Three things we learned from Atlético Madrid’s draw in Barcelona

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The teams’ fourth meeting of the season ended the same as the first three, but we were better for it. Another perfectly balanced game between Barcelona and Atlético Mardid ended 1-1 today at the Nou Camp, and while that road may yet loom large, today’s game was another example of how perfectly matched these two teams have become.

After a scoreless first half that saw Gerard Piqué and Diego Costa leave with leg injuries, a long distance blast into the upper-right hand corner from substitute Diego game Atleti that precious away goal. Fifteen minutes later, brilliant work from Andrés Iniesta and Neymar produced a goal from the Brazilian, a tally the Blaugrana were unable to build on over the last 20 minutes.

(MORE: Diego, Neymar goals leave Atlético, Barcelona even after leg one)

Here are three things we learned from the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal:

1. It’s about more than the stars … until it’s not – When an apparent leg injury forced Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué from the game in the 12th minute, an Atlético team that got a surprise start from forward Diego Costa looked to have a huge edge. But 18 minutes later, Atleti’s star striker was limping off, too, leaving Diego Simeone with his third (David Villa) and fourth (Diego) choice options leading his attack.

Though the game lost two of its most talented players, it was no worse for it. In fact, Tuesday’s contest was indistinguishable from the combative and enthralling games that characterized the teams’ first three battles. When Diego’s early second half blast found Pinto’s upper-left hand corner from distance, you could argue the game was actually (if unintentionally) better for losing two stars.

Then came the reminder of what stardom can do. Sure, Atlético right back Juanfran may have been caught a step out of position on Barcelona’s equalizer, but it took a sublime pass from Andrés Iniesta to exploit that crack. Neymar pounced and put an inch perfect shot around Thibault Courtois. It was going to take two of the world’s most talented players to break down Atlético. For one brief moment, they managed to do so.

Barcelona and Simeone’s Atlético have developed such distinct identities, it would take more than two injuries for them to change. But part of that identity is the brilliance of their players. And there are few more brilliant than Andrés Iniesta.

(MORE: Three things we learned from Manchester United and Bayern Munich’s draw)

source: AP2. Clearly, Atlético’s going nowhere – You can understand why people don’t want to believe in Atlético, but at this point, there’s no reason to think this team can’t compete with Europe’s best. They’ve been doing so ever since Diego Simeone came on board.

Earlier this year, the doubt was understandable. Small sample, and such. Combine that with the team’s recent track record, the names in the squad, and the lack of day-to-day coverage La Liga gets around these parts (let’s face it: it’s still Barcelona, Real Madrid, and who? as attention spans go), and the idea that Atlético’s a fluke has been allowed to persist. Sure, they drew Barcelona three times this year, but Champions League would be different, right?

For those not watching Manchester United-Bayern Munich, we saw how serious Barcelona has been. And in the 360 minutes Gerardo Martino’s team has played against Atlético, the team’s led for none of them. It’s not just that Atlético has been competing in these games. They’ve been the closer side to wining them (well, two of them).

We’ve seen enough by now to know Atleti are for real. Even people who don’t follow the Spanish league can buy in. Now it’s a question of whether “for real” translates into “Champions League semifinalist.”

(MORE: Brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid has begun to transcend results)

3. We need to stop and smell these roses – The longer this battle goes, the more amazing it becomes. Barcelona and Atlético, so perfectly matched, are slated to play six games this season. But whereas in previous seasons, when Barça and Real Madrid engaged in a seemingly endless series of Clasicos, it’s hard to get enough of Atlético and Barcelona.

From earlier today:

It’s the perfect match of opposing styles. It’s soccer’s yin against football’s yang. It’s modernism, possession, and technique matched against timeless emotion and organization. It’s a team that looks beyond the typical trappings of athleticism and brawn facing a side that leverages their power to complement their passion. From the same league, both sporting Argentine coaches, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid couldn’t be more different, yet, after each set of 90 minutes they play, the scoresheet’s left them beautifully identical.

It’s a contrast makes results like today’s 1-1 special – more valuable than a win could have been for either side. Because at this point, a victory would defeat the purchase. The battle’s balance of physique, application, and philosophy has produced some of the best soccer of our lifetimes: what’s become a 360-minute marathon, where each side has brought evermore perfect free soccer out of the other.

We’ll see it again next week, we’ll see it again on the last day of the Spanish season, and if we’re lucky, we might get two more draws. but after these teams change this summer, the balance will be thrown off. Savior this time we have with Atlético and Barcelona.

MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy 3-1 Real Salt Lake (video)

Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme (37) congratulates forward Alan Gordon (9) for scoring against the Real Salt Lake during the first half of a knockout round MLS playoff soccer match in Carson, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are through to the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they’ll take on the Colorado Rapids beginning Sunday, for the seventh time in eight years with a 3-1 knockout-round triumph over Real Salt Lake at the StubHub Center on Wednesday. Alan Gordon put the home side ahead inside the first quarter-hour before RSL drew level seven minutes later, but Emmanuel Boateng bagged a quickfire brace to complete a pair of brilliant individual exhibitions of dribbling inside the penalty area. With Steven Gerrard unavailable and Robbie Keane only fit to feature off the bench, Bruce Arena turned to Gordon, who gave way to Keane early in the second half after picking up an injury of his own, to play the fulcrum of the Galaxy attack, and it worked to near-perfection during the opening half-hour. Landon Donovan started the game and played 87 minutes, providing the kind of defensive work rate that’s been missing up and down the flanks of LA all season. Sebastian Lletget put in a near-flawless passing performance while playing deep in midfield. Don’t look now, but those are the Galaxy’s biggest question of 2016, all just about answered as the playoffs begin. I won’t say, “I told you so” if/when they win MLS Cup 2016, but…

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

14′ — Gordon finishes from close range for 1-0 — Landon Donovan -> Giovani dos Santos -> Alan Gordon. Just like Bruce Arena drew it up in preseason midseason last month this week this morning.

21′ — Plata converts from the spot after Morales’ dive — Javier Morales was angling for a penalty from the moment he entered the penalty area. All Emmanuel Boateng had to do was look at him, and Morales was going down.

26′ — Boateng weaves through to make it 2-1 — Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Boateng took advantage of some poor defending, and the Galaxy were back in the lead.

34′ — Boateng cuts inside, blows past his man, makes it 3-1 — There’s playing in top gear, and there’s having an extra gear that you rarely have to use because no one else on the field has it. Boateng falls into the latter category.

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Men of the match: Emmanuel Boateng

Goalscorers: Gordon (14′), Plata (21′), Boateng (26′, 34′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: Toronto FC 3-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): 10 years later, Toronto FC are MLS Cup Playoffs victors. For eight seasons, the playoffs eluded them altogether. Last year, they were one-and-done in embarrassing fashion at the hands of their local rivals. In 2016, it was  their year — a proclamation we’d heard plenty times before — and so far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Wednesday’s 3-1 home victory over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round gets the monkey off the Reds’ back, but more importantly, afforded Sebastian Giovinco, who bagged a goal and an assist on the night (his second straight game with such a line), 90 more minutes of game time after missing more than a month through injuries as the regular season wound down. After 270 minutes of action, the Atomic Ant looks sharp as ever, and destined to terrorize New York City FC, whom TFC will face in the conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

15′ — Atlidore feeds Giovinco for 1-0 — The first playoff goal in TFC’s 10-year history. Poor goalkeeping, ball-watching defending, terrible touches, an overhead cross, and a strike off the crossbar. There’s a lot going on here. Watch it all right here.

49′ — Osorio slams home from the corner for 2-0 — The Union have been bad at defending set pieces all season, so is it at all surprising a set-piece gaffe effectively ended their season? No, it’s not.

73′ — Bedoya puts the loose ball home for 2-1 — Speaking of failing to effectively clear a corner kick, the Union were gifted a lifeline 15 minutes before full-time.

85′ — Altidore puts it out of reach, seals it for TFC — Ken Tribbet did not have the best night a center back has ever seen. His final blunder resulted in Jozy Altidore reclaiming TFC’s two-goal lead, and ending the Union’s 2016 season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Giovinco (15′), Osorio (49′), Bedoya (73′), Altidore (85′)

Men In Blazers podcast: Mourinho’s Chelsea return; Bradley’s 1st point

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo break down Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea with Manchester United, another stumble for Manchester City and Bob Bradley’s first Premier League point.

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VIDEO: Altidore, Giovinco combine for TFC’s first-ever playoff goal

Sebastian Giovinco
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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It’s been 10 years in the making, and Toronto FC finally have their first-ever goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

After failing to qualify for the playoffs in each of their first eight seasons, 2015 saw the Reds venture into the postseason for the first time ever, only to be thumped in the knockout round, 3-0, by their 401 derby rival Montreal Impact, of all sides.

This is the year, though, or so we’ve said and been told all season long. While it remains to be seen how deep of a run TFC can muster in 2016, they’ll always have the Jozy Altidore‘s terrible first touch; Altidore’s wayward second and third touches; Altidore’s overhead cross; and Sebastian Giovinco’s strike, all of which you can watch in all its hilarity glory below.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Playoffs edition | MLS Cup predictions ]