MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-2 D.C. United

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhY2LESeztg]

One game, 100 words (or less):  Toronto is typically thought of as a defense-first team, but in the second half on Saturday at BMO Field, the defense was the first to let the Reds down. Thanks to three key Toronto errors over the game’s final 36 minutes (see below), D.C. United was able to snap TFC’s six-match unbeaten run, taking three points in Michael Bradley’s return with a 2-1 win in Ontario.

Three moments that mattered:

1. 54′ – Too easy for Nick DeLeon – Toronto’s defense breaks down after Luis Silva and DeLeon force a turnover high on D.C.’s right flank, sending DeLeon in on the Reds’ defense. Cutting around two sprawling TFC defenders, DeLeon punches a left-footed shot past Joe Bendik, turing one moment of uncertainty between Justin Morrow and Nick Hagglund into the match’s first goal.

source: Getty Images
Perry Kitchen’s second half header helped vault D.C. United back to the top of the Eastern Conference. (Photo: Getty Images)

2. 69′ – Caldwell misjudges the corner – TFC responded quickly, with Jermain Defoe setting up Jackson for a shot that turned into Luke Moore’s equalizing goal, but another defensive error provided the match’s decisive moment. On a Silva corner from the right, Steven Caldwell misjudged the flight of the ball, jumping under the cross to the benefit of Perry Kitchen. The D.C. midfielder headed home his second goal of the year to make it 2-1.

3. 88′ – Nick Hagglund’s sent off – Toronto had occasionally threatened for an equalizer over the previous 19 minutes and would do so again through Daniel Lovitz in stoppage time. By then, the team was dealing with a man disadvantage thanks to another Hagglund error. Capping off his most-trying night as a pro, the rookie let Eddie Johnson get behind him in the closing moments, allowing the D.C. forward to have a clear path toward goal. Instead of get into a footrace, Hagglund pulled at “E.J.” from behind, denying him an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Though David Gantar initially showed yellow, a consultation with assistant Gianni Facchini produced a change of heart. Hagglund was sent off.

Three lessons going forward:

1. The Michael Bradley paradox – Toronto went 3-0-3 in six games without their star midfielder/ The first game he returns, they lose at home. Something must be up, right? Of course, there is, but what you conclude will depend on how you look at today’s game.

Despite losing, Toronto out-shot D.C. 19-7 and put six shots on target to United’s two. That’s right – D.C.’s only two attempts on goal came off the errors that produced their goals.

If that’s a Michael Bradley issue, the causation’s escaping me. Maybe the teams’ intensity diminishes when its midfield general returns. If so, why is Toronto tuning out with Bradley on the field but seems to hold no such awe of Jermain Defoe?

This just looks like one of those days that happens occasionally in a 34-game season.

2. It’s D.C.’s formula, though – For United, however, these types of games seem to be happening too often. Despite returning to the top of the Eastern Conference, D.C.’s only averaging 11.6 shots per game, 16th in the league. They’re conceding only slightly more (12.2), but that’s not a disparity you’d associate with a first place team. Usually better teams create more shots, allow fewer.

Usually. There are cases where teams actually (if only implicitly) play to those numbers. Most teams want to win the chances battle, but some don’t care as much. They’re willing to create more chances as long as theirs are better quality-wise, de-prioritizing the chance-battle relative to other teams.

That’s D.C. United. They don’t take too many risks. They wait for you to make mistakes, and while that occasionally leaves them playing on the back foot, it also allows them to limit the danger of the shots they give up.

At the same time, they remain ready to take advantage of their opponents errors. When a team’s defenders play around with the ball, allow D.C. to create a turnover and give the Black and Red a second half lead, their tactics leave them better equipped to see out a result.

In that way, the team’s become a type of smash-and-grab expert. How long it will last remains to be seen, but we’re far beyond expecting an outright collapse for D.C. United.

3. Is Steve Birnbaum playing his way into the job? – Jeff Parke hasn’t been great this season. Neither has Bobby Boswell for that matter. Both players have been fine, but neither are so good that they should take time away from a highly regarded rookie who’s proven he can keep up.

The question is whether Steve Birnbaum has done that. Filling in for Parke, the 2014 SuperDraft’s number two pick has four good starts over the last month. D.C.’s only giving up one goal-per-game while claiming seven points. Along the way, Birnbaum’s been solid.

At what point does Ben Olsen give the kid the spot? Probably when he’s convinced he’s better than Parke, and given the D.C. boss sees the players in practice, he knows a lot more about each one. Maybe Parke is just better right now. Or, maybe the team’s going to sign Oguchi Onyewu. Who knows?

At some point, though, Birnbaum may provide enough proof that he’s ready to start. Four games isn’t enough, but is five? Six? Regardless, the rookie starting to make his claim.

Where this leaves them:

  • Toronto remains in fourth in the East, seven points behind D.C., though they maintain three games in hand.
  • With the victory, D.C. United’s back on top of the conference, their 28 points leaving them three points clear of Sporting Kansas City.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.