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

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  • League’s best defense needs to play like league’s best defense.

Kansas City gave up less than a goal-per-game this year (0.88 goals/game) and didn’t concede in 180 regular season minutes against New England, but in a 13-minute span of Saturday’s second half, Sporting conceded twice. The outburst ended a near-three month span where Kansas City had failed to concede multiple goals (last doing so on Aug. 3, vs. New York).

The first goal? Perhaps the team could have done something to stop it, but there was a degree of chaos and controversy to Andy Dorman’s opener that makes it hard to blame the defense. The second, however, came when Kansas City needed their defense to step up most, and after their midfield turned the ball over near the center line, nobody kicked up Kelyn Rowe until it was too late. The second-year pro lingered on the right while the Revolution moved toward Kansas City’s penalty area. Just when it seemed that Seth Sinovic was in position, Rowe created enough room to poke Lee Nguyen’s pass beyond Jimmy Nielsen.

Part of that is Kansas City’s want to release their fullbacks early, but it was also an issue with execution. Nobody stopped Juan Agudelo from pushing forward after the turnover. Nobody stepped to Lee Nguyen as the creator tried to find the right ball. A team with two defensive midfielders and two all-league caliber defenders may as well have been D.C. United.

Matt Besler seemed conscious of the problem in a mid-week radio interview, knowing the next mistake may be their season’s last.

“We cannot give up a goal on the counterattack because it puts us in the same position as last year, needing two just to tie,” Besler told Kansas City’s SportsRadio 810. “A lot of focus is going to be not allowing the counterattack goal, and if a couple of us focus on that and do our job, I’m confident in the rest of the guys that they’re going to be able to get a ton of chances and get goals.”

  • Using that midfield shield.

The postseason’s best example of the virtues of two defensive midfielders came in Los Angeles, where Jason Kreis’s use of Yordany Alvarez next to Kyle Beckerman kept the Galaxy counter at arm’s length for the first 60 minutes. In theory, if Kansas City’s guarding against counter attacks, their formation offers the same virtues, with Oriol Rosell and Lawrence Olum’s replacement (potentially Paolo Nagamura) sitting in front of the defense.1 But on Rowe’s Saturday goal, Olum allowed himself to be drawn toward Rosell, abandoning the space in front of Aurelien Collin, giving Lee Nguyen a place from which to create the goal.

So it’s not foolproof, but if Rosell and Nagamura do their jobs, fears of Nguyen and Rowe doing damage in transition should be mitigated, allowing Besler and Collin to track Agudelo while play’s slowed higher up the pitch. How they slow play, well, we’ll talk about that below, but if the defensive midfielders do their job, counters need not be as dangerous as Rowe’s was on Saturday.

Then again, if we see the return of Benny Feilhaber (and Kansas City doesn’t use two defensive midfielders), Besler’s right to be concerned about the counter.

  • It’s all about chances. It’s all about goals.

Sporting need two to avoid penalty kicks (one to tie), eminently possible but made more difficult by a New England team that’s capable of holding out. The Revolution kept 14 clean sheets this season and  notably went into shut down mode in the season finale at Columbus, scoring first then playing prevent to keep a clean sheet in Ohio.

That’s one concern for Kansas City. Others: Their goal scorers. Where they have depth (Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, … Claudio Bieler?) they lack the kind of quality you envision winning a one-on-one battles with Jose Goncalves. No, that’s not the only way to score goals, but it does illustrate Sporting’s problem. Graham Zusi can create as many chances as he wants in front of the line (and tonight, expect New England to be better about containing that), but unless somebody steps up to finish, it’s all for naught. Sporting’s left relying on penalty area chaos that finds the likes of Collin.

This isn’t the type of game Kansas City likes to play, but champions have to succeed outside their comfort zone. Sporting need to implement a plan that creates better chances. Instead of protecting a lead, they have to be able to hunt one, because tonight at Sporting Park, they may get a taste of their own medicine.

  • This is where style could hurt.

Beyond a want to sit on leads, one of Sporting’s distinct characteristics is their, umm, “strategic physicality”. Another way to read that: Fouls. They pulled away from the pack as the league’s most foul prone team, and while that tendency wasn’t in full effect on Saturday, the game did feature seven cards.

Here’s a problem for KC: What if the whistles aren’t going their way? What if the cards start flying early, Rosell, Nagamura,and Collin can’t take their usual liberties, and they’re left trying to keep New England on two without the ability to play to their strengths? All of a sudden, the likes to Agudelo, Rowe, and Nguyen are going to seem particularly quick.

Or, what happens if they keep picking up yellow cards? Those inevitable accumulation suspensions aren’t going to hurt them in the next round?

While we’re throwing out theories as to why Kansas City’s can’t translate regular season success into postseason glory, this is part of the picture. Maybe it’s not about total whistles and cards, but maybe it’s about a physical approach that’s much better suited to playing from ahead. And in the postseason, against better teams, you’re just more likely to fall behind.

  • Obligatory note about history.

About those postseason problems:

  • In 2010, Sporting finished first in the regular season, got by Colorado in the conference semifinals but lost at home to Houston in the East’s title game.
  • In 2011, Sporting finished first in the East and lost in the conference semifinals to Houston.
  • In 2012, they return home down 2-1 after leg one in New England.

It’s time to reverse the trend.

1 – Thanks to a reader’s comment, below, we were reminded (a.) we went too fast, and (b.) didn’t note Lawrence Olum’s injury. The man’s done for the season. Thanks to dreadpirate82 to picking up a mistake we should have caught before posting the story.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern Munich wins 27th German title in style

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Make it five in-a-row and a record 27 titles for German powers Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Sunderland relegated ]

No other club has won more than Nurnberg’s nine titles, while Borussia Dortmund (8), Schalke (7), and Hamburg (6) are deep in the rear view mirror.


Wolfsburg 0-6 Bayern Munich

Bayern entered the day knowing a win would put the title out of reach for RB Leipzig, and David Alaba scored before the match was 20 minutes old to put the Bavarians on their way.

Robert Lewandowski added to the score line twice before half, passing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund) atop the goal scoring chart with his 27th and 28th of the season.

Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, and Joshua Kimmich contributed second half goals.

Here’s Lewandowski’s first.

RB Leipzig 0-0 Ingolstadt

Despite a 15-6 advantage in shot attempts and three times as many passes completed, RB Leipzig cast aside its slim chances for a Bundesliga title. Still, a shot at second in their first season is far from a shame.

Elsewhere
Bayer Leverkusen 1-4 Schalke – Friday
Borussia Dortmund 0-0 Koln
Werder Bremen 2-0 Hertha Berlin – Bartels, Kruse score
Mainz 1-2 Borussia Monchengladbach – Schulz scores winner
Darmstadt 3-0 Freiburg – 3rd-straight W for basement dwellers
Augsburg vs. Hamburg – 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Hoffenheim vs. Eintracht Frankfurt – 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 31 22 7 2 79 17 62 11-4-0 11-3-2 73
 RB Leipzig 31 19 6 6 56 31 25 12-2-2 7-4-4 63
 Borussia Dortmund 31 16 9 6 65 35 30 11-4-0 5-5-6 57
 1899 Hoffenheim 30 14 13 3 57 32 25 10-5-0 4-8-3 55
 Hertha BSC Berlin 31 14 4 13 38 37 1 12-1-2 2-3-11 46
 Werder Bremen 31 13 6 12 52 51 1 8-1-7 5-5-5 45
 SC Freiburg 31 13 5 13 38 55 -17 9-1-5 4-4-8 44
 1. FC Köln 31 10 12 9 43 37 6 7-6-2 3-6-7 42
 Mönchengladbach 31 12 6 13 41 45 -4 7-3-5 5-3-8 42
 FC Schalke 04 31 11 8 12 43 36 7 8-4-4 3-4-8 41
 Eintracht Frankfurt 30 11 8 11 32 34 -2 7-6-2 4-2-9 41
 Bayer Leverkusen 31 10 6 15 44 50 -6 5-5-6 5-1-9 36
 FSV Mainz 05 31 9 6 16 40 51 -11 6-4-6 3-2-10 33
 VfL Wolfsburg 31 9 6 16 30 49 -19 5-2-9 4-4-7 33
 Hamburger SV 30 9 6 15 30 55 -25 7-3-5 2-3-10 33
 FC Augsburg 30 8 8 14 29 49 -20 4-5-6 4-3-8 32
 FC Ingolstadt 04 31 8 5 18 33 54 -21 4-3-8 4-2-10 29
 Darmstadt 31 7 3 21 26 58 -32 6-3-7 1-0-14 24

Crystal Palace 0-2 Burnley: Clarets finally claim road win

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  • Barnes scores in 8th minute
  • Gray nabs substitute goal
  • Clarets eight points clear of drop
  • Palace one point behind Burnley

It took 18 tries, but Burnley’s first road win of the season came at a very good time.

Ashley Barnes‘ early goal sent Burnley over Crystal Palace in Saturday’s game at Selhurst Park and on the table with a 2-0 win.

Andre Gray came off the bench to finish the scoring in the 85th minute.

Burnley rises to 14th place with 39 points, one ahead of now 16th place Palace.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Palace was on the front foot for the first five minutes, but Burnley found the opener when Ashley Barnes couldn’t redirect Stephen Ward‘s with his cross first touch but kept the ball at his feet long enough to score through Wayne Hennessey‘s legs.

The game was delayed when James Tarkowski was hit in the head with a projectile during the celebration, but was able to stay in the game.

Wilfried Zaha was wrongly ruled offside on a break which would’ve given a penalty to Palace had the flag not been raised before Tom Heaton took down Zaha.

Barnes had a second goal taken back for a handball after he settled the ball with his arm before beating Hennessey low.

The Clarets were tricky to break down. On one sequence after the half-hour mark, Burnley smothered space until Patrick Van Aanholt‘s shot from the left was blocked away from danger.

Luka Milivojević fired a prime shot wide of the frame in the 36th minute.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Clarets were stout after the break, and Palace’s effective wingmen Zaha and Andros Townsend remained lively but grew frustrated by aggressive treatment from Burnley.

Damien Delaney hit a classy side volley on goal in the 65th minute that Heaton palmed out for a corner, which Burnley handled well.

Sam Allardyce swapped Benteke for Loic Remy in the 71st minute, and brought on Fraizer Campbell for James McArthur.

Sam Vokes turned and burned to get a break on Hennessey, but his third touch was a problem and Martin Kelly slid to force a Burnley corner.

Jon Flanagan caused penalty shouts for Palace when he jabbed his leg between Zaha’s and was adjudged to have caught ball.

That’s when Sean Dyche brought Andre Gray into the game for Barnes.

Remy cued up Zaha for a curling rip in the 81st, but Matthew Lowton blocked it over the goal.

Gray raced onto a long ball in the 85th minute, curling his finish around Hennessey to cement the three points.

Five games to go: What remains for Chelsea, Tottenham?

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Crunch time has arrived.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With five games remaining for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League it is Chelsea who sit at the top of the table, four points clear of their London rivals.

Both teams play on Sunday with Chelsea heading to Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) and Tottenham hosting Arsenal (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in the North London Derby.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule

The gap could be down to just one point 24 hours from now but both teams have vastly different paths in the final weeks of the season with Spurs facing tough tasks and Chelsea handed a very favorable schedule.

That said, Tottenham are in better form with eight wins on the spin and Chelsea’s shaky defensively displays suggest there could be plenty of twists and turns ahead.

Below is a look at the final run-in for the two title contenders as Jenna Corrado and I predict the outcome of the title race.


CHELSEA

TOTTENHAM

Championship playoff contenders all but confirmed

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It was a pivotal day in England’s second-tier as the four playoff teams set to battle it out for a place in the Premier League have all but been confirmed.

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After the results in the penultimate weekend Huddersfield Town, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday are definitely in the playoffs (where they will finish in the standings is still up in the air) and Fulham have all but joined them after they drew 1-1 with Brentford at Craven Cottage.

That means they’re three points clear of Leeds United who are seventh and they also have a goal differential of +27 to Leeds’ +14. So, there needs to be a 13 goal swing on the final day of the Championship season for Leeds to finish above Fulham and nick the final playoff spot.

Yup. Not going to happen…

For fans of U.S. Soccer there will be plenty of intrigued in these playoffs as USMNT players Danny Williams (Reading) and Tim Ream (Fulham) will feature, plus German-American manager David Wagner has guided Huddersfield to the top six in his first full season in charge of the Terriers.

The two-legged playoff semifinals will take place after the regular season ends on May 5 and then the winners of those semifinals will compete in the Championship playoff final, known as the richest game in soccer, at Wembley on May 26 for a place in the Premier League.

Below is a look at the Championship table with one round of games to go as Brighton (already promoted automatically to the PL along with Newcastle) can seal the title with a win against Bristol City late on Saturday.