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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.

Why Mourinho needs Zlatan to stay at Man United

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United congratulates Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Following Manchester United’s EFL Cup Final victory on Sunday, Jose Mourinho laughed off a question about Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season.

He shouldn’t be laughing. He should be taking this situation very seriously. United need Zlatan. End of.

[ MORE: United, Mourinho get lucky

Ibrahimovic, 35, scored twice in the 3-2 win against Southampton at Wembley, including the game-winner with a late header, to hand Mourinho his first piece of major silverware as United’s boss. The veteran Swedish striker has now scored 26 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, including six in his last four games.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

The incredible stats aside, his impact and influence on this team is clear for all to see. That’s why Zlatan needs to remain at United for at least one more season, and he could probably go for longer. That said, he isn’t giving anything away about where he will be next season.

“We have another two months of the season to go,” Ibrahimovic said. “Let’s see how I feel, the situation. Somebody made up a story that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League I will not extend. It has nothing to do with that.”

Mourinho thinks otherwise.

“One day, Zlatan decided to [leave me and Inter Milan to join] Barcelona, I was very sad, but I did nothing to try to stop him to go, so I don’t beg for players,” Mourinho said. “But, if needed, maybe United fans can go to the door of his house, and stay there all night, if needed. We all want, and believe, that he is going to stay another season.”

It simply has to happen.

Zlatan has a contract until this summer with United with an option to extend it for another year. Mourinho has suggested in the past Zlatan will stay but we’ve never had too much of a definitive answer from the player himself.

Right now, aside from his play on the pitch, Zlatan is having a massive impact on the confidence and belief levels of his teammates. He has scored the game-winner on eight occasions this season and comparisons are being made about Eric Cantona and the impact he had.

Zlatan’s aura is helping United win games at the moment and even at the age of 35 he has played more Premier League minutes than any other United outfield player, plus he’s played in more games this season, in all competitions, than any other PL player.

He can play until he is 40. Mourinho said it last week and he’s right. Zlatan doesn’t rely on pace to play the game. He has power, panache and predatory instincts in abundance.

With United’s creative talents and other pacey forwards, he not only brings the best out of them on the pitch but off it too. Mourinho clerly needs to rebuild parts of his defense to take United from top four hopefuls to title contenders next season and beyond, but without Zlatan’s goals this season they’d be in midtable.

United and Mourinho need Zlatan to stay next season. He knows it. He’s playing the game.

It would be a huge shock to see him anywhere other than Old Trafford next season. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him score the winner for United in the FA Cup and Europa League final this season, and then lead them to even greater glories next season and beyond. After his latest trophy, the 22nd of his playing career, Zlatan revealed he keeps all of his medals in one of his houses. He was also asked if United are building something special under Mourinho?

“I came. That’s special,” Ibrahimovic said.

Anyone who doubted Zlatan’s ability last summer ahead of his move to the Premier League will be scratching their heads. Like United right now, he seems to always find a way to score goals and get the job done. In that sense, Mourinho needs him to be the focal point of United’s attack for as long as Zlatan can play.

And also. He’s, well, Zlatan. In this mammoth rebuild of a roster and self-belief, he’s the X-Factor Mourinho can’t do without.

 

Premier League Preview: Leicester vs. Liverpool

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  James Milner of Liverpool and Danny Drinkwater of Leicester City compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 2, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • First game after Ranieri’s sacking
  • Leicester in relegation zone
  • Liverpool can move 11 points behind Chelsea

Struggling Leicester City host Liverpool at the King Power Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Foxes in freefall and without a manager.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Following Claudio Ranieri‘s firing last week the reigning champs are in desperate need of a marquee win to drag themselves out of the relegation zone. Ranieri’s former assistant Craig Shakespeare is in caretaker charge but he has a big task on his hand as Leicester have lost five-straight games in the PL, failing to score in any of their last six.

As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp‘s men beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 last time out and have enjoyed a two week break from action which should see them re-energized for the final 13 games of the season.

In team news Leicester will give late fitness tests to Islam Slimani and Leonardo Ulloa, while Liverpool will reportedly be without captain Jordan Henderson who is said to have suffered a foot injury in training. Plus Daniel Sturridge and Dejan Lovren could also miss out for the Reds.


What they’re saying

Leicester’s goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel on reports of a player revolt against Ranieri: “There is absolutely no truth in that whatsoever. We are players and can only affect on the pitch and we haven’t done that. What happens above our heads at boardroom level is completely out of our control… We are footballers and have a responsibility to perform on the pitch and we haven’t lived up to that. That’s the blame we take but anything else, that’s completely out of our control.”

Jurgen Klopp on Adam Lallana signing a new deal: “For me it was clear we had to try everything to keep a player like him. He is a very important player for us. I heard when I came in what a lot of people had said about him before I came in, but I actually only knew him from Southampton. Since I’ve been here he has been a really important player for all our development steps which we made — not only for him personally. I have a lot of time together with the players but I am not in the dressing room so you need to have players there too and he is one of them.”

Prediction

With everything going on at Leicester, it will be intriguing to see what the atmosphere is like from the home fans after Ranieri’s firing. If Liverpool score early, and often, it could turn nasty. I expect both to happen. 4-1 win for Liverpool, just like it was at Anfield back in September, to pile the misery on Leicester.

VIDEO: Wayne Shaw delights fans by eating another pie

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw of Sutton acknowledges the crowd after The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Sutton United and Arsenal at Gander Green Lane on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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On a bus heading to the EFL Cup Final on Sunday was a familiar face to many: Wayne Shaw.

The former Sutton United reserve goalkeeper shot to stardom during the fifth-tier team making it to the last 16 of the FA Cup where they lost 2-0 to Arsenal last Monday.

However, his actions when eating in a pie as an unused sub in the second half of that game sparked investigations by the UK Gambling Commission and the FA after bets were placed at odds of 8-1 on Shaw eating a pie during the game. The day after Sutton’s defeat to Arsenal he resigned.

Shaw, 46, weighs in at over 280 pounds and he has become somewhat of a celebrity, even after #PieGate which saw him lose his job.

It doesn’t seem to be impacting him too much though.

Video has emerged of Shaw, a Southampton fan, heading up to Wembley to watch the EFL Cup final which Saints lost 3-2 to Manchester United.

While on the bus Shaw played up to the crowd who sang songs such as “Get your pasty out!” and “It wasn’t a pie, it was a pasty!” then Shaw acted like a matador, teasing the crowd before pulling out another pasty to chew on.

See the video below for some banter.


PSV goalkeeper scores bizarre own goal

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - DECEMBER 18:  Goalkeeper, Jeroen Zoet of PSV in action during the Eredivisie match between Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven held at Amsterdam Arena on December 18, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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If you’re having a rough Monday morning, things could always be worse.

You could be PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet.

[ MORE: United, Mourinho lucky

On Sunday PSV’s goalkeeper scored one of the most bizarre own goals ever as he stopped a shot on the line in the 82nd minute, then as he pulled the ball into his chest while on the floor he actually carried the ball over the line.

The Goal Decision System (GDS) awarded the game-winning goal and the reigning Dutch champs lost 2-1 to Feyenoord who are the current Eredivise leaders and stretched their lead over third-place PSV to 11 points.

Take a look at the video below to see the monumental error, as the video replay showed that all of the ball was about one blade of grass over the line.

Fine margins indeed…