Liverpool:Second place in the final PL standings but top of the class this season. Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool exceeded everyone’s expectations. I did not see one preseason poll predicting the Reds would be in the top two. They only blot on their copybook was the late season collapse that cost them the title. That aside, tremendous progress at Anfield as a bright future beckons. Record: W 26 – D 6 – L 6
Manchester City: The Citizens won the PL title and deservedly so. Manuel Pellegrini, known as ‘the Engineer,’ built a solid foundation for City’s creative stars to flourish and they got over the line. They were only top for 14 days of the season but were there when it mattered most after banging in 102 goals to lift the PL crown. Record: W 27 – D 5 – L – 6
Everton: The Toffees came so close to sealing a top four spot, and in almost any other season their return of 72 points would have sealed a UCL berth. Roberto Martinez shouldn’t let that spoil a wonderful first season in charge at Goodison, as the Spanish coach has developed a silky style admired around the country and blooded talented youngsters like Ross Barkley and John Stones. Record: W 20 – D 9 – L 8
Southampton: Mauricio Pochettino’s young side have shown everyone just how good they are down on the South Coast. Saints finished in their best ever PL position of eighth, recorded their highest ever points tally and have three players off to Brazil with England. Possessing a squad brimming with talented teenagers (Luke Shaw etc.) and the likes of Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, the future is bright for the Reds. Record: W 15 – D 11 – L 12
Stoke City: A terrific campaign for the Potter as Mark Hughes’ men have turned on the style at the Britannia. Six wins from their last ten games saw Stoke finish ninth, their highest ever PL finish and their first time in the top 10, as they’ve finally shaken off that ‘long ball merchants’ tag. Can they challenge for the top six next season? Record: W 13 – D 11 – L 14
Crystal Palace: After Tony Pulis took charge of Palace in late November the Eagles never looked back. They ended up finishing in 11th place after picking up just four points from August to November. Pulis was rightly named PL Manager of the Year and the Eagles beat the likes of Chelsea at home and stunned Liverpool in a late comeback. Pride, passion and commitment, they battled their way to this B+. Record: W 13 – D 6 – L 19
Hull City:Many didn’t think Steve Bruce could keep the Tigers up, yet early in the season they were flying. Big wins over Liverpool at home and Newcastle away were crucial but their season did peter out. That was due to their run to the FA Cup final which inadvertently also handed them a place in next season’s Europa League. Record: W 10 – D 7 – L 21
Arsenal: A blip in the middle of the season curtailed the Gunners’ progress this campaign… but this still have plenty to be proud of. Up until January they pretty much led the way in the PL, as Arsene Wenger’s new signing Mesut Ozil ran the show. Then he dropped away and Arenal struggled, yet they still finished fourth and have an FA Cup final to look forward to. All in all, a good season and another top four finish. Record: W 24 – D 7 – L 7
Chelsea: The ‘Special One’ didn’t win any silverware on his return to Stamford Bridge, but he came mighty close. Chelsea’s young squad hung in the title race until the penultimate weekend of the season but their downfall was losing to Sunderland, Villa and Palace, despite picking up five wins and a draw in their games against the top four. A UCL semifinal defeat to Atletico Madrid was a bitter pill to swallow. Third place is a tough start for Mourinho in his second spell. Record: W 25 – D 7 – L 6
Sunderland: Gus Poyet asked for a miracle at the Stadium of Light… he got one. The Mackems became just the second club in PL history to avoid the drop after being bottom of the standings at Christmas. Paolo Di Canio was dismissed after a torrid start but four wins in a row in their last five (including victories at Chelsea and Man United) kept Sunderland up against all the odds. Oh, they reached the League Cup final too, but lost to Man City. Record: W 10 – D 8 – L 20
Tottenham: Spurs badly missed Gareth Bale, as the $130 million they reinvested from his transfer fee was very poorly spent. That ultimately cost Andre Villas-Boas his job as the Portuguese boss saw his team battered by Man City and Liverpool early on. Tim Sherwood stepped in, became Spurs’ best-ever PL manager (stats wise) and guided them to fifth…. Then Sherwood left after the season finished. Lots of uncertainty around White Hart Lane. Record: W 21 – D 6 – L 11
Swansea City: The Swans were in real danger of relegation for much of this season, as Michael Laudrup suffered ‘second-season syndrome’ badly. The Danish manager left and defender Garry Monk was put in charge as he led the Swans to a 12th place finish after flirting with the drop. A charge to the Europa League knockout stages didn’t help their league form. Wilfried Bony was their star pupil as the Ivorian banged in goals for fun. Record: W 11 – D 9 – L 18
Newcastle: It all started so well for Newcastle as Alan Pardew’s side challenged for the top four before Christmas. Then the wheels fell off as Pardew was banned for headbutting an opposition player, the Magpies plummeted to 10th and their were huge protests from fans against the owner and their manager. All is not well at St. James’ Park. Record: W 15 – D 4 – L 19
West Brom: Somehow the Baggies weren’t relegated as they won just seven games, the lowest total in the PL. They missed the goals of last season’s loan striker Romelu Lukaku and Steve Clarke lost his job ludicrously early in the campaign. From eighth last year to three points and one place above the relegation zone, the decline at the Hawthorns was shocking. Spanish boss Pepe Mel was brought in but after many issues with the playing staff, he left at the end of the campaign. Record: W 7 – D 15 – L 16
Aston Villa: No wonder American owner Randy Lerner wants to sell Villa, two seasons of struggle for the Midlands giants has pushed the fans’ patience to the brink. Manager Paul Lambert has failed to kick the club on and Villa only secured their safety a week from the end of the campaign. There needs to be a clean sweep at Villa as they keep scraping by. Record: W 10 – D 8 – L 19
West Ham: Sam Allardyce could well be on his way out of Upton Park as fans of the Hammers have turned against his direct style of play. It was a real rollercoaster ride for West Ham as they started poorly, then picked up in the New Year, before finishing with a whimper on 40 points. Losing Andy Carroll for over half of the season through injury didn’t help but overall it was a season to forget. Record: W 11 – D 7 – L 20
Manchester United: What a simply wretched season for the Red Devils. David Moyes lasted 10 months before he was fired and put out of his misery. United lost 12 PL games for the first time in a season, finished out of the top four for the first time in PL history and failed to qualify for Europa for the first time since 1990. An aging squad is finally being broken up but that should’ve happened last summer. A new manager is on the way this summer, after Ryan Giggs stepped in on an interim basis, but the reigning champions surrendered their crown in embarrassing fashion. Record: W 19 – D 7 – L 12
Fuham: Three managers had a crack at keeping the Cottagers in the top-flight, as Fulham made a right pig’s ear of this season. Martin Jol assembled an aging, yet talented, squad which struggled early on. Jol was fired and his assistant Rene Muelensteen was put in charge, however he lasted less than two months as German boss Felix Magath arrived. A string of late wins gave Fulham hope but their awful defending sent them down as they had the second worst defense in PL history with 85 goals conceded. Record: W 9 -D 5 – L 24
Cardiff City: Cardiff’s first-ever PL campaign became the ‘Vincent Tan show’ as their eccentric Malaysian owner is now the number one villain in the Welsh capital. Memorable home wins over South Wales rivals Swansea and Manchester City gave Bluebirds fans hope, then Tan fired manager Malky Mackay and new boss Ole Gunnar Solksjaer just wasn’t given enough money, or time, to turn things around. Back to the Championship as they struggled for goals all season and bagged just 32. Record: W 7 – D 9 – L 22
Norwich City: Talking of struggling for goals, Norwich were the PL’s lowest scorers with 28. Chris Hughton was fired with five games to go as his expensive summer signings, Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, failed to score the goals Norwich needed. Sacking Hughton was pointless as Norwich’s last four games were against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United. Relegation was inevitable but it was an awful season at Carrow Road as the players massively underperformed. Record: W 8 – D 9 – L 21
MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1
The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.
Three moments that mattered
11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.
A beautiful corner from Lodeiro finds a leaping Svensson to put the Sounders up 1-0 in Houston!
28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.
42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.
The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.
We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…
The red card hurt Houston
No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.
When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.
At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.
Addition by subtraction… again?
This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.
Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).
The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)
Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.
May I have some hope, please?
Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.
Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.
We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.
The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.
Three moments that mattered
0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.
52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.
85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.
We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…
Who’s happiest with 0-0?
There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.
TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).
Columbus' only 0-0 game this season was the knockout game vs Atlanta.
For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.
Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.
Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.
Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low
How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.
You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.
This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.