On fire Keane a cruel test for burned Opara, Earthquakes

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – “All I remember is a miscommunication along the back line,” San Jose defender Ike Opara offered Wednesday night, asked to describe what transpired on the second goal of a 3-1 loss. The result saw the defending champions, LA Galaxy, eliminate the Supporters’ Shield-winners 3-2 (aggregate) in the Western Conference semifinals.

“(San Jose right back) Steven (Bietashour) wanted me to follow the runner even though I couldn’t hear him. He thought I could hear him. The miscommunication was there. (Galaxy forward Robbie) Keane floated in behind us and got a goal.”

Given the circumstances that forced Opara into the game, miscommunication was no surprise. The third overall selection in the 2010 draft had only started seven games all year, Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez serving as head coach Frank Yallop’s first choice central defenders.

But when Bernardez had to leave with a right knee injury, Opara was pressed into action. Not only was an inexperienced defender (22 career starts) being inserted into an elimination game against Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, he was replacing a Defender of the Year candidate.

“It was very tough losing [Bernardez] early in the match,” Yallop admitted, “… when you lose arguably your best defender, it’s very tough. When you lose someone of that stature, it doesn’t help.”

Early sub. Best defender. One of the league’s elite. Bernardez’s absence was a harsh blow. It only took nine minute to feel its effects.

In the 21st minute, Keane, attacking above LA’s penalty area, cut across the defense onto his right foot, pulling up for a shot near the arc. Opara failed to react. Keane’s shot went off Jon Busch’s right post and in, unstoppable. The series was tied at one.

MORE: Highlights from last night’s semifinal deciders

Thirteen minutes later, Bernardez’s absence was made more apparent. A long ball from LA defender Tommy Meyer found Donovan on the right, near the center line. The Galaxy captain carried the ball toward the penalty area, hesitating as Keane made his run behind Opara from the edge of the area. A perfect pass from left Keane one touch to round Busch and finish into an empty goal.

“We tried to get our shape defensively right because we know they’re good on the counter,” Opara said, asked to recall how the goal developed. “We were actually setup decently, but then they sprung pretty quickly.

“All I remember is a miscommunication along the back line.”

Break down the second goal, and you’ll see little the defenders could have done to stop it. Once Landon Donovan had the ball near the penalty area (with Keane and Edson Buddle drawing defenders’ attention), LA’s execution was going to win out. Likewise, on the first goal, although Opara could have reacted to close down Keane, how many times each game do we see shots like that never test a keeper, let alone beat him?

San Jose’s problems in defense were about more than a substitute, a lost star, their talented opposition, an eliminator’s stakes, an ill-timed bad night or a great game from one of the league’s best players. It was the confluence of all those factors that handed San Jose their first home loss since March.

MORE: Analysis of that rare defeat at Buck Shaw for San Jose

“After Victor went out, Ike comes in, not playing on a regular basis, and is asked to adjust in the biggest game of his career,” Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski said, empathetically, after the match. “I can’t even explain how difficult that is to do.”

“Their attacking play is arguably best in the league in terms of how they move off the ball,” Opara offered. “Getting thrown into the fire that way is never easy.”

As the game went on, the magnitude of the task became clear. Whereas Opara’s part on Keane’s first goal raised eyebrows, the rest of Keane’s night made it clear his success was more his doing than San Jose’s failings. Left disappointed in leg one after a potential 86th minute opener found Busch’s crossbar, Keane made up for Wednesday’s lost time with a Man of the Match performance, his two goals complementing relentless effort to pressure San Jose’s defenders.

“Since he has come back (from international duty), he has been the best player in the league,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said, standing outside the Santa Clara Broncos’ locker room the Galaxy had co-opted for the night. “He is a great leader on this team and when the whistle blows he is ready to play.”

Those qualities helped Keane score 16 goals in his first full Major League Soccer season, results that were lost in the shadow of Wondolowski’s record-tying 27 goals. This year, if you were going to talk about goalscorers, Wondolowski was the beginning and end of the conversation, one which also saw great seasons from New York’s Kenny Cooper (18 goals) and Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio (17) overlooked.

That Keane is so much more than a goalscorer makes his place in the shadow particularly unfair. Elite work rate and creativity distinguish Keane from players with similar striker rates, as evidenced by his nine assists. As the MLS playoffs start reducing the number of players vying for the spotlight, Keane’s getting his chance to show he’s one of the league’s best players.

MORE: San Jose not the only number one seed to go home early

“We knew that if we scored a goal that we would have good chances,” Keane said, explaining LA’s three-goal first half. “That was the case, we got that first goal and they sat back a little bit and let us play the game we like to play. That was the difference tonight.”

The sentiment is unnecessarily humble. LA’s first half efficiency was one of the stories of the match, as were the performances of Landon Donovan, Mike Magee, and Josh Saunders. But Wednesday’s difference-maker wasn’t the first goal, the style of play, or San Jose’s inexperienced substitute at the back. The difference was Robbie Keane.

“The guy never stops running,” Opara said, asked to describe the difficulties in dealing with Keane. “He doesn’t necessarily waste [his energy on] runs he won’t get. He’s very smart in how he moves and tactically one the best, probably the best forward in terms of his movement off the ball.”

It was the fourth match in 11 days for the 32-year-old, but in a must-win game – against a team the Galaxy had failed to beat in four meetings this season – Keane’s effort was essential.

“This is when it really matters, when it really counts,” according to Keane. “[It’s] about winning games when it really matters.”

Manchester United: Solskjaer hopeful of new Paul Pogba contract

Paul Pogba contract
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is singing a new tune, hopeful that star midfielder Paul Pogba will stick around Old Trafford for the long term.

Reports say that United has an option to extend Pogba’s contract by an extra year beyond its 2021 expiry, but Solskjaer is thinking bigger. He has been praising Pogba plenty since the World Cup winner returned to the lineup.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

It’s a bit surprising given Pogba and his super agent’s constant time in the rumor mill, with Real Madrid often linked with the Frenchman. And that agent, Mino Raiola, has not been so nice when it comes to judging Solskjaer.

But Solskjaer is reportedly hopeful that Pogba can join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and others in building a new power.

“I can’t comment on discussions between player and the club but. of course, we want to keep the best players around the club,” Solskjaer said. “We want to build a squad for the future and Scott and Nemanja are a similar position but at different stages in their careers. One at the start, one really experienced one.”

Pogba leads United in key passes per game with 2.3, though his minutes have been severely limited by injuries this season. He had 13 goals and nine assists last season, and turned 27 in March.

The way United’s performed in recent weeks it would not be a surprise if keeping its main talents while adding another stalwart center back and wing would propel it into a more serious table discussion.

Do you buy the idea that Pogba could be with United well into the future?

Suarez goal gives Barcelona win, relegates neighbors Espanyol

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Seventh-place one season ago, La Liga mainstays Espanyol are being relegated from Spain’s top flight.

The final decision came at the hands of their Catalan neighbors Barcelona, who got a second-half goal from Luis Suarez to relegate Espanyol.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Espanyol are 11 points back of 17th place and can only capture nine more points this season following the 1-0 loss in a match where both teams had a player sent off.

Suarez’s goal was a nice one after Antoine Griezmann’s back heel pass to Lionel Messi saw the Argentine’s shot deflect onto the path of the Uruguayan finisher.

Espanyol had been in the top flight since 1994 and has only spent four single seasons outside La Liga since 1929. Leganes and Mallorca may join them soon.

Barcelona moves a point back of Real Madrid. Real has four matches left to Barca’s three and holds the tiebreaker.

Klopp reacts to Liverpool wins, says Henderson injury ‘not nothing’

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Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was a bit more what we’re used to from the Premier League champions.

But that wasn’t the focus of the post-match despite a highlight-reel show from Mohamed Salah, as Reds boss Jurgen Klopp sounded an ominous note when asked about Jordan Henderson leaving the match with injury.

“I don’t know exactly but it was something with the knee I think. We know it’s not nothing.”

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Henderson’s not exactly a player to hit the deck unless he’s feeling pain, and Klopp removed him for James Milner with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about the only bad news from the win, as Liverpool became the first team this season to breach the 90-point mark and saw Salah’s brace move him within three goals of the Golden Boot lead.

Salah would only say, “Let’s take it game-by-game,” but it’s clearly on his mind.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says the Egyptian is hungry to get a share of a third-straight Golden Boot.

From the BBC:

“He has his targets, he’s around the Golden Boot and it’s something he wants to retain,” Alexander-Arnold said. “He’s a world class player who scores so many goals for us and we try to get him on the board as much as possible.”

As for the match, Brighton almost as missed some big chances as Liverpool before the game was out of reach. Klopp admits that it was a challenge.

“We started really well,” Klopp said. “We had to adapt a little bit as we knew what they wanted to do but it was a little bit hard to defend. We left one or two players in a position where if we won the ball we had players in the counter-attack position. We got the first two goals with super balls but we could have scored more. I said to the boys at half-time they could have been 2-2 too. It was a nice game to watch.”

The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.

Liverpool march continues with 3-1 win at Brighton

Brighton - Liverpool recap
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Mohamed Salah had two goals and an assist in the first eight minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday.

Salah is now three goals behind league leader Jamie Vardy, and Liverpool’s 92 points are 23 more than Man City. Jordan Henderson also scored for the Reds.

BRIGHTON – LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY

Leandro Trossard scored for Brighton, whose 36 points are nine clear of the bottom three with four matches to play (The 18th and 19th place sides do have a match each in hand).

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Liverpool’s 30 wins through 34 outings is a Premier League record and Jurgen Klopp’s men are chasing several PL records. The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.


Three things we learned

1. Salah somehow under the radar: Look, the Egyptian star’s 32-goal league season was an outlier. Not a lot of guys consistently hit 25, let alone the 30 mark in the Premier League. But Salah has rather quietly put together another amazing season with 19 goals and nine assists in PL play plus another four and three in cup competitions. Salah is one assist of joining the a small group of players to get double digit league goals and assists in a top five European league this season.

While it’s become sexy to praise Sadio Mane as the Reds’ top winger, Salah has been just as good. He could’ve had another goal in the 53rd but Mat Ryan made a fine intervention at close range. If Salah is under the radar, it’s because Liverpool has spread the wealth this season and had so many heroes in close matches. But boy, oh boy, is he their best weapon.

2. Lamptey shows glimpses, then youth: The sample size is very small, but 19-year-old Chelsea outcast Tariq Lamptey has played well at right back in most of his outings for Brighton since the return from the coronavirus pause. Lamptey was at blame for Liverpool’s third goal in both the chance conceded and actual finish from Salah, but the $4 million January buy looked well worth the price tag in a terrific first half at the Amex.

3. Seagulls still missing final ball: Brighton produced four big chances in the game to Liverpool’s two, but only put one in the back of the net (SofaScore). That’s sadly been par for the course this season, as Brighton’s style has been worthy of a top half place. Brighton entered the day with seven fewer goals than its expected goals total. Only Everton, Watford, and Norwich have been less fortunate.

Man of the Match:

Salah.


Brighton – Liverpool recap

Salah had a goal and an assist within 500 seconds of kickoff.

The Egyptian took a feed from Naby Keita to score off a Davy Propper giveaway and then set up Henderson’s second to have the Seagulls’ heads spinning early.

Brighton found a chance in the 19th but Neco Williams recovered with a slide to block Leandro Trossard from slotting a point-blank goal.

The Seagulls pulled within one just before halftime when in-form youngster Tariq Lamptey swept a cross into the mix for Trossard to punch home.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Salah could’ve had it 3-1 at one end but Brighton’s Dan Burn asked the Egyptian to hold his drink with a butchered wide-open shot at the back post in the 60th minute.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the close score, and brought on Fabinho, Andy Robertson, and Sadio Mane in the second half. One of the players he removed, Naby Keita, had a strong hour before departing the contest.

Henderson almost produced a third Liverpool goal after a rare Lamptey error spring a chance that took a wicked turn off Dale Stephens.

The Reds made it 3-1 off the ensuing corner, Salah’s clinical header in front of Lamptey. Henderson limped off for Liverpool late in the contest.

Ryan denied Salah a hat trick in stoppage time and the Egyptian headed over the bar at the final whistle. He could’ve had five.