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.

LIVE, FA Cup: Wigan v. Southampton in quarterfinal

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The Mark Hughes era begins at Southampton with upset alerts ringing loudly in the background.

[ LIVE: Wigan v. Saints ]

Premier League side Saints travel to third-tier Wigan on Sunday (9:30 a.m. ET) in the FA Cup quarterfinal knowing that the hosts have already knocked out Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City during their incredible run to the last eight.

Paul Cook’s men will fancy their chances of upsetting a fourth Premier League team in a row to reach the FA Cup semis at Wembley next month, as Southampton sit in the bottom three of the PL table and sacked Mauricio Pellegrino as their manager earlier this week after just five wins in 30 league games.

With Tottenham and Manchester United booking their spot in the last four on Saturday, Wigan remain the lowest ranked team left in the competition.

In team news Hughes starts with Manolo Gabbiadini and Guido Carrillo up top in a 4-4-2 formation.

Wigan bring in Gary Roberts for Nick Powell.


Wigan Athletic


Salah “on his way” to Messi’s level

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Mohamed Salah scored four goals on Saturday and grabbed an assist as Liverpool beat Watford 5-0 in the Premier League.

It was special. But it was almost as if we’d come to expect this. He is one of those players you pay the entrance fee alone to watch and most PL defenders spend the 90 minutes watching him run by them.

Following the stunning display from the Egyptian winger, Jurgen Klopp was asked about the current level Salah is at as he now leads the PL scoring charts with 28 goals and is the highest scoring Liverpool player ever in a debut season at Anfield with 36 in all competitions.

“I don’t think Mo wants to be compared with Lionel Messi,” Klopp said. “Messi has been doing what he’s been doing for what feels like 20 years or so. The last player I know who had the same influence on a team performance was Diego Maradona. But Mo is in a fantastic way, that’s for sure. As it always is in life, if you have to have the skills you have to show that constantly and consistently, and he is very good.”

Salah’s rise to prominence has been hugely unexpected with the $50 million Liverpool paid to Roma for his services last summer raising plenty of eyebrows.

That transfer fee now seems like a bargain.

The 25-year-old who struggled to break through at Chelsea after arriving from Basel as a youngster is now, like Messi, a genuine global superstar. Everyone knew he was quick and nimble around the box as a winger but nobody expected these gaudy numbers and this kind of output in his debut season at Liverpool.

With Liverpool facing Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League last eight, plenty of City’s defenders will already be having sleepless nights as to how to stop Salah.

Sitting in third place in the table with seven games to go and in the latter stages of the UCL, Liverpool have a hugely talented squad with the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino consistently delivering goals and assists and Klopp’s project is kicking on.

But like Messi at Barcelona, one man helps Liverpool climb above the rest: Salah.

On this form Kevin De Bruyne will have a serious run for his money when it comes to the player of the year awards in England this season.

Salah is still some way off Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of consistent excellence as his subdued display at Manchester United showed last weekend. However, he is getting towards that level and the Egyptian wizard is in the perfect team for his talents to flourish.

Three MLS Things: Growing pains in ORL; hat-trick hero

Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD
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The third Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and we learned a few (more) things along the way.

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

One game is just one game; two games is too small of a sample size; but three games is the beginning of a trend…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Lots of changes, lots of kinks to work out

Inside the last nine months alone, Orlando City SC acquired the following who’s-who list of MLS star-level players: Dom Dwyer, Yoshi Yotun, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell. That’s one half of an uber-talented, but brand new, starting lineup (at a massive cost) — which is to say, Jason Kreis and Co., have made serious changes, and everything isn’t going to coalesce overnight.

Throw in the fact that Kljestan was suspended the first two games, Dwyer has battled multiple muscular injuries since January and is yet to make his 2018 debut, and Rosell didn’t arrive in Orlando until the week before the season opener and hasn’t played either, and you begin to understand how “such a talented team can have just one point from their first three games.”

Saturday’s 2-0 loss away to a David Villa-less New York City FC was frustrating in more ways than just “we’re still figuring things out, but we’re getting there.” Both of NYCFC’s goals resulted from self-inflicted, avoidable mistakes in possession which turned into easy counter-attacking chances going the other way.

Rosell will undoubtedly fix many of Orlando’s problems with regard to ball circulation and defensive organization/transitions, but only upon his arrival into the lineup can his tricky and important integration begin.

NYCFC, on the other hand, have three wins from three games, have conceded just once (while scoring six) and now hold a nine-point lead on the defending champions from Toronto. Oh, and did I mention they looked just fine without David Villa?

Martinez closing in on history

Just 23 games into his MLS career, Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez is one hat trick from tying the all-time record for hat tricks in a career (6 – currently held by Landon Donovan, Stern John and Diego Serna). To put that into perspective, the three aforementioned players made 340, 55 and 124 appearances during their respective MLS careers.

Assuming he doesn’t pick up another long-term injury (he missed 10 games between March and June last year) and/or transfer back to Europe in the summer, Martinez should summit the hat trick-scoring chart by early June. Given the veracity and vigor with which Atlanta engulf their opponents, Martinez scoring at least two more hat tricks this season feels like the safest bet one could make in a league full of constant flux.

Take, for example, Saturday’s 4-1 thrashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps, which not only saw the Five Stripes fire 21 shots (4 on target – 100 percent, obviously), but more importantly hold more than 72 percent of possession and limit the visitors to just five shots in total (Kendall Waston was sent off in the 13th minute, leaving the ‘Caps a man short for much of the evening). Jeff Larentowicz has solved most of the problems in midfield and allowed Darlington Nagbe to settle in quickly and thrive. If that trend is to continue, the sky is truly the limit for Tata Martino’s boys, and Martinez will bag goals by the handful.

Where’s the real Sporting KC defense?

Should we be a little worried about the Sporting Kansas City defense, a group which finished 2017 as the league’s stingiest unit and returns its entire back-six in 2018? After conceding just 29 goals in 34 games last season, the group led by past Defender of the Year award winners Ike Opara and Matt Besler has conceded seven goals in their first three games this year.

If it were any other team, and any other group of MLS veterans, with any other coach, I’d be officially worried right now. But, given their (perennial) stake to one of the league’s best defensive records, I remain in a holding pattern, even after giving up another soft/sloppy goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Sporting head coach Peter Vermes made a fair and valid point following the game, reminding the assembled media that playing more freely going forward — a massive weakness for Sports in recent seasons — comes at the expense of defensive positioning and numbers. Sure enough, they’ve scored seven goals in three games (tied for the most in MLS – all coming in the last two). Sporting scored their seventh goal of the 2017 season on April 29.

Here’s the thing about Sporting’s recent seasons: they’ve been a lock-down side throughout the regular season and never figured out how to consistently score goals, and it cost them plenty of points along the way and ultimately they played on the road in the knockout round each of the last four seasons. That style, which they’ll surely settle back into come playoff time, doesn’t lend itself to playing on the road. Securing a home playoff game, which would the first for the team since winning MLS Cup 2013 at home, is priority no. 1, and Vermes might just be willing to sacrifice a little bit of defense for a whole lot more offense (finally).

MLS: NYCFC with 3 wins in 3; defending champs TFC point-less

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP
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NEW YORK (AP) Ismael Tajouri and Maximiliano Moralez scored 12-minutes apart in the second half and New York City FC opened the season with three straight wins for the first time in the club’s short history with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City on Saturday.

Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik misplayed a back-pass that went right to Tajouri inside the 18-yard box and Tajouri took a few touches to the penalty spot for an easy finish in the 62nd minute. After an Orlando giveaway to Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jesus Medina settled it for an oncoming Moralez to slide it home.

NYCFC (3-0-0) was without start David Villa due to a minor injury.

Orlando City (0-2-1), led by NYC’s former coach Jason Kreis (2014-15), has its share of injury problems as well. Striker Stefano Pinho had a right ankle injury last Saturday, leaving on crutches, and playmaker Dom Dwyer will be out for at least two more weeks.

Sacha Kljestan made his debut for Orlando after serving a two-game ban. The club arrived late due to the St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic.

MONTREAL (AP) Jeisson Vargas scored four minutes before the intermission to lift Montreal to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the Impact’s home opener Saturday.

It was the first MLS goal for 20-year-old Vargas and the first win for new coach Remi Garde, who replaced Mauro Biello in December as coach of the Impact (1-2).

Toronto (0-2) played its first game since a rousing victory in the CONCACAF Champions League over Mexican side Tigres. The travel to Mexico may have sapped some energy from the defending MLS champions, who nonetheless started most of their top players.

Garde seemed to catch everyone off guard by starting a three-man backline with former Marseille defender Rod Fanni making his debut in the middle.

It made for a mostly uneventful first half until Saphir Taider intercepted a ball and sent Ignacio Piatti up the middle. Three Toronto defenders focused on the Impact captain, leaving Vargas open on the right side to take the pass and slice a shot inside the goalpost in the 41st minute for their first lead in three games.

Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the break but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.

Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot.

Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide. Toronto looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal line, but Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.

Montreal striker Matteo Mancosu, who missed practice this week for what the team called precautionary reasons, didn’t dress.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez, who has had back trouble, didn’t dress for Toronto. Chris Mavinga (suspected sports hernia) was in the lineup but did not start.