has high hopes for the young winger, his teammates are taking notice as well.

[ MORE: Transfer Rumor Roundup ]

Watmore’s teammate Jermain Defoe, a seasoned veteran who knows all about succeeding in the Premier League, praised the 21-year-old’s play, comparing him to one of his former teammates at Tottenham, Gareth Bale.

In a funny way he reminds me of Gareth [Bale]. When he came on the scene at Tottenham, he used to just get the ball and glide.

He’s such a nice boy, I don’t think he’s bothered about signing new contracts and stuff, all he wants to do is play football and do well for the club.

If he can go on to do what Gareth has done then he’ll be fantastic. He’s the future of this club.

That’s quite the comparison, as Watmore has only made six Premier League appearances in his young career. Bale was twice named the Premier League Player of the Year before being sold to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee in 2013.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

While it’s a bit too soon to be calling Watmore the next Gareth Bale, there’s no denying he could be a huge talent for Sunderland. After coming on as a substitute in the Black Cats’ win over Crystal Palace on Monday, Watmore showed his speed and willingness to run at defenders, something the club is in desperate need of. He made his debut for the England U21 side this fall, which shows his form has impressed many outside of just the North East.

After starting his career in the Manchester United youth setup, Watmore was released and played with non-league side Altrincham before signing with Sunderland in 2013. He scored 11 goals in 18 appearances last year with the U21 side, being named the Under 21 Premier League Player of the Season.

Five Premier League players make UEFA Team of the Year shortlist

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal with his team mate Sergio Aguero (L) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at Etihad Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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UEFA has released the 40-man shortlist for the 2015 Team of the Year, with five Premier League players making the cut.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is on the list after being named the Premier League Player of the Year last season, as is Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez.

Manchester City accounts for the other three players, as Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne have been selected. However, De Bruyne makes the list mainly based off his play for Wolfsburg last season.

Three teams have more players selected than the entire Premier League combined. Barcelona leads the list with eight players, while Bayern Munich and Juventus each have six.

[ MORE: FIFA Ethics Committee seeks lifetime ban for Sepp Blatter ]

Cristiano Ronaldo already has the most appearances on the final list with nine, and is looking to make his ninth consecutive Team of the Year. No other player has been selected more than six times since the beginning of the award, which was started in 2001.

Below is the complete 40-man shortlist.

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Denys Boyko (Dnipro).

Defenders: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), David Luiz (Paris St-Germain), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (Paris St-Germain), Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid).

Midfielders: Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Marco Verratti (Paris St-Germain), Yevhen Konoplyanka (Sevilla), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen).

Forwards: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris St-Germain), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Neymar (Barcelona), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid).