Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

MLS Cup 2016: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges

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When Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders kick off MLS Cup 2016 at BMO Field next Saturday (8 p.m. ET), it’ll be the first time a postseason final is contested without any of the league’s original franchises on the field.

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Everyone who’s watched a minute of these MLS Cup Playoffs will be familiar with the stars — Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley for TFC; Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Osvaldo Alonso for the Sounders — but it’s so often one of the unsung heroes on whom, given their tactical assignment, the game really hinges.

With that, a few early thoughts on areas that each side should/will look to exploit, and where they’ll be at their most vulnerable…

TFC will struggle with… Lodeiro, the nomad. Lodeiro is a brilliant player, which is quite apparent after watching him for five minutes. It’s the Uruguayan’s versatility and perfectly-rounded game that will trouble the TFC midfield and defense in MLS Cup — he’ll start on the left, through the center, or on the right, but by the end of the evening in Toronto, he’ll have covered every zone on the field, and probably have created a chance or two from each of them. As we’ll discuss in just a moment, so much of TFC’s game plan will be to limit the impact of Seattle’s wide attackers, whoever they may be on the night, which could see Lodeiro directed to play something closer to a permanent central role. He’ll wander around the field anyway, in search of time and space on the ball, and the second TFC allow him to roam free in a patch of the field devoid of red shirts, that’ll be their first, and perhaps biggest, mistake of the year.

Sounders will struggle with… Morrow and Beitashour getting forward. Since TFC made the switch to three at the back, with a few weeks left in the regular season, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour have become impossibly important to a side which boasts the likes of Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore. (That’s MLS for you, though, right?) Relieved of much of their defensive-third duties, they’re now being asked to do more pressing in the middle third of the field when defending, and bomb further forward in possession. During the spells in which TFC had success against the Montreal Impact, Piatti and Dominic Oduro were pinned deep inside their own half by the TFC wing backs, rendering a truly great counter-attack just about useless.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Guzan reportedly considering move to MLS this winter ]

TFC will excel when… Altidore goes head-to-head with Marshall. The Altidore we’ve witnessed throughout these playoffs, in which he became the first player in MLS history to score a goal in five straight games during the same postseason, is a player we’ve never seen before. At his best, which is the present day, Altidore displays the kind of hold-up play, vision, passing ability and mobility that allows Giovinco to thrive. When Altidore occupies both center back, or a center back and a defensive midfielder, his gravity is what provides Giovinco the time and space he needs. Next Saturday, it’ll be vitally important for TFC for Altidore to tangle with Chad Marshall as frequently as possible. Marshall and Roman Torres, Seattle’s other center back, are mountainous men who can’t turn direction or accelerate well enough to recover once Giovinco gets the half-yard of space he so desperately desires. The man who can give that to him is Altidore.

Sounders will excel when… Morris pushes high, into the channels. Here’s a little secret about Morris that not many people are talking about: he’s hasn’t actually played center forward for the majority of the postseason. Sure, he’s an auxiliary second striker playing underneath Nelson Valdez, but he’s also been asked to do a ton of the grunt work in midfield, and the make the sacrificial runs into the channels to create space for Valdez and, most notably, Lodeiro. The 22-year-old rookie was rewarded with goals in both legs of the conference finals, but he’ll be a strictly functional part in the Seattle machine with three across the back. He’ll spend a lot more time occupying the space behind the full back and just wide of the center back. If/when he’s able to pull Nick Hagglund and/or Eriq Zavaleta, the men who’ll flank Drew Moor in the middle, the dominoes will begin to fall for TFC, and they’ll have to be absolutely perfect with their defensive rotations, which they were anything but against Montreal.

LIVE – Everton kick off Europa League campaign

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Wayne Rooney will play his first competitive game for Everton in 13 years.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

That storyline will dominate Everton’s return to Europe as they kick off their 2017-18 UEFA Europa League campaign in front of a packed house at Goodison Park on Thursday.

The Toffees welcome Slovakian side MFK Ruzomberok for the first leg of the third qualifying round as they aim to make it back to the group stage for the first time since 2014-15.

Click on the link above to follow not only Everton’s game but all of the Europa League qualifiers going on across Europe this afternoon with the likes of AC Milan, Fenerbache, PSV, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao all in action.

If Ronald Koeman‘s side successfully navigate their way past Ruzomberok then they will be in the play-off round which is the final hurdle before the group stage.

Bob Bradley named first-ever LAFC head coach

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Bob Bradley is heading back to Major League Soccer and will be the first-ever head coach of Los Angeles Football Club.

LAFC announced Thursday that Bradley, 59, would take charge of the new MLS club for their inaugural season in 2018.

The former Chicago Fire, New York MetroStars, Chivas USA, U.S. national team, Egyptian national team, Stabaek, Le Havre and Swansea City head coach is back Stateside for the first time since 2011 when departed his job with the USMNT.

Bradley won the 2007 Gold Cup, took the U.S. to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and reached the 2010 World Cup Round of 16 while in charge of the USMNT.

LAFC announced the news in an unconventional manner with the video below as Bradley is back in the game after leaving Premier League side Swansea City in December 2016 as he became the first-ever American to coach in the PL.

MLS’ newest team is already pushing ahead with its 22,000 capacity soccer-specific stadium in downtown LA with construction underway on their swanky new home.

The club also boast a huge number of high-profile owners including Mia Hamm, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell, Vincent Tan and many others with entrepreneur Peter Guber the executive chairman.

Barcelona praise Man United; Mourinho lauds Pogba

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Barcelona beat Manchester United 1-0 in their International Champions Cup clash at FedEx Field on Wednesday and the Spanish giants were quick to praise Jose Mourinho’s side after the narrow victory.

[ VIDEO: Man City hammer Real Madrid

New Barca boss Ernesto Valverde certainly has his hands full in his first few weeks in charge at the Nou Camp as Neymar’s future is the main topic of conversation around the Catalan club.

That said, after the win (which came via a goal from, you guessed it, Neymar) Valverde had plenty of kinds words to say about United and the job Mourinho is doing at Old Trafford.

“Obviously it hasn’t been well lately, but I mean they won the Europa League. This year they are going to be in the Champions League. Their presence by itself is impressive. They impress. I think they are going to be a really hard team to beat,” Valverde said. “For me, they are contenders to win and they are going to be hard to beat in the Premier League and the Champions League. I wouldn’t want to face them in the Champions League.’

Mourinho was asked about the situations regarding the top talent in world soccer and the huge transfer fees, and he picked out that moment to praise the current most-expensive player in the world Paul Pogba.

“(Lionel) Messi and Neymar, there is only one; there is not two,” Mourinho said. “(Luis) Suarez, (Andres) Iniesta, (Gerard) Pique, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Gareth) Bale, (Luka) Modric, Toni Kroos; there is only one so they can only play for one club, not for two clubs. We can’t have them, they belong to the clubs. But I have to say that Paul Pogba showed the level… he showed he belongs to that level.”

This is certainly a big year for Pogba after his up and down start to life back at Old Trafford in 2016-17.

Sure, he he hadn’t plenty of pressure on his shoulders with the huge price tag, his emoji spinning around the pitch and much more, but he helped drag United through the season and achieve their main aim of getting back to the Champions League.

After a strong preseason Stateside where the won four games and lost a tight encounter to Barcelona, it appears Mourinho has things moving in the right direction.

Whether or not United will challenge for the PL title and Champions League this season remains to be seen but you can’t argue that Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof aren’t huge additions and if Mourinho can add one or two more he will have the required balance to made the Red Devils a formidable unit.

LA Galaxy fire Onalfo, hire Sigi Schmid

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Sigi Schmid is back in the game.

On Thursday LA Galaxy announced that Curt Onalfo had been relieved of his duties “effective immediately” and that Schmid had been hired.

The former UCLA, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders coach is back for his second-stint with the Galaxy — he previously coached the Galaxy from 1999-2004 — as the man with more wins than any other boss in MLS history is tasked with saving LA’s season.

Schmid has won two MLS Cups, a record five U.S. Open Cups and three MLS Supporters’ Shield over his illustrious career.

LA Galaxy President Chris Klein explained the decision to bring in the experienced coach after Onalfo’s promotion form LA Galaxy II failed to work out with the MLS giants currently languishing in ninth spot in the Western Conference.

“After a great deal of evaluation and careful consideration, we believe that Sigi Schmid is the best person to coach our team for the remainder of this season and into the future,” Klein said. “Sigi is one of the most experienced coaches in the history of soccer in the United States and he is an extremely successful manager that has proven himself to be a winner within Major League Soccer. Sigi has been one of the best coaches the history of our league and we have full confidence in him to lead our team moving forward. Our goal remains to win trophies and be the best club in North America and we believe that Sigi gives us the best opportunity to achieve this. Curt Onalfo has been a loyal servant to the Galaxy and Galaxy II for a number of seasons and we wish him well.”

From the start Onalfo was on a hiding to nothing with Bruce Arena departing for the U.S. national team last season and Onalfo tasked with an almighty rebuild following his great work with bringing through youngsters at LA Galaxy II.

Schmid knows the league inside out and his main aim will be to rally a talented group of Galaxy players to one of their famed second half of the season surges as they search for another MLS Cup to add to their record haul of five.

With LA in ninth spot in the West they are only three points off the bottom of the standings but are also just five points from the final playoff spot.

For so long Schmid plotted LA’s downfall as head coach of the Seattle Sounders from 2009-16, but now he’s back in LA and as fate would have it his first game back in charge of the Galaxy is against… the Sounders this Saturday at StubHub Center.