MLS Snapshot: Sporting Kansas City 0-3 D.C. United

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IsSzXwT9ic]

One game, 100 word (or less): In this week’s version of “Who saw this coming,” D.C. United challenged all our assumptions about the Eastern Conference. Kansas City’s to lose? Not anymore. One favorite and a bunch of contender? Sorry, there are two front-runners now. Just as New York made a surprise run to first in the East (and league) last year, Ben Olsen’s men are ready to push Sporting into second, with first half goals from Fabián Espíndola, Chris Rolfe, and Perry Kitchen giving D.C. a 3-0 win that vaults the Black and Red to the top of the conference.

Goals

Sporting Kansas City: None.
D.C. United: Fabián Espíndola (24′), Chris Rolfe (28′), Perry Kitchen (31′)

Three moments that mattered:

24′ – Eight minutes the changed the East, Part I – Fabían Espíndola continues to be one of the league’s most impactful off season acquisitions, something few expected from a player United got throughout Re-Entry. Mid-way through the first half, though, United’s best attacked needed help from Aurèlien Collin and Jon Kempin to open the night’s scoring.

Beating the All-Star defender on a ball swung wide left, Espíndola cut in before rolling a shot from the corner of the penalty are toward Kempin’s far post. Somehow, the ball caught the far corner, with Kansas City’s young goalkeeper reacting slowly to a rolling shot that became the night’s game-winning goal.

28′ – Eight minutes, Part II – It was so uncharacteristic: Sporting’s defense not being able to execute an offside trap. But credit the D.C. staff. They must have seen something in Kansas City’s play that hinted at this weakness, one that left Peter Vermes bemoaning his back four’s performance after the match.

In the 28th minute, D.C. made the most of that weakness, playing Chris Rolfe (another great acquisition) behind a high line and in on Kempin. The finish gave United a quick 2-0 lead, sending a murmur of shocked  confusion throughout Sporting Park.

31′ – Eight minutes, Part III – Again, Kansas City’s defense, with two All-Stars at its heart, looked Dynamo-esque, with Perry Kitchen fed past the high Sporting line for another chance on goal. Cutting onto his right foot in the left of the area, the United midfielder fired his shot off Kempin and into the back of goal, giving the reigning champions a three-goal deficit with just under an hour to go.

Lineups

Sporting Kansas City: Jon Kempin; Igor Julião, Aurèlien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; Lawrence Olum, Benny Feilhaber (Claudio Beiler 70′), Graham Zusi; Sal Zizzo (C.J. Sapong 37′), Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad (Toni 79′)
D.C. United: Bill Hamid; Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Taylor Kemp; Nick DeLeon (Alex Caskey 90′), Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, Chris Rolfe; Luis Silva (David Estrada 68′), Fabián Espíndola

Three lessons going forward:

1. D.C. United has assuaged your doubts – Let’s go back to our new trick, quoting the weekend preview:

Out of respect for what they’ve done, nobody’s talking about it, but it’s clear very few people think D.C. United’s a real Cup contender. The team’s record, goals for, and goals allowed all say this team’s for real, but the names on the team sheet leave room for doubt. There are no game-breaking stars, while the team’s secondary numbers (like being out-shot on the season) suggest there’s room for regression. Ultimately, people look at D.C. United and see a team playing over its head.

Allow me rephrase:

Out of respect for what they’ve done, nobody’s talking about it, but it’s clear very few people think D.C. United’s a real Cup contender. The team’s record, goals for, and goals allowed all say this team’s for real, but the names on the team sheet leave room for doubt. There are no game-breaking stars, while the team’s secondary numbers (like being out-shot on the season) suggest there’s room for regression. Ultimately, people look at D.C. United and see a team playing over its head.

D.C.’s going to be one of the top two in my Power Rankings next week. I’m tired of undervaluing what they’ve done (and what they are).

2. Ben Olsen – Coach of the Year – More and more, I’m buying into the notion that coaches, like players, can have bad years. It seems weird, given coaching talents are mental, but perhaps each year’s set of circumstances presents a new challenge. Whereas one year’s problem’s easy to solve, the next year’s dilemmas may be too much to overcome. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of changing the puzzle, not the coach.

For whatever reason, things never clicked for D.C. United last season, with a three-win season leaving some surprised Olsen retained his job. This year, he has taken a collection of disparate parts, rejected by other franchises, and molded one of the best teams in the league, with a large part of the team’s success do to his tactics and game management. This has to guy is the runaway Coach of the Year, right now.

As bad as 2013 was, to 2014 has been just as good. He’s much better at this year’s puzzle.

3. Two bad performances in three for KC – We gave them a pass on their showing in Vancouver (our Eastern teams in BC rule). Last week against Toronto, Sporting looked good, although given how the Reds played today, that performance may need a re-think, too. Regardless, D.C. exposed Sporting’s defense – exposed it in a way that make you wonder if other teams can capitalize on United’s relatively straight-forward approach. Like the Galaxy, whose stout defense conceded seven in two games coming into the weekend, Sporting needs to regroup.

Where this leaves them:

  • Second in the conference, second in the league, Sporting now has to look up at D.C. United, having conceded the lead in the Eastern Conference.
  • With 43 points and a game in hand, D.C. has taken control of the conference. Only Seattle is earning more points per game, but after tomorrow’s game in Portland, United may have that honor, too.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday