Rio Tinto-RSL

MLS playoff preview: LA Galaxy take slim lead into Thursday’s Western Conference semifinal second leg

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  • The LA Galaxy won the first leg, 1-0
  • Real Salt Lake has some history of not getting the job done at home in big games
  • Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan drive the Galaxy’s potent counter attack
  • The Galaxy is bidding for a record third consecutive MLS championship
  • If the teams are level on total goals at the end of 90 minutes, a 30-minute overtime will decide the series, followed by penalty kicks if necessary

Creeping doubt can be a terrible thing. When it comes to the LA Galaxy’s visit Thursday to Rio Tinto Stadium for a concluding playoff leg against Real Salt Lake, you have to wonder if one of the sides will succumb to it? Because both of these talented Western Conference sides have something to feel good about … but a little something to fear, too.

The two-time defending champion LA Galaxy takes a tenuous 1-0 lead into Thursday’s second leg of the Western Conference semifinal. Thursday’s winner from Rio Tinto (pictured above) advances into the conference final against Seattle or Portland.

Real Salt Lake has some disquieting history when it comes to these big deciders at home. That goes all the way back to a notorious (well, from RSL’s side it was notorious) 1-0 loss to New York back in 2008, just days after the stadium opened. Jason Kreis’ team was all over New York, pinging three of its 24 shots off the post but eventually falling and missing out on a trip to MLS Cup.

[MORE: MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Thursday’s second leg against the LA Galaxy]

The big crusher came a few years later when RSL missed out on a bid for meaningful history by not finishing the job at home. That came in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final. In need of a draw against Mexico’s Monterrey to claim the crown and play in the fancy FIFA Club World Cup, RSL fell at Rio Tinto, 1-0.

Even this year, RSL lost inside its swell ground at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in the U.S. Open Cup final. (Even worse yet, they lost that match to D.C. United, which just finished with the poorest record ever in Major League Soccer regular season play.)

Overall, Real Salt Lake has hosted eight elimination matches (MLS playoffs or cup competitions) at Rio Tinto Stadium, having advanced in just two of them.

Kreis has refused to talk about it. Team captain Kyle Beckerman did:

“For us, the way I look at it, you’ve got to keep putting yourself in those positions to play those games,” the RSL veteran midfielder said. “We’re doing something good to keep getting these games and getting an opportunity to win on our home soil. … We know there’s still a lot to play for, so I think we’re really excited to get another chance to advance in a game that’s played at our place.”

That meager history for the home side is likely to land as cold comfort to the visitors, the two-time defending MLS Cup champions whose bid for a historic three-peat (it would be Major League Soccer’s first) now dangles in the balance. It does so because the Galaxy could not convert more chances in the weekend opener at the StubHub Center.

[MORE: MLS playoff focus: Notes on the LA Galaxy ahead of Thursday’s second leg against Real Salt Lake]

The Galaxy counter attack was synched up wonderfully, the movement from Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan right in time. The finishing, on the other hand …

“I don’t think that Robbie and Landon will ever miss that many chances again,” Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “It’s a positive how many chances that they did get, but I think that they’ll finish a few of those on Thursday.”

source: AP
Major League Soccer’s all-time leading playoff scorer Landon Donovan.

But will they get all those chances? It just hasn’t happened that way for the Galaxy on the road this year. And that stands as the vulnerable spot for Bruce Arena’s team Thursday.

The Galaxy was just 4-9-4 on the road this year, matching Montreal for worst mark among MLS playoff teams. Take away one of those “road” wins, a victory over Chivas USA in the building the teams share, and Arena’s club was no better than 3-9-4 outside the StubHub Center this year. One of those wins came in Utah, at least; that was back in April, a 2-0 win at Rio Tinto.

Since then, however, Kreis’ men posted a commanding 3-1 win over the Galaxy at home, this one in June.

Beckerman warned that his team could not afford to lose sight of the big picture, one that says his team needs just one goal to pull level in this one. To do so, to panic and get rash about creating chances without careful game management, is to invite danger against the Galaxy counter.

“We’ll try to put some high pressure, but I don’t feel like we’re going to have to score like we have to score in the opening 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “It’s a 90 minute game and we’ll have time to get a goal to send it into overtime or whatever we need.  It’ll be key to not get caught up and give up opportunities for them to counter. We know that I’ll happen, but if we can limit their chances it’ll help our chances for sure.”

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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