MLS playoff focus: Notes on Sporting KC ahead of Saturday’s first leg against Houston

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Ahead of Saturday’s first leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)

  • Aurelien Collin destined to score in the series?

As a center back, Aurelien Collin’s main mission is to make life miserable for opposition attackers. And he’s pretty good at it. Not just because Sporting had the league’s best defensive record this year (30 goals allowed in 34 games), but because he’s a real stinker at getting under his opponent’s skin.

Meanwhile, goals are a bonus for defenders – even if it doesn’t look that way lately for Sporting Kansas City’s French antagonist. Heck, it almost seems like he’s destined to score in this two-game series.

Collin (pictured) scored his team’s lone goal earlier this year as SKC snapped the Dynamo’s record 36-game home unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sporting was the first team to win in Houston since June of 2011, so that was a big strike for the irascible SKC veteran.

Collin has also scored twice in the 2013 playoffs, once in each of the club’s two matches in the just-completed home-and-away series against New England. His 69th-minute goal at the far post last weekend outside of Boston was nothing short of massive, even if SKC lost that night. It allowed his club to return to Sporting Park with a one-goal deficit, physhologically so much better than a two-goal margin to make up.

Collin opened the scoring just before halftime of Wednesday’s return leg.

(MORE: PST match preview, Sporting KC at Houston)

  • Yellow card warning for SKC

Three-fourths of Sporting Kansas City’s back line is on yellow card warning and would miss the return leg with a booking Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium. That’s hardly a surprise considering notoriously physical KC led the league in fouls and bookings this year. Still, this is surely a concern and could certainly influence Saturday’s contest at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Right back Chance Myers, left back Seth Sinovic, center back Aurelien Collin and forward Teal Bunbury all collected one caution in the two-game set against New England.

Two yellow cards in the playoffs means the offender sits out the following match. By MLS rules, however, if a player collects his second post-season booking in the second-leg of the conference finals, he will not miss the MLS Cup final.

  • Claudio Bieler? No problems here!

The curious case of Argentine forward Claudio Bieler gets more strange by the day.

He didn’t even travel last week for Sporting Kansas City’s road match to open the playoffs, at New England. That’s a pretty significant development for a Designated Player. So it fueled speculation that Bieler had found a spot in Vermes’ doghouse, perhaps for returning from recent injury out of shape.

Or, it could have just been that Bieler didn’t score enough after a hot start in his first year at Sporting Park, and that management was trying to run him off. Before Wednesday’s overtime strike, Bieler had not scored since Sept. 7 (and that was on a penalty kick). Dom Dwyer and Bunbury have gotten Bieler’s minutes since then.

Bieler didn’t start in Wednesday’s return leg – but did get in the game off the bench and help decide the series with a late goal. So, is there a problem? Manager Peter Vermes was asked about it Friday in a national teleconference.

He said there was no problem. Everything was fine.

Nothing to see here, folks. So just move along.

(MORE: What we learned from Sporting Kansas City’s win over New England)

Spurs’ Kane: Draw at Real “shows how far we’ve come”

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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After pressuring Raphael Varane into an own goal, Spurs striker Harry Kane saw Keylor Navas make an outstanding late stop to ensure a 1-1 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.

“I thought I did everything right, I opened my body, I put the ball where I wanted to and he made a very good save,” Kane said.

[ RECAP: Real 1-1 Spurs ]

While the red-hot Kane sure would’ve liked to find the match-winner, he knows what Spurs just achieved in Spain against the back-to-back UEFA Champions League winners.

And that, he says, is pleasing. From the BBC:

“We are happy. Of course they are going to have chances but we played well and made it tough for them. A point at Bernabeu, you would take that every day of the week. It shows how far we have come as a team.”

Kane is right, this Spurs side looks far more self-assured than its predecessor. It shows the process of learning to compete in the UCL.

The return date at Wembley Stadium is Nov. 1, where a point would all but seal Spurs’ spot in the knockout rounds thanks to Borussia Dortmund’s stunning 1-1 draw at APOEL Nicosia.

Real Madrid 1-1 Spurs: Lovely Lloris!

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An error from each time in its own box and outstanding goalkeeping gave Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid a 1-1 draw in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday at the Bernabeu. (video)

Raphael Varane recorded a 28th minute own goal, but Serge Aurier gave away a penalty as Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for Real Madrid at home in the 43rd minute.

Hugo Lloris and Keylor Navas were the stars of the show, with Lloris making the lion’s share of saves.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Both teams are well-positioned to advance, with seven points. Spurs have the tiebreaker advantage, but both Tottenham and Real are six points clear of Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia after a surprising draw in Cyprus.

Early nerves were apparent for Mauricio Pochettino‘s men, but Tottenham grew into the game and took an early lead.

Concerned with the presence of Harry Kane, Real defender Raphael Varane saw a cross move off his pegs and behind Keylor Navas to put Spurs ahead.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The lead was short-lived, however, as Spurs back Serge Aurier cut short Toni Kroos’ rare foray into the 18, and Ronaldo buried the ensuing penalty kick.

Lloris made an outstanding save on a point-blank Karim Benzema header in the 54th minute.

A moment later, offside Ronaldo flashed a sitter over the goal before the whistle alerted viewers to his offense.

Ronaldo had another chance stymied by Lloris as Real really began to pile on pressure past the hour mark.

Kane had a 71st minute chance against the run of play off a gorgeous pass from Fernando Llorente, but Navas got low quickly to redirect Kane’s point-blank shot wide of the far post.

Navas made another save when Llorente cued up Christian Eriksen for a chance, and the Dane then sent in a corner that led to a Davinson Sanchez’s header wide of goal.

Llorente was quite good in the second half in this surprise two-striker move from Mauricio Pochettino, and the Spurs boss also deployed Danny Rose for a season debut off the bench.

Man City 2-1 Napoli: Early goals stand up

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Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored early, and Ederson stopped one of two penalty kicks as Manchester City held off Napoli 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

Amadou Diawara converted Napoli’s second PK after Dries Mertens saw his effort saved.

Napoli is six points back of Group F leading City, and three behind Shakhtar Donetsk.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Raheem Sterling was near the spot to blast an open rebound past Pepe Reina in the ninth minute.

Then Kevin De Bruyne swept an incisive pass into the six for Gabriel Jesus to slot home, giving Man City a 2-0 lead in the 13th minute.

Kyle Walker saw yellow after giving a penalty kick in the 37th minute, and Napoli star Dries Mertens had his chance to pull one back denied by Ederson.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

John Stones‘ impressive growth at City continued when he slid to stop Marek Hamsik from testing Ederson in the second half.

Fernando took down Faouzi Ghoulam to give Napoli a second penalty kick, and this time it was converted thanks not to Mertens, but Diawara.

Maribor 0-7 Liverpool: Reds finally finish

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Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool has been frustrated on English soil, and let loose its misery on Maribor with a 7-0 win in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday.

Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah nabbed braces, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Philippe Coutinho also scored for the Reds.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Liverpool finishes the day atop Group E thanks to Spartak Moscow’s blowout of visiting Sevilla.

The Reds took a 3-0 lead before the match was 20 minutes old, and led 4-0 at the break at Ljudski Vrt in Slovenia.