Sporting Kansas City routed by Cruz Azul, completes MLS’s 0-for-3 in CCL quarterfinals

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The defending Major League Soccer champions didn’t give fans much to talk about. After Wednesday’s performance in Mexico City, most MLS supporters will prefer to forget than discuss. Though Benny Feilhaber’s late first half goal gave Sporting Kansas City an away goals edge going into halftime at Estadio Azul, the second leg of Sporting’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal was all Cruz Azul. With three goals from Mariano Pavone and insurance from Mauro Formica and Cristian Giménez, La Machina are through to the tournament’s semifinals, their 5-1 demolition of the MLS Cup holders belittling any notion Sporting could preserve the 1-0 lead that earned in Kansas.

Given what we’ve seen over the last four years from a physical, often oppressive Kansas City quad, the result was a complete shock, one that reminded viewers of a era they thought dead. It wasn’t so long ago that MLS teams would go to Mexico can be embarrassed by teams that looked far superior to their MLS counterparts, yet in recent years, the league had made strides. But between the Galaxy’s performance in Tijuana and Sporting’s performance in the capital, MLS turned back the clock. The difference in class between Xolos as Cruz Azul was shocking to those used to seeing the Galaxy and Kansas City near the top of MLS’s standings.

Wednesday’s shock started in the second minute, when Joao Rojas set up Pavone for the host’s opening goal. Twenty-one minutes later, Liga MX’s leaders had completely reversed its leg one deficit, with the Argentine’s second goal of the night giving them a 2-1 aggregate lead. Within 23 minutes, all the hopes Sporting had of carrying their MLS success into Champions League seemed to have evaporated.

Then came their moment of hope. Dribbling around Marco Fabian at the edge of the penalty box, Feilhaber drilled a shot from 20 yards out at goalkeeper José de Jésus Corona’s lower right hand corner. Unable to get down for the ball quick enough, Corona could not prevent Sporting from taking an advantage into half-time, the 2-2 aggregate score giving the visitors the away goals tiebreaker.

Whatever hope came with that advantage evaporated within 10 minutes. That’s when Pavone, in the 55th minute, completed his hat trick. Then came Fórmica’s goal (66′). Then Gímenez’s (70′). As bad as the Galaxy were in the first half against Tijuana, Sporting may have been worse, and for longer, against Cruz Azul. Relentless, ruthless, and intent on building an insurmountable lead, La Machina laid highlighted the lingering Liga MX-MLS divide.

For Sporting, it was a bad night. It was a terrible night. It was a night that nobody around the MLS champions could have envisioned when they took off for Mexico City. And if anybody near Cruz Azul saw this coming, their veins are probably full of Machina blue. This was an aberration.

But it’s an aberration that broke against MLS, and embarrassingly so. This was MLS’s best, as crowned in December. And it was Mexico’s best, according to the current standings. While Cruz Azul does have the advantage of being fully in-season, is that advantage worth four goals? Especially when Sporting knew this game was coming? Considering the Galaxy ultimately lost by one in Tijuana while San Jose get a draw at Toluca, it’s difficult to apply the “out of season” excuse.

Sporting were just bad, giving a performance they won’t be able to redeem until the next Champions League. On a night when San Jose nearly advanced to the semifinals, the defending champions provided a stark, surprising contrast to MLS’s positive potential.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.

Mourinho looks to pile title pressure on Chelsea

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A week ago, just before their 2017/18 Premier League season began, Antonio Conte declared Chelsea to be an underdog for the title. It’s right not to put Chelsea to be a favorite,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho disagrees.

Looking to deflect pressure away from his Manchester United squad, Mourinho declared Chelsea to not only be the favorites to win the Premier League this season and defend their title, but proclaimed it would be a massive disappointment if they didn’t.

[ MORE: Liverpool in an advantageous position regarding Coutinho ]

To Mourinho, the simple fact that Chelsea won last season means they should consider themselves the team to beat going forward. “For me the favorite is the champion,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City on Saturday. “Always. Because for some reason [they were] the champion. It doesn’t mean you are going to win it – I think it is the stamp that you have when you are champion, it is that the next season you are the favorite.”

Chelsea seems to have a depth issue at the moment, with injuries plaguing the squad. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko leaves a big hole in midfield, especially with Nemanja Matic sold to the Red Devils. In addition, Gary Cahill and Pedro will miss time in the near future with suspensions, while superstar Eden Hazard remains out as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Despite all the missing players, Mourinho believes that Chelsea always comes through in the transfer window, and that will solve their problems. “If they have [depth problems], in a couple of weeks the problems are over. They have very good teams, very good players and I don’t see any reason for them not to be fighting for the title.”

Manchester United next meets Chelsea on November 5th in Premier League action at Stamford Bridge.