Week 8 Preview: Playoff rematches in Seattle, New England; new tests for D.C., New York

3 Comments

Week eight of Major League Soccer’s season begins on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern in Seattle and Montréal, with weekend’s eight-match slate also featuring two rematches from the 2013 postseason. Here is our quick look at the coming weekend of MLS action.

Note: All rankings reflect PST’s weekly MLS Power Rankings.

THE GAME YOU JUST CAN’T MISS
#3 Seattle Sounders vs. #8 Colorado Rapids, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Seattle won at Chivas USA, 2-1; Colorado and visiting San Jose played out a 0-0 draw.

Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have become Major League Soccer’s closest thing to must-watch television. At least, come the last 10 minutes of the game they are. In each of the league three weeks, the Sounders’ forward tandem has produced at least one goal in the last 10 minutes, helping Seattle to seven points over its three-game road trip. They’re not necessarily unstoppable (they seem to be picking their spots), but since the calendar turned to April, nobody’s been able to keep the Sounders’ high-price tandem from taking over the game’s final moments.

Now it’s your turn, Drew Moor. And Shane O’Neill (assuming you start over Marvell Wynne). Same goes for José Mari or Jared Watts, as well as Dillon Powers and Nick LaBrocca. The team you faced in last year’s Western Conference 4-5 game? They’re much, much better now. Here’s your chance to step up.

As Matt Hedges found out two weeks ago, and Bobby Burling learned last week, tracking two forwards who can be as dangerous in front of a defense as running through it stresses but your decision-making. It also provides a huge challenge the defense’s organization. Come the 80th minute, we’ll find out if Colorado’s up to the challenge.


IF WE WIN THIS ONE, WE’VE REALLY GOT SOMETHING

#16 D.C. United vs. #5 FC Dallas, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: D.C. drew in Columbus, 1-1; FC Dallas won at home, 2-1 over Toronto

#7 Columbus Crew vs. #17 New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Columbus was held at home against D.C. United, 1-1; New York was off but beat Houston midweek, 4-0

D.C. United’s enjoying a four-game unbeaten run, but with its two wins coming at home against New England and New York, there are some strength of competition concerns. With FC Dallas visiting RFK Stadium, however, those concerns disappear. Perhaps a flat Dallas will leave us questioning if their hot start has fizzled out, but if Óscar Pareja’s team plays like it has over the season’s first seven weeks, United will face its stiffest challenge since week one.

For New York, two convincing wins in a row have quelled concerns the team’s slow start was more than an unexpected trough, but as is the case with D.C., there are questions about the competition. Philadelphia and Houston wavered between impotent and inept. Columbus, who D.C. (to its credit) took a draw from last week, will present a stiffer challenge.


source: Getty ImagesWELCOME TO THE GUN SHOW
#2 Real Salt Lake vs. #9 Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Real Salt Lake beat visiting Portland, 1-0; Vancouver came back to draw LA Galaxy, 2-2

One team will have Álvaro Saborío, Javi Morales, João Plata, Olmes Garcia, and Devon Sandoval. It’s a diverse arsenal of complementary pieces, one that’s capable of being deployed a variety of ways – whatever way annoys the opposition most.

The other team will have Darren Mattocks. And Kenny Miller. As well as Kekuta Manneh, Sebastián Fernández, Russell Teibert, and Erik Hurtado. If his back allows it, former Chilean international Pablo Morales will be there, too. It’s the deepest, fastest, and possibly the most athletic attack in the league. They’re also highly skilled, too. While the … septet? … doesn’t form the same well-tuned machine we see from RSL, Carl Robinson’s crew has the potential to exceed that standard in the long-run.

Unfortunately, the Whitecaps are unlikely to let those talents loose at Rio Tinto. On the road, we’ve seen Robinson employ somewhat conservative approaches. Against the last undefeated team in the league, the Whitecaps may elect for wait for their opportunities instead of pursuing them.


BE AN MLS ULTZY, EMBRACE
#11 Houston Dynamo vs. #15 Portland Timbers, Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Houston drew in Philadelphia, 0-0, but also lost 4-0 to New York midweek; Portland lost at RSL, 1-0

Want to impress all your friends and followers? Who doesn’t? Reinforce your growing MLS ultzy reputation by noting: This is a clash of philosophies. It’s the unwavering pragmatism of Dom Kinnear against the dreamer’s idealism of Caleb Porter.

Contrast the record of one of the league’s most accomplished head coaches against that of one of the profession’s newest stars. Note how much each team’s has struggled this season, use a cool clichés (“something’s got to give” or “rock and a hard place”), and see those shares and retweets grow. You are the master of your ultzy domain.


source: APREMATCH! REMATCH! ANOTHER PLAYOFF REMATCH!
#10 New England Revolution vs. #1 Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: New England drew at Chicago, 1-1; Sporting slaughtered Montréal, 4-0

The last time Sporting was in Massachusetts, they saw Andy Dorman and Kelyn Rowe give the Revolution a 2-1 lead after leg one of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal. But Rowe, hobbled with a hamstring problem, isn’t expected to play. Nor is Jose Gonçalves. Juan Agudelo is gone, and although he’s been replaced by former Sporting forward Teal Bunbury, the Revolution don’t have the same punch. Jay Heaps’ team is still building toward last year’s level.

Sporting Kansas City, however, looks like its title-winning self. Coming off a 4-0 win on Saturday, Peter Vermes side has hit an early stride, one that’s allowed it to pull away from March’s Champions League disappointment. And in contrast to New England, Sporting returns almost all the pieces that produced last year’s title.

Jimmy Nielsen may no longer be around, but Sporting’s still the best team in Major League Soccer. For now.


HEADDESK

#18 Montréal Impact vs. #12 Philadelphia Union, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Last Week: Montréal was routed in Kansas City, 4-0; Philadelphia drew at home with Houston, 0-0

#13 San Jose Earthquakes vs. #18 Chivas USA, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern
Last Week: San Jose drew in Colorado, 0-0; Chivas USA lost to visiting Seattle, 2-1

Let’s try to make the best of these two, shall we …

The good news about the game in Montréal: You have options. Seattle and Colorado kick off at the some time. Though this game has the potential to be interesting if Philadelphia’s midfield is clicking, the teams’ first meeting doesn’t offer much hope. This match’s equivalent of Dempsey and Martins is either Andrew Wenger and Conor Casey or Marco Di Vaio and Jack McInerney. Wait for the highlights before you commit the full 90.

As for San Jose-Chivas, I’ve spent a good chunk of time defending San Jose this week, explaining why I see them as better than their 0-2-3 record. That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom about the Earthquakes’ entertainment value. Unless you’re a huge fan of good defensive tandems and want to zero in on Víctor Bernárdez and Clarence Goodson, this game may not offer much.

If Saturday comes and you find yourself watching this one, hit me up on Twitter. We’ll be each others’ sponsor.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

Getty Images
Leave a comment

As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

Getty Images
3 Comments

Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”