What we learned at MLS Cup about Sporting Kansas City

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A few take-aways from Sporting Kansas City’s side on the clubs’ MLS Cup triumph Saturday over Real Salt Lake at Sporting Park:

  • Jimmy Nielsen is good at penalty kicks, too

Nick Rimando’s uncanny ability to turn away spot shots is something close to legend in MLS. So when the clock struck 120 and moved toward the penalty spot, the inclination was to believe RSL had the edge. Maybe a big one.

But clearly SKC keeper Jimmy Nielsen knows a thing or two about penalty kicks, too. He saved one straight away (and watched another one fly well high), putting the visitors in position to chase the score through the early rounds. Later Nielsen guessed correctly on Sebastien Velasquez, cradling the young RSL shooter’s attempt and adding pressure on RSL shooters once again.

  • Claudio Bieler misses his share

Claudio Bieler came close to scoring. Then again, everyone came close to scoring in a match where blown opportunities were a big part of the bitterly cold night.

The problem for Bieler is that he gets paid to score goals, and paid quite well as a Designated Player.

At least he got a chance Saturday, which wasn’t always the case in the 2013 playoffs. Young striker Dom Dwyer once again got the start over the much-better compensated Argentine veteran, but wasn’t getting much done against RSL’s highly effective center backs. So in came Bieler in the 72nd minute, and it didn’t take him long to find some room in front of RSL goal.

His 79th minute blast from about 14 yards, a sweet little pass from left back Seth Sinovic rolled nicely along the ground, flew well high.

When the euphoria dies down on Sporting KC’s big achievement, what happens going forward with Bieler will once again be a big talker around SKC supporters.

  • Graham Zusi eventually finds some spaces

One of the night’ stop individual battles happened along Sporting KC’s left flank, where U.S. international Graham Zusi and almost-international Tony Beltran went at it. Beltran won his share of skirmishes early, but Zusi was causing trouble after the break and into the extra time.

Even as Zusi began finding spaces, isolating Beltran one-on-one by pulling out wider, the RSL right back made Kansas City’s U.S. international work. Zusi was honest in his defensive duties, never failing to get back and assist left back Seth Sinovic.

  • Kansas City as a big-time sports town

The weather was bone-chilling, but you could not tell it from the crowd. The seats were packed well before kickoff, and no one left, even as temperatures dropped into the teens. Clearly, this is a great sports town.

In fact, one of the week’s really cool moments came with Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid talked about Sporting KC and wished the soccer team luck.

“This is an incredible sports town,” a Champagne-drenched Peter Vermes said after the game. “The fans have had their downs for many years but they keep supporting their teams. From our perspective, we’re happy to reward them for the support they have continued to show through thick and thin. It’s an exciting time for the city and an exciting time for Sporting.”

  • Oriol Rosell’s injury hurt Sporting KC

So much was happening during an eventful championship that it’s easy to forget this: Sporting had to play most of the match without injured, starting defensive midfielder Oriol Rosell.

Rosell suffered a sprained ankle and had to leave after just eight minutes. When Lawrence Olum entered the match, his was the earliest substitution in MLS history.

Olum had not played since Nov. 3, missing three matches in the interim. Either way, he’s not as effective in the position as Rosell, a crafty Spaniard who was Vermes’ starter at the position from Day 1 in 2013.

As a result, Paulo Nagamura had to drop in and play a little more defensively, which usually meant one fewer man joining the attack for Sporting KC.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.