João Plata's fifth goal of the season gave Real Salt Lake full points at Toyota Park in Chicago. (Photo: AP Photo.)

MLS Snapshot: Real Salt Lake 2-1 Seattle Sounders

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One game, 100 words (or less): A largely controlling performance from Real Salt Lake saw the final score undermined by one terrible defensive sequence. While that breakdown prevented Nick Rimando from keeping a third straight clean sheet, it couldn’t stop Jeff Cassar’s team from passing the Sounders in the Western Conference. With early second half goals from Joao Plata and Osvaldo Alonso (own goal) carrying RSL’s first half success through half time, the two teams swapped places in the standings, giving last year’s conference champions a view from the top.

Goals

Real Salt Lake: Plata 53′, Alonso (o.g.) 57′

Seattle: Barrett 72′

Three moments that mattered:

45′ – Deceiving appearances – As the teams left the field at halftime, with Real Salt Lake’s 61 pct. possession having rendered Seattle’s attack a non-factor, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid expressed his satisfaction with his team’s performance, explaining his players had withstood the home team’s charge. Despite his side giving up three or four good chances (mostly through Plata), Schmid was optimistic about the second half, claiming quicker play out of midfield could help Seattle turn the match in the second half.

53′ – Reality – Eight minutes into the second half, RSL proved Schmid’s optimism ill-placed. Off a restart deep down Seattle’s left, Luke Mulholland found Plata at Stefan Frei’s far post, with the 5’2″ attacker beating Lamar Neagle to head home the game’s opening goal.

57′ – Giving the game away – A series of poor decisions in Seattle’s defensive third culminated in a bad clearance from Zach Scott, one that led to an RSL chance in front of goal. Trying to track a Mulholland run into the penalty area, Alonso inadvertently redirected a through ball behind Frei, his attempted interception becoming the game’s winning goal.

Lineups

Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert (Carlos Salcedo 89′); Luke Mulholland, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy; Luis Gil; Joao Plata (Cole Grossman 82′), Olmes Garcia (Robbie Findley 60′)

Seattle: Stefan Frei; DeAndre Yedlin, Chad Marshall, Zach Scott, Leo Gonzalez (Aaron Kovar 88′); Brad Evans (Andy Rose 46′), Osvaldo Alonso, Gonzalo Pineda, Lamar Neagle (Chad Barrett 62′); Clint Dempsey, Kenny Cooper

Three lessons going forward:

1. No answers from Seattle – Are they collapsing? Was Wednesday a rebound? Today, it was hard to tell. Real Salt Lake played very well, and on the road, on short rest, it may be best to give Seattle the benefit of the doubt. With the wisdom of hindsight, this seems like a game they weren’t going to win.

2. And that was a shorthanded RSL – No Javi Morales, out with a hip problem. Álvaro Saborío’s still a couple of weeks away, while Sebastian Jaime’s yet to pull on a uniform. RSL is going to be stronger, yet even with a number of key absences,* Cassar’s team still looked Cup-contender strong. Perhaps they didn’t make complete amends for their 4-0 loss earlier this season in Seattle, but they proved they’re the better team now.

* – Seattle was missing Obafemi Martins and Marco Pappa.

3. Don’t underestimate Joao Plata – As if the Ecuadorian’s goal totals don’t say enough (he’s now up to 11 this season), the diminutive Plata, all 62 inches of him, has scored with his head in two games in a row. From today’s opening moments, he was the key man in RSL’s attack, pulling Chad Marshall wide as his team used him to make headway down the left. In the absence of Morales, Plata served as the team’s focal point, helping RSL claim a key three points.

Where this leaves them

  • 42 points leaves RSL atop both the West and the Supporters’ Shield race. Not bad for a team in the middle of a bad patch just over a month ago.
  • Seattle’s no longer in first, but there’s nothing to worry about, yet. Two games in hand on RSL means the West’s lead is there for the taking, should they recapture their spring form.

 

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”