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Stanford looks for 2nd straight title as College Cup begins

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HOUSTON (AP) Stanford got off to a rough start this year, but rebounded in a season where everyone wanted to take the Cardinal down to make it back to the College Cup.

After winning the first national championship in program history last season, No. 5 Stanford continues its title defense in the second semifinal on Friday night against No. 9 North Carolinas. In the first semifinal, No. 2 Wake Forest faces undefeated No. 6 Denver.

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Stanford had with three ties and a loss in its first six games before winning 13 of its next 16 games to win a third straight Pac-12 championship and return to the College Cup.

“I think it was kind of a wakeup call seeing how hard we were going to get played and I think we adapted to that as the season progressed,” said defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce, who was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last month.

Stanford hopes to become the first team since Indiana in 2003-04 to win consecutive national championships. Coach Jeremy Gunn’s team is the first to return to the College Cup the season after winning the national championship since Wake Forest returned in 2008 after winning it all in 2007.

Stanford lost some key players from last season, including MLS Rookie of the Year and the reigning Hermann Trophy winner Jordan Morris. But it returns six starters from last season’s team. Five of those players were named to the All-Pac-12 first team last month, and one was on the second team.

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“We had some great players leave after last year and I think some people wanted to write us off this year,” Gunn said.

Stanford is led by Co-Pac-12 player of the year Foster Langsdorf. The junior forward has led the team’s attack this season, scoring 15 goals, including one in each of Stanford’s three tournament games. In their 10 Pac-12 games, Langsdorf scored 12 goals.

North Carolina comes to Houston for its first College Cup appearance since winning a national championship in 2011. The Tar Heels also reached the national semifinals in 2009-10.

Some things to know about the College Cup.

H-TOWN CONNECTION: The Tar Heels come to Houston with many connections to the area. Three Houston Dynamo players, defenders Jalil Anibaba and Sheanon Williams and goalkeeper Tyler Deric, played at North Carolina, while head coach Carlos Somoano is from nearby Seabrook, Texas. The Tar Heels leading scorer, Tucker Hume, said players from the Dynamo have reached out to them and that they’ll be at Friday’s game.

“My formative soccer years and experiences were done right here in Houston,” Somoano said. “So for me it’s very special to be back here.”

YOUTH MOVEMENT: After losing key players from last season, including three who were selected in the top 12 of the MLS SuperDraft, North Carolina has had to rely on its youth in 2016. The Tar Heels have 12 players who have appeared in all 20 games this season, six of whom are either freshmen or sophomores. Sophomore forward Nils Bruening leads the team in goals with eight, while redshirt sophomore goalkeeper James Pyle has allowed just 10 goals this season.

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“They’ve been a bit of a revelation for us,” Somoano said. “It’s just fascinating to see how they evolve through the year. They’re not the same players now than they were in August.”

FAMILIAR FACES: Denver head coach Jamie Franks and Wake Forest’s Bobby Muuss have plenty of history. Muuss was an assistant coach for the Demon Deacons during Franks’ freshman season in Winston-Salem and was the coach at Denver from 2007-14, with Franks serving as his assistant for three seasons. When Muuss took over at Wake Forest before the 2015 season, Franks took his place at Denver.

“I love Wake Forest . but at the end of the day, these are my boys,” Franks said. “These are my kids, and Wake Forest is standing in our way.

WAKE EYES REDEMPTION: Last season, Wake Forest was the No. 1 team in the country with a 17-2-2 record before falling in the quarterfinals to the eventual national champions Stanford in overtime. This season, the Demon Deacons enter the College Cup with an 18-2-3 mark with a pair of shutouts in wins over Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech.

DOMINANCE REWARDED: Since Franks took over as the Denver head coach, the Pioneers have lost just one game, a defeat to SMU that ended the 2015 season. The team feels its 35-1-6 record under Franks it has not received enough credit, mostly because the Pioneers play in the Summit League. This is Denver’s first appearance in the College Cup and the players are embracing their underdog role.

“It’s more a historical thing than an actual thing because no one in our locker room is surprised to be here, we expected to be here,” sophomore forward Andre Shinyashiki said.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

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The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

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The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

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Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.