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Race for Premier League promotion beginning to heat up

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The race for promotion to the Premier League has taken a wild and unexpected turn.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have all but secured the title with a nine point lead and five matches remaining. However, directly below them is where things have suddenly become hairy.

Cardiff City seemed to have second place done and dusted, with a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2013 almost ensured as they sat on a seven-match winning streak and without a loss since New Year’s Day, holding a seven-point lead plus a game in hand as March wound down. Now, just a week later, things could potentially be falling apart as the race heats up.

Following a draw to 9th placed Sheffield United, Cardiff hosted leaders Wolves on Friday in a top-of-the-table meeting, and chaos ensued. Wolves held nearly 2/3 of the possession and went ahead 1-0 past the hour mark as Ruben Neves bagged a beautiful free-kick goal, looping his close-range effort over the wall and tucking it inside the left post.

As the game wound down, Cardiff began to push forward as they looked for a late equalizer. They earned a penalty as stoppage time began, and Gary Madine stepped up to take it hoping for his 11th goal of the year. Instead, former Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy dove to his left and acrobatically kept the effort out, preserving the lead as a big celebration ensued. But the fireworks weren’t over.

Six minutes later, as Cardiff continued to press forward in desperation, Wolves’ Ivan Cavaleiro chopped down Aron Gunnarsson on the edge of the box, and the linesman flagged for a foul. That brought a second stoppage-time penalty opportunity for Cardiff still trailing by a goal. This time, former QPR winger Junior Hoilett stepped up to the spot, but his effort clanged the underside of the bar and came back out, and Cardiff could not capitalize on the ensuing scrum.

The loss means Cardiff has wasted its game in hand, suddenly dropping five points in the last two matches, sitting now five points above Fulham in third. The Whites are in spectacular form, unbeaten in a club-record 18 straight matches and leading the Championship form table. Fulham still has memories of playoff failure from last season, and would love to secure automatic promotion with a late-season charge, playing stunningly beautiful possession-based soccer under Slavisa Jokanovic.

Meanwhile, Cardiff next faces fourth-placed Aston Villa, who also remains in contention for promotion just two points back of Fulham. The pressure seems to be getting to Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, who refused to shake the hand of Wolves manager Nuno after the loss on Friday, instead firing some flowery language in his direction for his post-match celebration while applauding the home fans. He chastised Nuno after the game, telling Sky Sports in his post-match interview “in the British game you need to have manners and a bit of class.”

The remaining playoff places are currently occupied by Derby County and Middlesbrough who sit 15 and 17 points back of Cardiff City in 2nd, but that battle is raging as well. Just off the pace sits Bristol City, Millwall, and Sheffield United all at 62 points, just one behind Middlesbrough’s final playoff spot. Preston is another two back of that on 60 points, while Brentford is two behind them at 58.

MLS wrap: Friedel, Vancouver in focus; More Zlatan thoughts

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We’re fairly positive you heard at least one Major League Soccer score from this weekend.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic took his status as a living legend to our shores, and came off the bench to make an instant impact on debut in the LA Galaxy’s thrilling 4-3 win over LAFC on Saturday.

[ MORE: Arsenal beats Stoke ]

Ibrahimovic scored a wild shot off a bounce from almost 40 yards before heading in the winner as the Galaxy rallied back from a 3-0 deficit in the first “El Trafico.”

“I saw the goalkeeper he was out and I said I will shoot it over, but it was all depending how do I shoot, do I shoot high or in front to put power on it,” Ibrahimovic said. “I chose the power way and it went in. Then the adrenaline starts, you start, and you don’t want it to finish. You take off your shirt and you just want to celebrate with the fans. You want to feel the energy that is going through the stadium. If I would have more strength, I would have run all over the pitch, but I just managed one side of the field.”

A couple other thoughts on the game, and Zlatan:

— The next time someone tells you that MLS, or any league brand, needs players more than names, ask yourself if the league would be better served if Saturday’s meter would have moved with “random 20-year-old South American or European prospects” had the same performances as Carlos Vela and Ibrahimovic. If you said yes, well, enjoy making “Use Your Illusion III.”

Bob Bradley, likely the most impressive American-born manager in history, has had enough of Zlatan. The LAFC boss oversaw Saturday’s come-from-ahead loss as well as a 3-1 loss to Manchester United as Swansea boss which included a brace from the Big Swede. Four goals in about 113 minutes. Woof.

— In our rush to call it the “best game in MLS history,” please don’t forget David Beckham’s first start, which finished three goals off his set pieces and markers from a 17-year-old Jozy Altidore in addition to Landon Donovan, a bullet from Clint Mathis, Edson Buddle, and Juan Pablo Angel:

Some other things we learned on Saturday (and Friday).

— Toronto is going to be fine. The Reds have a huge CONCACAF Champions League match looming at midweek, and still battered Real Salt Lake 3-1 at BMO Field. Of course they should usually handle their business, like most good MLS teams, when a team travels across a continent as they did Friday. But off an 0-2 league start, surely seeing two goals from Jozy Altidore — and 12 combined shots from the USMNT striker and Sebastian Giovinco — feels good.

— The only match Brad Friedel has lost as New England Revolution boss was his opener, and that saw the Revs go two men down. If Friedel and I were friends, I’d like to think I’d call him “Frieds.”

“Frieds,” I’d say, “Looks like I was wrong about you being able to find the talent in that bunch and do well as a first year manager.”

That’s because New England is now 2-1-1 after beating Houston 2-0, albeit up a man for most of the match. Keep an eye on a manager the league would love to trumpet with more success.

— Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls staged a 4-3 wonder in Florida, but you can be happy you weren’t watching live to see the officials send soccer back 20 years by not calling Dom Dwyer for his rugby style stiff arm of Luis Robles in scoring off a corner. You have to feel for the video editor here, because the below highlight is state-run TV level funny. Imagine trying to build a lifelong fan out of someone who’s watched any other high level soccer in his life when this happens to their team:

— There’s a reason Carl Robinson is still in charge over in British Columbia, and the Vancouver Whitecaps‘ 2-1 win in Columbus show just why. The Crew are a tight, thriving unit, but Robinson’s men didn’t flinch when Gyasi Zardes put them down a goal. Well-utilized Brek Shea continued a productive start to the season with an equalizer, and Federico Higuain’s old pal Kei Kamara gave the ‘Caps all three points level with Sporting KC for first in the West.

— Speaking of Sporting, KC scored a third minute goal and a welcomed clean sheet in moving to 3-1-1 with a win over Ben Olsen’s DC United. Goal scorer Felipe Gutierrez might be the league’s top performer over the first month of the season. After failing to score in KC’s season-opening loss, he has five goals in five games.

— It was another big name veteran who starred for Chicago Fire and kept Gio Savarese from a win as Portland Timbers manager. Bastian Schweinsteiger set-up goals from Nemanja Nikolic and Brandon Vincent in a 2-2 tie at Toyota Park in Illinois.

— No snow globe this time around, and no real goals in Atlanta United‘s win at Minnesota United. An own goal hurts, but the Loons are looking much better in Year Two of MLS.

— It’s going to take San Jose some time to become a consistent side under Mikael Stahre, with a number of new pieces playing a new system, but there’s some encouragement in scoring early and sticking with dangerous NYCFC before falling 2-1. Most importantly, and we’ve said this before, Stahre has unleashed Valeri Qazaishvili, who recorded seven more shots as the West Coast, younger, poor man’s Sebastian Giovinco.

— Colorado Rapids handled their business again under head coach Anthony Hudson, with Dominique Badji bagging a hat trick in a 3-0 win over visiting Philadelphia. Tim Howard made four saves for the Rapids, who were outshot at home to spite the score line.

— Three games, three red cards for Seattle. This one helped them lose 1-0 to a Jeisson Vargas goal in Montreal.

Twenty-three* thoughts from MLS Week 2

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We here at the Twenty-Three are both capable of admitting our errors and stubborn enough to stick with ’em.

Major League Soccer has 23 teams, meaning at least one will be absent from the schedule most weeks.

Hence, calling a weekly status report the “Twenty-Three” is inaccurate.

[ MORE: West Ham fallout ]

So we move on with weekly thoughts on almost every team, on average, and still titled Twenty-Three, because we like the title and there are most certainly 23 franchises in the Majorest of Soccering Leagues.

Off this weekend: FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, San Jose Earthquakes. Of the bunch, spare a thought or two for Seattle and Toronto, who are off to Mexico for midweek CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second legs and have a very good chance of dancing to semifinal berths this week.

Atlanta United: For all of what Major League Soccer is, isn’t, and won’t be for some time, there’s no debate that having a boss with the tactical acumen of Tata Martino is important. Don’t know what it says about last week’s 4-0 drubbing in Texas, but our own Andy Edwards has a solid take on why Tata and tactics matter.

Columbus Crew: I’m not ready to anoint Gyasi Zardes as the Comeback Player of the Year, but he’s finishing his chances early this season. The extra g in Gregg Berhalter may stand for genius, as the Crew man continues to spin successful game plans with a changing roster.

[ MORE: All #SaveTheCrew news ]

And, oh yeah, #SaveTheCrew.

Chicago Fire: Was down 2-0 and came back to lead 3-2 by scoring thrice in under 15 minutes, which is nice. Lost 4-3, which was not at all nice.

Colorado Rapids: The Rapids, to no one’s surprise, lost after a long trip across the country, but can take some pride in the debut of 22-year-old Grand Canyon product Niki Jackson.

DC United: The Black-and-Red regressed against a step up in competition from Week 1, getting just six shots off in a 3-1 loss at Atlanta. But Darren Mattocks is being allowed to fire at will, now with eight shots over two matches. The mercurial underachiever is apparently going to get every chance to meet his potential in Washington.

Houston Dynamo: No one was expecting a repeat of Houston 4-0 Atlanta, but the Dynamo didn’t much resemble their opening week form aside from the continued dynamite skill set of Alberth Elis, who scored their lone goal. Lots to consider for Wilmer Cabrera with a trip to DC and a road match they’d like to count as result-worthy.

LAFC: Now, it may just turn out that the recipe for expansion success in MLS is the same as putting any sort of decent team together: a tactically-wise, experienced manager with creative attacking talents who can perform at a much higher level than MLS. Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela, and Diego Rossi, take a bow and then get back to work.

LA Galaxy: It’s hard to win on the road, especially adjusting for the tiny pitch at Yankee Stadium, so L.A. gets a bit of a pass for this week.

Minnesota United: As the kids on the social media say, “I am here for” Ethan Finlay finding his stride closer to home. The Duluth-born winger, 27, has five goals in 14 total appearances, two in two this season, for the Loons after scoring just seven times in his last 53 for Columbus.

The Loons showed supreme resolve in blocking 10 of Orlando’s 20 attempts on goal. And considering the criticism Minnesota boss Adrian Heath has faced, it’s solid for him to get a win against his former club.

Montreal Impact: Another loss, and it seems like we’ll see a bunch of those from the Quebecois side, but what a goal from Raheem Edwards. The cross getting to him is an argument against Columbus’ back line, but quite a hit:

New England Revolution: Brad Friedel did what he was supposed to do in picking up his first win — punish a cross-country traveling non-conference power. Still it’s not worth sleeping on the fact that Colorado won a load of 50/50 battles against a midfield which shouldn’t lose that many.

New York City FC: It’s improbable for me to describe the feeling in my soccer soul when I’m tuning the TV to an NYC game against a skilled opponent (or any time, really) only to see my mind made me forget they are playing on postage stamp which will only serve to produce a game of glorified Buffalo Blizzard vs. Cleveland Crunch. #WelcomeHomeOttoOrf.

New York Red Bulls: TFW you’re already going to lavish praise on Jesse Marsch and then get this email from intrepid RBNY PR man Gordon Stevenson: “Per Elias, 17-year-old (Ben) Mines is the fifth-youngest player to earn an MLS start in club history, and the third youngest to score, behind Eddie Gaven and Jozy Altidore.”

Red Bulls won 4-0 with Kyle Duncan, Derrick Etienne, and Mines in the Starting XI. Full marks if you know two of three (and that’s giving you a relative gimme in Etienne).

New York continues to churn out effective players many have never heard of until they impress on an MLS weekend. Mines doesn’t even have a blue check.

Orlando City: The Lions will be dismayed to take just one point from two matches, but remember we haven’t seen a minute from each of Sacha Kljestan and Dom Dwyer.

Portland Timbers: Gio Savarese is a good manager, but consider “losing to a bunch of kids in a match RBNY was willing to risk throwing away” a proper warning sign.

Real Salt Lake: Losing 5-1 at home to an expansion club would make any fan base want an apology. RSL’s boss is the kinda fella who’s not tone deaf and willing to proffer one. Back to the drawing board in Utah.

Sporting KC: We’ve long felt Peter Vermes in a potential USMNT coach, and his side put in a “Crazy Jurgen friendly win” performance in what Andy Edwards rightly called an “early game of the year contender.” Now can they find their reliable striker, or is this going to be a component scoring team?

Vancouver Whitecaps: Carl Robinson’s men continued to make a case for West Coast bias, heading into a building that witnessed a 4-0 defeat of Atlanta United and improving to 2-0 through Kei Kamara‘s 100th goal and a Break Shea winner.

Robinson was a bulldog of a player and his teams frequently do what it takes to get the job done, through any number of roster iterations. An inspired if “settling” hire from the ‘Caps  continues to pay off, as you don’t often see the assistant of a departed boss take over in trying times and go on to become a mainstay.

Twenty-three* thoughts from MLS Week 1

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At regular intervals during the 2018 Major League Soccer season, we’ll provide one thought for every MLS team.

[ MORE: MLS teams in CCL quarters ]

An asterisk is needed this week, with three sides yet to debut (Chicago, New York Red Bulls, Colorado). Here’s what we picked up from the 20 debuts.

Atlanta United: Just. Throw. The. Game. Tape. Out. The. Window.

Columbus Crew: Winning on the road is tough, and winning at BMO Field has been darn near impossible for teams not named Toronto FC. Columbus made it two teams in two years by getting stuck into 50/50 challenges and getting the ball the heck out of dodge as often as possible. While Toronto (See below) whiffed on several chance to pick up a point, the Crew sent a message that whatever’s happening off the field, there are a number of players left who danced this team deep into the playoffs.

[ MORE: All #SaveTheCrew news ]

Wil Trapp was special for Columbus, completing almost 96 percent of his passes over 90 minutes. That includes three key passes and six successful long balls.

And, oh yeah, #SaveTheCrew.

DC United: Yamil Asad got his debut goal for DC, who was better defensively than expected. There’s a lot of men with motors in the Black-and-Red, and Ben Olsen’s unit is going to be a tough out every week. The biggest difference maker? Probably defender Frederic Brillant.

FC Dallas: Eighteen shots, and FCD’s only goal in a 1-1 home draw was courtesy the other team. Max Urruti and Michael Barrios combined for nine shots. Throw in Mauro Diaz and it climbs to 12. It could’ve been worse.

Houston Dynamo: Wilmer Cabrera might still be grinning ear-to-ear after hanging a 4-0 on Tata freaking Martino’s Atlanta United. Alberth Elis was everywhere and he’ll need to continue that presence. Also, DYK Philippe Senderos scored a goal? Yes, that Philippe Senderos from Fulham and Arsenal who’s played 31 total times for four teams since the start of 2014-15.

LAFC: Bob Bradley knows how to coach, but we’re thinking LAFC supporters would do well to relish the good vibes of Diego Rossi’s 11th minute opener (from Carlos Vela) and a quality win over Seattle. Who knows what’s next, but this looks nice.

LA Galaxy: Carson, California, saw a home win and an attack which feels like it could cue Ola Kamara up for a goal or more per game. It’s just one game, but amazing what a solid defensive midfielder can do to shore up a back line. Perry Kitchen’s back, team.

Minnesota United: 

End of last season: “Hey Minnesota, fix your leaky defense.”

Minnesota: “Okay. We’ll try the backup goalkeeper.”

Start of this season, after a 3-2 loss to San Jose: “See our end of last season thoughts, please.”

Montreal Impact: Remi Garde has to press the reset button on an ugly debut against Vancouver. And, yes, it’s early, but maybe do the same on the idea of a 4-1-4-1.

New England Revolution: Brad Freidel may turn out to be a heck of a manager, but if he does it with this group he’s a hero of the highest order and we’ll all be working on our unique accents. It’s just one match, on the road, with a red card, but New England’s best hope is its steady vets playing steely ball.

New York City FC: David Villa turned 36 in December, and he didn’t look it on Sunday. The Spaniard managed six shots and an assist in the 2-0 win over Sporting KC. The five-man midfield was especially fun to watch. Not like-for-like but Jesus Medina and Yangel Herrera are among the players who could ease the worries of Jack Harrison’s exit.

Orlando City: It feels a little like that first gift you get at Christmas, watching Justin Meram and Orlando play without suspended Sacha Kljestan. Santa Mustache is coming soon, though, and the 1-1 draw with DC United is acceptable enough given 49 minutes down a man.

Philadelphia Union: How will David Accam and CJ Sapong co-exist? Just fine if Opening Day is any indication. Not a bad night for Haris Medunjanin in the middle of the park, either, as Philly takes advantage of New England on their schedule.

Portland Timbers: Gio Savarese’s baptism by fire came at the hands of LA’s talented attack, but don’t sleep on the Timbers’ response to going down 2-0. Away from home is a beast in MLS — even despite LA’s 2017 in Carson — and the Timbers finished the game with more attempts than the Galaxy and put seven on target to LA’s three. Sometimes it’s just about bounces.

Real Salt Lake: Outshot by double, the Utah-based visitors still came within five minutes and an own goal of getting Mike Petke a quality road win in Texas. Real also won 80 of 128 duels with FCD. There’s enough to like from a 1-1 draw.

San Jose Earthquakes: I was one to say Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili was being used poorly by last year’s coaches. One goal and two assists later, even against defensively-challenged Minnesota, I’m feeling good about that opinion being closer to fact. Mikael Stahre was an intriguing hire as coach, and is off to a winning start.

Seattle Sounders: Outshot LAFC 22-5 in a 1-0 loss. If there was ever a time to relax, it’s now. Things will be fine in Washington, especially once Magnus Wolff Eikrem becomes more than a sub. Nicolas Lodeiro led the league in passes with 106, seven more than his closest competitor. He also paced MLS in key passes with eight and crosses delivered with five.

Sporting KC: A match to forget against a very talented team, we learned that playmaking spots are up for grabs in Kansas City. Diego Rubio and Yohan Croizet both came off with around a half hour to play, with Daniel Salloi and Gerso Fernandes entering the fray. Young Salloi made a couple of chances, and gives a little hope to an otherwise moribund home loss.

Toronto FC: Losing at home is a rarity for TFC, and maybe they needed a dose of humility after waltzing past Colorado in the CONCACAF Champions League and winning everything in sight last season. The Reds now turn to a tricky tie with UANL Tigres in the CCL quarters, and Greg Vanney’s tactics will be important as ever. Lineup selection will be something to monitor moving forward, as newcomer Ager Aketke is an intoxicating talent but there are only so many ways to organize him with Michael Bradley, Victor Vazquez, Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio…

Vancouver Whitecaps: Alphonso Davies won’t be here for long, so let’s enjoy him. No player in MLS had a better rating from WhoScored this weekend.

By the way, something to bookmark: Kei Kamara looked okay.

What we learned from LAFC, Vancouver’s season-opening wins

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Los Angeles FC are off and running with a win in their MLS debut, and the Vancouver Whitecaps were up to their old tricks on opening weekend.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

PST’s Joe Prince-Wright talked us through the first three lessons of the newborn season yesterday, followed by three more later in the evening…

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

Bob Bradley‘s team is well-drilled and extremely organized

This will come as a shock to absolutely no one who watched Bradley’s U.S. national team, Egypt, Stabaek or Le Havre — the less said about Swansea City, the better — but LAFC looked like a team that had been playing together for years: prepared, organized, well-drilled and cohesive.

The knock on Bradley, going back to his USMNT days at the start of the decade, has always been that his teams are boring and unimaginative. He so rarely got credit for how defensively solid the Yanks were at a time when the American player pool sorely lacked creativity.

No such problem for LAFC, who spent big on Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, with above-average MLS recyclables in Marco Ureña, Latif Blessing and Benny Feilhaber filling out the midfield and wings. There’s just enough flair and creativity in that bunch, without sacrificing the defensive work rate and discipline required to remain plenty balanced and safe at the back.

If Vela and Rossi can continue combining for a bit of brilliance like that, creating something out of nothing, this team might just rise above expectations and make some noise in year one.


Playing direct isn’t pretty, but it’s still effective

The Vancouver Whitecaps were arguably the most direct team in the league last year, and then went out and traded for Kei Kamara this offseason. Kamara is, at his best, an unplayable aerial target and constant source of free kicks won.

Take a player like Kamara, give him speed on either wing like Cristian Techera and Alphonso Davies, and play to the man’s strengths: get the ball forward quickly, either to him or diagonally to the wingers and play fast. That’s exactly what Carl Robinson did on Sunday, as Vancouver blitzed the visiting Montreal Impact for a pair of goals shortly after the hour mark, then hung on for the 2-1 win after conceding a tragically soft goal in the 81st minute.

The obvious foil for a team that plays quick and direct is to sit a bit deeper, especially in their house, and get numbers in the areas of the field where second balls will fall off Kamara’s head. Remi Garde deserves a bit of credit for setting his team up to play the progressive possession game on the road, but on this occasion it played right into Vancouver’s hands.