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MLS Cup 2016 roundtable: Key topics ahead of Toronto vs. Seattle

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Ahead of the 2016 MLS Cup final this Saturday in Toronto, the PST crew take a look at the key issues as Toronto FC host Seattle Sounders FC with both clubs not only searching for their first MLS Cup trophy but also competing in their first-ever final.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

With over 35,000 expected at BMO Field in freezing conditions, everything is set up for one of the most exciting MLS Cup finals in recent history.

Can Toronto’s Designated Players lead them to glory and help them become the first Canadian team to win the title? Will Seattle finally reward its incredibly loyal fans by finishing off its miraculous run to the final with a win?

All that and more is answered, right here.


It’s here, MLS Cup 2016 in freezing conditions in Toronto… What are you most looking forward to about this game and why?

Joe Prince-Wright: The atmosphere. Watching the games in Toronto, the crowd really has been a 12th man and bought into this team. The stadium renovations have helped massively and turned Toronto into one of the most intimidating places to play in MLS. You can guarantee whatever the weather TFC’s fans will be out in full force and doing their best to roar their team on to victory. Something special is happening in the soccer scene in Toronto.

Nick Mendola: A new champion, and a few fantastic story lines: Does USMNT bragging rights goes to Bradley/Jozy or Morris? Is Nicolas Lodeiro able to “out-Seba” Giovinco? Can hardly wait.

Matt Reed: I’m looking to see how the Sounders handle the two-headed monster of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. For a long portion of the season teams only had to worry about Giovinco, which was a nightmare in itself, but now you throw in an in-form Altidore and that increases the challenge for the Sounders backline significantly.

Compared to other MLS Cup finals in recent years, is there extra excitement around this? Two well-supported teams with star names and fairly new to MLS.

Joe: I’m going to go out on a limb and say this could be one of the best finals ever. It’s safe to say defending isn’t the strength of either team (at least in the playoffs) and we could see a straight shootout, just like Toronto’s stunning Eastern Conference final win against Montreal. If you add the crazy crowd, the big name DPs and the fact that these two clubs have yet to win an MLS Cup, it’s a recipe for one heck of gameday.

Nick: I think this game had danger of being overlooked and under hyped before the Toronto-Montreal final at BMO. It was impossible to miss, and people will tune in for the atmosphere and the stars. Could be — and this is saying a lot — a watershed moment for MLS.

Matt: I think the fact that not only has neither team ever won a cup but couple that with the reality that they’ve each never played in a final prior to Saturday makes it all the more enticing of a matchup. Despite the frigid temperatures it could very well be one of the most highly anticipated finals we’ve seen when you consider the stars involved the game (Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, etc.).

Seattle has reached its first MLS Cup against all the odds. Does anyone have the sense their name is written on this trophy?

Joe: Sort of. When Sigi Schmid was fired and Brian Schmetzer was hired, nobody thought this would happen. I think most of the Seattle organization, their fans and even the players are a little bit stunned they’ve made it to MLS Cup. When you compare this team to others they’ve had in recent years, it’s not as good individually plus injuries to Clint Dempsey and others this campaign have been very disruptive. Somehow, they’ve made it to MLS Cup and these dream runs happen for a reason. Soccer works in mysterious ways.

Nick: I wouldn’t want to bet this game, mostly because Seattle is coming across the country and that’s been a recipe for struggle for almost every MLS side this year. Have to think Toronto is favored, fate or not (especially since fate is better known as the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro!).

Matt: It just seems like 2016 is the year of the Sounders. Both clubs have had superb seasons and have their own unique storylines heading into the match, but when you consider the fact that the Sounders looked dead in the water halfway through the season, made a coaching change and are playing without arguably their most influential player (Clint Dempsey) it really looks like this team will have their fate sealed in the biggest way possible on Saturday night.

What will be the key battle in this game?

Joe: I think Seattle’s defense staying firm and not allowing Morris to latch on to balls from Lodeiro in behind. With the home crowd roaring them on, it would be quite easy for Toronto to go at it early on and leave themselves exposed defensively. If Justin Morrow, Drew Moor et al. can use their vast experience in MLS wisely, and regain their top form from the regular season, TFC will have a great chance of winning.

Nick: Seattle’s veteran back line against Giovinco and Altidore.

Matt: Nicolas Lodeiro has been the game changer for the Sounders since joining over the summer and Morris definitely can’t do this all by himself. I think the Uruguayan will need to be on top of his game against the talented Toronto back line and if he can work some of his magic, particularly finding Morris, then the Sounders will have a solid chance to take home the cup.

If you had to pick one striker right now, would you have Jordan Morris or Jozy Altidore?

Joe: I’m going to go with Altidore, but only just. The way he is right now, you sense he will score every time he steps on the pitch. He has done that throughout the playoffs and he finally seems fully fit and has his confidence back. It feels like Altidore’s time to shine. Morris’ time to be the main man in MLS and for the USMNT will come in the future.

Nick: Altidore. His motivation is high and his experience better. Morris is more of a 1b choice than 2, though!

Matt: I love what Morris has done this season but have to pick Altidore here. He’s been on fire since early August and playing with Giovinco certainly makes it a lot easier to shine when you don’t have defenders solely zoning in on you.

So, if TFC wins MLS Cup, do you think they can build a dynasty like DC United back in the day and LA Galaxy in recent years?

Joe: That have a great chance. Greg Vanney hasn’t got enough credit for the balance he has brought to this team and if they can continue to add to the squad wisely, their three DPs will be around for the next three to four years.

Nick: It’s possible. The key players/Dps are young enough, that’s for sure. But Toronto also has given the league a bit of a blueprint for making the playoffs.

Matt: Toronto has to be one of the most, if not the most, complete squads in MLS right now. The moves the club made during the offseason were spot on, starting with Will Johnson, Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour. Then the attack has two of the most deadly strikers in all of MLS. In short, yes, I think this team is here to stay.

And if Toronto does win, will Michael Bradley be applauded for his decision to leave Europe to lead this squad?

Joe: I think Bradley has come under some unjust criticism in recent months. If you dissect his form for Toronto this season, he’s been one of the main reasons they’re in MLS Cup. Sure, he’s had a few bad displays for the USMNT but it’s not like anybody else around him has excelled either for the USA. He wanted to lead a team to glory and he’s on the cusp of doing so. I respect that.

Nick: I doubt it. The excitement of his arrival and ability to see him each week has been seriously tarnished (for now) by the disappointing performance of the USMNT. He’ll be rightly celebrated as a champion, but I’m doubting too many outside of Toronto will say, “Yeah, NOW it was worth it.”

Matt: I’m not sure Bradley will be applauded because he’s certainly received criticism over his move back to the states but he’s definitely played an integral role in the Toronto midfield. I think it’s easy to get lost in the Giovinco hype and looking at the talent in the backline, but Bradley has been stellar this season controlling the midfield.

We can’t not mention Sebastian Giovinco. If he plays the hero role (highly likely) and TFC wins, will he go down as the best-ever DP in MLS history?

Joe: Apart from Robbie Keane, which other DP has had a bigger impact than Giovinco in MLS history? I’m struggling to answer that. If he wins MLS Cup, I think he will sit alongside Keane as the best ever.

Nick: Yes.

Matt: I’m not sure Giovinco automatically becomes the best with just one title but he’s easily a top 5 DP. If Toronto builds this into a dynasty I think it’ll be easier to justify the Italian being considered the best of all-time over a Robbie Keane.

Finally, not letting you go without a score prediction. Who wins it?

Joe: Toronto to win 2-1. Somehow, I had a major epiphany in March during our preseason picks in the roundtable chat and I predicted Toronto to beat Seattle 2-1 in MLS Cup final. So, I’m sticking with that.

Nick: Toronto, 2-1.

Matt: The Sounders have defied all odds to get to this point but I think Toronto takes it 3-2 on their home field.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.

Lippi leads China over SKorea 1-0 in World Cup qualifier

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Marcello Lippi earned his biggest victory since taking over as coach of China’s national soccer team, leading his squad to a 1-0 victory over South Korea on Thursday in a World Cup qualifier.

[ MORE: Shorthanded USMNT hosts Honduras as WCQ resumes ]

The coach, who led his native Italy to the World Cup title in 2006, was hired by China in October.

Yu Dabao scored the lone goal at Helong Stadium in Changsha with a header in the 34th minute, giving China only its second victory over South Korea in 32 matches.

China spent much of the second half defending with the visitors piling on the pressure. Ki Seung-yeung and Ji Dong-won both went close for South Korea but could not find a way past China goalkeeper Zeng Cheng.

South Korea has 10 points from six matches in Group A and is still on course to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. China, which last qualified for the World Cup in 2002, has five points.

Only the top two teams from the six-nation group qualify automatically. The third-place team will head to the playoffs.

CONMEBOL wrap: Brazil routs Uruguay, Messi guides Argentina past Chile

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A roundup of Thursday’s action from around CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying…

[ MORE: USMNT looks to build momentum against Honduras in WCQ ]

Paulinho‘s hat-trick helped bring Brazil back from an early deficit as the Selecao topped Uruguay, 4-1. Edinson Cavani put the hosts ahead after nine minutes from the penalty spot, but it was Paulinho that answered 10 minutes later for his first of the night. Neymar also tallied for the Brazilians, who continue to lead CONMEBOL qualifying with 30 points.

Lionel Messi scored in the first half to help lift Argentina over Chile, 1-0. The Barcelona attacker scored after 16 minutes when Angel di Maria was taken down inside the Chilean area by José Fuenzalida. Chile was held to just one shot on target throughout, and the loss leaves the reigning Copa America winners on the outside looking in at the top five.

James Rodriguez rescued Colombia on Thursday as the Real Madrid winger capitalized off of his penalty-kick rebound to give Los Cafeteros a 1-0 win over Bolivia. Goalkeeper Carlos Lampe did his best to preserve a draw for the visitors, recording six saves on the afternoon, however, it wasn’t enough to tame Colombia.

Meanwhile, Paraguay knocked off Ecuador, 2-1, behind goals from Bruno Valdez and Junior Alonso. The visitors pulled a goal back in the 70th minute when Felipe Caicedo converted from the penalty spot, but it wasn’t enough for Ecuador.

Peru battled back with two second-half goals to preserve a 2-2 draw against Venezuela on the road. The hosts got out to a 2-0 advantage before halftime when Mikel Villanueva and Romulu Otero scored for Venezuela, however, the Peruvians struck back in the second stanza to knick a point. Andre Carrillo and Paolo Guerrero scored in the 46th and 64th minutes, respectively, for Peru.


Thursday’s results

Colombia 1-0 Bolivia
Paraguay 2-1 Ecuador
Uruguay 1-4 Brazil
Argentina 1-0 Chile
Venezuela 2-2 Peru


Updated CONMEBOL table

  1. Brazil — 9-3-1 — 30 pts.
  2. Uruguay — 7-2-4 — 23 pts.
  3. Argentina — 6-4-3 — 22 pts.
  4. Colombia — 6-3-4 — 21 pts.
  5. Ecuador — 6-2-4 — 20 pts.
  6. Chile — 6-2-5 — 20 pts.
  7. Paraguay — 5-3-5 — 18 pts.
  8. Peru — 4-3-6 — 15 pts.
  9. Bolivia — 2-1-9 — 7 pts.
  10. Venezuela — 1-3-9 — 6 pts.