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After strong first legs, can MLS teams advance in Champions League?

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Two wins and a draw. Had you asked MLS fans before this week’s CONCACAF Champions League action, they’d probably be elated. Fans know how difficult it’s been to compete with Mexico’s best. Real Salt Lake’s run in the 2010-11 tournament still serves as MLS’s bright spot since the tournament’s rebrand.

For this week to serve as more than a moral victory, though, MLS’s three survivors need to get something out of Mexico. For Sporting Kansas City and LA Galaxy, both up 1-0 after their first legs with Cruz Azul and Tijuana (respectively), clean sheets will get them through. Having held their opponents without a crucial away goal, though, each can take a major step toward the final four if they score in Mexico. Whether it be a shut out or a score, both teams will need something next week.

San Jose’s road is more difficult, but thanks to Alan Gordon’s 95th minute “Gonnie-ism” in Santa Clara, Mark Watson’s team has a chance. The 1-1 result against visiting Toluca was a minor set back (giving the Diablos Rojos that potentially crucial away goal), but one score on the road would immediately shift the scales.

(CCL Results: San Jose 1-1 Toluca | Sporting KC 1-0 Cruz Azul | LA Galaxy 1-0 Tijuana)

Here’s where Major League Soccer’s trio stands after leg one, what we learned in the process, and heir chances to advance to the semifinals after next week’s second legs in Mexico.

Best chance: LA Galaxy (up 1-0; leg two at Tijuana on Tuesday)

Bruce Arena’s team used an early Samuel goal and second half heroics from Jaime Penedo to take a 1-0 lead at on Wednesday night. Though the Galaxy gave up significantly more chances than their opponents, last year’s acquisition of their Panamanian international paid off. Perhaps the Galaxy can’t depend on Penedo stealing results every night, but on Wednesday, it worked.

The good news for LA: They’ll likely play better on Tuesday. Hopefully, they won’t seem so work down in the second half. They also have the least travel, won’t be playing at altitude (unlike their MLS partners), and are arguably facing the worst team. Though Tijuana is talented, they’re not one of the top teams in Liga MX’s current tournament (eight out of 18).

One PST reader took exception to the description after last night’s action, but winning 1-0 at home truly is the equivalent of holding serve. Anything less, and you’d be giving something to your opponents. On Wednesday, LA merely did what they were supposed to do.

In that sense, we didn’t get a good idea whether LA or Tijuana is actually the better team. All we know is that LA’s result leaves them with the fewest obstacles for any MLS team on the path to the semifinals.

source: Getty ImagesGood shot: Sporting Kansas City (up 1-0; leg two at Cruz Azul on Wednesday)

The defending MLS champions gave the league’s strongest first leg performance, out-playing Cruz Azul in the first half while limiting the number of chances they gave up in the second. Had Mariano Pavone buried his second half opportunity, Sporting would be sitting in San Jose’s shoes, but thanks to the effort of a former Earthquake defender, Ike Opara, the Cruz Azul attacker couldn’t prevent his team from leaving Kansas with a loss.

Next Wednesday, however, Liga MX’s leaders will be back at Estadio Azul. They’ll be at altitude and playing at a venue where they haven’t lost since September. The last eight opponents to visit La Machina have been outscored 12-3, with Luis Fernando Tena’s team registering at least one goal in each game.

Sporting’s best chance to reach the semifinals would be a clean sheet, but Cruz Azul’s recent history says that’s unlikely. If, however, Sporting can snare a goal, they won’t need a win to move on. The results América (1-1), Toluca (1-1) and Santos Laguna (1-2) have put up during Cruz Azul’s eight-game unbeaten run would be enough to see Sporting into the final four.

Toughest road: San Jose Earthquakes (1-1; at Toluca on Wednesday)

No mystery here: The team with the fewest advantages on the scoreboard has the worst chance of moving on. This job isn’t difficult, folks. I just plug into the machine and let the obvious poor out.

There are other factors that make San Jose’s plight more difficult. They’ll be traveling the longest distance of MLS’s three quarterfinalists. They need to score twice to see the away goals rule work in their favor. They also may face a stronger Toluca side in leg two. Whereas José Cardozo left some of his best players out of his starting XI in Santa Clara, there’s no guarantee he’ll do the same in Mexico.

There is another, more basic reason why San Jose should be seen as a bigger underdog: They may not be as good as Sporting or LA. Between where the teams finished last season and the talent they’ll take into next week’s second legs, the Earthquakes aren’t quite on the same level as their MLS colleagues. Unfortunately, they’re facing a team that sits second in Mexico.

Let’s not get too pessimistic about this, though. What San Jose does well should come in particularly handing in the close games that are more likely to transpire in Champions League. If they can stay within one going into the match’s last stages — if they can take advantage of late defensive substitutes that lead to games being played in their opponent’s end — the Goonies may yet continue on their quest for Champions League gold.

Sean Dyche says Joey Barton should have a TV show

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Joey Barton of Burnley (L) and Matt Rhead of Lincoln City (R) exchange words during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Burnley and Lincoln City at Turf Moor on February 18, 2017 in Burnley, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Burnley manager Sean Dyche says Joey Barton‘s life is chock full of fascinating moments, so much so that he should have his own TV show.

Except when he’s behind closed doors at Burnley, of course. Then he’s a stand up individual. Right, sure.

“It could be a TV series,” Dyche said in his pre-match press conference ahead of an away tilt with Hull City. “Being Joey. It’d be interesting. Never a dull moment.”

But of course, immediately after that, Dyche switched gears. “Unless he’s in here, training with me,” he backtracked. “I think it’s pantomime stuff. I’ve seen a lot more controversy around Joey than that. If that’s as far as it goes, I’ll be a happy man.”

“That” referred to Barton’s embarrassing dive in the FA Cup loss to non-league opponents Lincoln City where the midfielder play-acted after nothing more than a brush of the elbow from Matt Rhead, falling to the ground and clutching his head. Barton was involved in a number of heated moments during that match, adding to his already massive list of controversial moments in a mercurial career.

“Joey’s been terrific,” Dyche said. “I thought by a mile, by an absolute mile, he was the best player on the pitch last weekend. So he’s been absolutely fine. He’s in good nick – as you can see – and he’s definitely up for the challenges that come in front of us.”

But word of Joey Barton apparently hasn’t reached London. A few weeks ago, ahead of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Burnley on February 12th, Blues manager Antonio Conte was asked if he was familiar with Burnley’s squad and Barton in particular – an admittedly leading question – and Conte was unable to give an immediate answer. He instead asked his press officer muttering, “Joey Barton?” under his breath. The press officer embarrassingly tried to save face before Conte stepped back in giving a generic answer that they had already played once and he was familiar with the squad.

Mourinho on Europa League Russia trip: “A bad draw in every way”

HULL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26:  Jose Mourinho manager of Manchester United reacts during the EFL Cup Semi-Final second leg match between Hull City and Manchester United at KCOM Stadium on January 26, 2017 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho is angry.

The Manchester United manager singled out a trip to Russia before the draw as being something he hoped to avoid, and that’s exactly what he got.

“If you give me something like Krasnodar, or some very far destination, I would prefer Lyon – two-hour flight – I would prefer something close,” Mourinho said before the draw on Friday morning.

Sure enough, the Red Devils were drawn not against Krasnodar, but slight farther to fellow Russian side FC Rostov in the Europa League Round of 16, with United set to make the flight to southwestern Russia for a match on March 9th, and then will host Rostov for the second leg on March 16th.

“It is a bad draw in every aspect,” Mourinho said in his post-draw press conference. “It is far and difficult -and comes in a bad period.” That period Mourinho refers to sees the Rostov matches sandwich an FA Cup tie against Chelsea, and precedes an away trip to Middlesbrough in the Premier League before a pair of home matches against West Brom and Everton.

“They beat Ajax and Anderlecht in qualifiers, managed important results against Bayern and Atletico, got third position to knock PSV out,” Mourinho said of Rostov. “The team is very defensive and physical. A bad draw.”

Manchester United’s next match is on Sunday in the EFL Cup final against Southampton. They take host Bournemouth in the Premier League on March 4th, then have the away leg at Rostov five days later, followed by a four-day break until the Chelsea FA Cup match.

Report: Everton had bid rejected for Wayne Rooney in January

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 01: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United applauds supporters during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Hull City at Old Trafford on February 1, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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According to the Daily Mail, Everton submitted a bid for Wayne Rooney in January, which was rejected by Manchester United.

The report did not state an amount of the bid, but it did confirm that the club is now in discussions about returning for their former player in the summer.

Rooney came through the Everton youth system and played for the Merseyside club’s first team from 2002-2004 before his famous move to Manchester United for $37 million. Rooney has seen very limited time this season under Jose Mourinho, and at 31 years old, has looked to have lost the ability to keep up with the standards of the Premier League.

The Liverpool native was the subject of heavy speculation in recent weeks of a move to China, with the Chinese transfer window open until the end of February, but Rooney released a statement to confirm he will stay with Manchester United until the end of the season.

Key to these rumors are Everton manager Ronald Koeman‘s comments from Thursday, when he affirmed his respect for Rooney, claiming the former Toffee can still play at a Premier League standard. “Yeah I think Wayne Rooney is still on that high level to compete in a competition like the Premier League.”

Despite all this, it seems a deal for Rooney is unlikely. Everton is not known as a heavy-spending club, and they would likely need to compete with the money of the Chinese league on both the transfer fee and wage front. Rooney would be worth a heavy investment for a Chinese club due to his big name, while his performances on field would be less important there. In contrast, Everton’s justification for a bid would focus more on his ability to perform consistently on the field, an area of clear decline.

Santi Cazorla details his newest injury setback

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - AUGUST 07: Santi Cazorla of Arsenal during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
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Santi Cazorla hasn’t played since mid-October, and with just 619 minutes of first-team football in the last calendar year, the Spaniard has become more than a liability.

He’s also become increasingly frustrated.

After having ankle surgery in October, Cazorla has faced a multitude of challenges on the sidelines, with his body unwilling to cooperate. He went back under the knife in December, and has returned to the hospital again for yet another procedure, one that refuses to go away as he looks to keep himself as match fit as possible during his time on the sidelines.

Speaking to Spanish radio station Onda Cero, Cazorla gave them all the details – even the cringe-worthy ones – on his ankle problems.

“It was a small operation they just had to close a wound that had opened, so they reopened it and closed it again,” Cazorla said. “It wasn’t anything serious, but that’s why I’m in the hospital. They did a graft about a month and a half ago because the skin on my ankle was practically dead and had developed a wound that wouldn’t close, so they operated in Sweden. It was starting to feel better until I started to do a bit of cycling and other exercise and then the skin broke, opened and the stitches came out so they had to close the wound again. I’ve been injured about a year and a half now since the knee [problem] in November last season and now this year with the ankle injury.

And that’s not all. Aside from his ankle injury, Cazorla’s back has begun to flare up again, a problem he dealt with 2 months ago.

“It’s given me a lot of time to think, especially about the World Cup and how bad my back felt then,” Cazorla said. “My back is even worse now. Back then I was out for about six months and now it has been a year and I’m still not better. But that’s life. You gotta deal with it as best you can. I can’t do much, can’t walk, I have to use crutches and it’s frustrating day after day. But I don’t have any other option, just to deal with it as best I can and get better.”

With Cazorla at 32 years old and his contract set to expire this June, this most recent setback couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Gunners are known to be wary of giving contracts to players over 30 years old, even their most influential ones, and he will be desperate to prove his worth to Arsene Wenger ahead of the club’s decision. It has been reported that the club already activated its option for another year on Cazorla’s contract, but the team has not officially confirmed that.

Cazorla’s Arsenal future could be especially in doubt if Wenger were to leave this summer. A new incoming manager might not be so sentimental about Cazorla’s club status.