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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.

VIDEO: Alejandro Bedoya’s first MLS goal was a delicious chip

Alejandro Bedoya, Philadelphia Union (Photo credit: Philadelphia Union / Twitter: @PhilaUnion)
Photo credit: Philadelphia Union / Twitter: @PhilaUnion
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Good things come to those who wait.

Alejandro Bedoya has been very patient in waiting for his first MLS goal after making his summer transfer to the Philadelphia Union. 547 minutes — not too terribly long, honestly — is all it took the U.S. national team midfielder to bag the first stateside club goal, and it proved more than worth the wait on Saturday.

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Goalkeeper Clint Irwin was precisely 3.5 yards off his line as Bedoya dribbled into space down the right side of the penalty area, 20 yards from goal and closing. At 18 yards out, Bedoya went for goal.

The obvious choice is to put your right foot through the ball, and hit it low and inside the far post. Bedoya had something else — something much more audacious and delightful — on his mind.

Take. A. Bow.

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid falter; Barcelona score 5 (again) without Messi

GIJON, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona celebrates with his teammate Neymar of FC Barcelona after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between Real Sporting de Gijon and FC Barcelona at Estadio El Molinon on September 24, 2016 in Gijon, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

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Las Palmas 2-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid remain top of La Liga, but their lead was reduce from three points to one on Saturday. Up 2-1 heading into the games final 20 minutes, Zinedine Zidane elected to pull Cristiano Ronaldo off the field in the 72nd minute — much to the Portuguese’s displeasure. Zidane then watched as his side conceded an 85th-minute equalizer and ultimately settled for a draw.

Marco Asensio put Los Blancos ahead in the 33rd minute, but Las Palmas answered through Tana in the 38th minute, making it 1-1 at halftime. Karim Benzema scored what looked to be the winner in the 67th minute, but Sergio Araujo pegged the league leaders back once more with five minutes of regular time remaining.

Sporting Gijon 0-5 Barcelona

No Lionel Messi, no problem for Barcelona, who still have those Luis Suarez and Neymar guys. Without the world’s undisputed best player on Saturday, the dynamic duo combined to score three goals — two more than Barca would need on the day — as the Blaugrana scored five or more goals for the third time in six league games this season.

Rafinha and Arda Turan — decent enough players in their own right — bagged the other goals, and just like that, Barca capitalized on the points dropped by Madrid.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Real Sociedad
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Sevilla

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Leganes vs. Valencia — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs Deportivo La Coruña — 10:15 a.m. ET
Villarreal vs. Osasuna — 12:30 p.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Celta Vigo — 2:45 p.m. ET


Palermo 0-1 Juventus

Juve won for the fifth time in six games this season, but needed an own goal from Palermo’s Edoardo Goldaniga to do so. The game was scoreless at halftime, before the 22-year-old center back shanked his clearance of Dani Alves’s cross past Josip Posavec and into his own net for the game’s only goal in the 49th minute. That’s 15 points from six games for Juve, who remain top of Serie A by a point.

Napoli 2-0 Chievo

Marek Hamsik and Manolo Gabbiadini scored goals 15 minutes apart in the first half to propel Napoli to their fourth win of the season — to go with a pair of draws — and retain their place as the last remaining unbeaten side in the league. Napoli sit a point back of Juve for the league lead, and four points clear of everyone else alraedy. It’ll be a two-horse race for the title, then.

 

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Torino vs. Roma — 6:30 a.m. ET
Genoa vs. Pescara — 9 a.m. ET
Inter Milan vs. Bologna — 9 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Empoli — 9 a.m. ET
Sassuolo vs. Udinese — 9 a.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. AC Milan — 2:45 p.m. ET

PL Sunday preview: West Ham, desperate to end skid, host Southampton

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Dimitri Payet of West Ham United celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The 2016-17 Premier League season wasn’t supposed to be like for West Ham United. After moving into their new home, the repurposed Olympic Stadium in London, this year was meant to be about building on top of last season’s seventh-place finish, which saw them in the top-four race until the final days of the campaign.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Fast forward four months, and Slaven Bilic‘s men have just one win from five games this season and find themselves 18th in the league table heading into Sunday’s clash with Southampton (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Home form (one win, one loss) has only been slightly better for the Hammers’ form away from home, where they’re 0-for-3 thus far. Michail Antonio has five goals this season, joint-top in the PL, all of which have been scored via headers.

Early-season fortunes have been only marginally better for Saints, having won five points from their first five games of the season. Manager Claude Puel got his first PL victory last weekend, though, over Swansea City, as his side notched its first clean sheet of the season.

[ MORE: Saturday roundup — Arsenal thrash Chelsea; City, Liverpool win big ]

Following another summer of key departures in the transfer market (Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle), one can’t help but wonder how many more times the south coast can reload at the top of its squad without a noticeable falling-off, even if for just one season. Through five games, Saints have scored just four goals, including one own goal — Charlie Austin, Nathan Redmond and Jay Rodriguez the scorers. European qualification looks a long way off from 15th place, where they currently stand, and even farther off from Saints’ early-season performances.

INJURIES: West Ham OUT: Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (knee), Diafra Sakho (back), Aaron Cresswell (knee) | Southampton OUT: Sofiane Boufal (knee)

Furious Conte has huge challenge to transform Chelsea

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LONDON — Antonio Conte almost shook with rage as he addressed the media post-game at the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

The Italian manager isn’t used to losing games.

In fact, Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday was the first time since 2009 that he’s lost two-straight league games as a manager. All is not well.

Speaking after the game, Conte’s voice became louder and louder as he discussed Chelsea now being a “great team only on the paper” and not on the pitch.

“We must work a lot. If someone thinks this season it is easy, we must work a lot to improve and to change the situation. I think that now we are a great team only on the paper. Not on the pitch,” Conte said. “To be a great team, I prefer to be a great team not only on the paper but also on the pitch because the pitch speaks. The pitch is the truth. The pitch is the most important thing for us. Not the words. Not the paper. We must change this. We must change this. Last season was a bad season. Last season we were a great team on the board. This season we want to be a great team on the pitch but we know there are many difficulties. If we understand this we are in a good position to recover and to change the situation.”

After three wins to open the Premier League season, Chelsea were tipped for great things. After two consecutive defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal we shouldn’t dismiss their title hopes either but Conte is concerned about his teams defensive display once again.

Chelsea has now conceded at least two goals in each of their last four games — a 2-2 draw at Swansea, 2-1 loss against Liverpool, 4-2 win against Leicester in the EFL Cup and the 3-0 hammering at Arsenal — and Conte stood with his arms crossed for most of the first half. He usually charges up and down the line, urging on his players. Not on Saturday. He looked embarrassed by the defensive errors.

Gary Cahill was inexplicably caught in possession by Alexis Sanchez for Arsenal’s first goal and his full backs were dragged out of position on multiple occasions as Branislav Ivanovic had a particularly bad evening. His defenders keep on making huge errors and it is something which has to change if Chelsea is going to challenge for the title this season. Right now John Terry‘s absence through injury is a huge loss as the veteran is by far Chelsea’s best center back.

In the second half of the London derby humbling at Arsenal, things got so bad that Conte changed from a 4-1-4-1 formation to a 3-5-2. That system is one he mastered with Juventus and the Italian national team over the past few years.

As a proud Italian coach who, like many of his countryman, prides himself on having a good defensive organization, Conte was seething with rage when asked if Chelsea were ready to switch to a 3-5-2 system permanently.

“I have to solve the situation. That is the most important thing. The situation is that every game we concede two goals, at a minimum,” Conte said, furiously. “For this reason, three back or two back or four back, I don’t care. It is important to solve the situations. I must find the right solution for this team because in every game we are conceding two goals. I work a lot to find the right solution.”

Conte will try to lift his squad as the Italian manager said the players and management win and lose together, a philosophy he has always had in his playing and coaching days. However, we are getting an increasing sense that he knows he has a huge challenge on his hands to transform Chelsea who are now eight points behind leaders Manchester City after six games of the season.

“The title? I think we must work a lot to find a continuity. I think that now the most important thing is to work and don’t think about other situation,” Conte said. “I repeat, we must show on the pitch to be a great team because Chelsea is a great team on the paper.”

ProSoccerTalk asked Conte about yet another slow start for his side as he bemoaned them throwing the game away in the first half against Arsenal and against Liverpool last Friday.

Why this is happening?

“I was a footballer and it happens in one game. It can happen,” Conte said. “You don’t have a good performance for many reasons. I hope to improve this situation because this is the second consecutive defeat after Liverpool. They are great teams, Liverpool and Arsenal. We must reflect on this because we had two defeats in two big games. For this reason we must be humble and understand the moment. To understand we need to work a lot and improve to change our story.”