Drilling down on: Seattle Sounders 1, at Real Salt Lake 0

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The fourth time was a charm for Seattle, who saw Honduran international Mario Martínez – making his first Major League Soccer start – blast the Sounders into the Western Conference final. His left-footed, 15-yard half-volley in the 81st minute beat Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando far post for the series’ only goal, the Sounders winning their first playoff series in franchise history.

After dominating Friday’s first leg, Seattle met an energetic RSL to start Thursday’s match at Rio Tinto Stadium. After setting into the game mid-way through the first, the Sounders saw Real ascend through the second half, slowly gaining control of the match. The home side’s climb halted when Martínez, in the starting lineup for the injured Mauro Rosales, ended their season.

With the win, Seattle moves on to their first Western Conference final, a two-legged series starting Sunday in Los Angeles against the defending champion LA Galaxy.

Seattle advances, 1-0 (aggregate)

Man of the Match: After a poor first half, it looked like Seattle would be better off with Steve Zakuani taking over as a left wing in place of Mario Martínez. But head coach Sigi Schmid persisted with the man who’d played only 40 regular season minute, his loyalty paying off nine minutes from time when Fredy Montero’s chip over RSL’s right side fell perfectly in stride for Martínez. The midfielder strode onto and through a shot that curled toward Nick Rimando’s far post, settling into the side netting to send Seattle through.

The goal, then the analysis (below):

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Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Sigi Schmid made the right call in midfield.

Brad Evans has played for Sigi Schmid since 2007, so it wasn’t surprising the 27-year-old midfielder drew Thursday’s most important assignment. Moved from left midfield into the center, Evans was tasked with disrupting holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s control of RSL’s game. Situated above destroyer Osvaldo Alonso in what played as a 4-1-3-2 formation, Evans’ persistence forced RSL to drop right-sided midfielder Will Johnson back to help their build up.

Slowly, Real adjusted to the tactic, but without Johnson to balance their midfield, RSL became predictably left-leaning, making life easier for Osvaldo Alonso. Late in the match, the Sounder linchpin made a number of key tackles, giving his own Man of the Match-caliber performance.

RSL’s central defenders locked down Seattle’s attack.

The absence of Rosales was huge. Not only did it deprive Seattle of their biggest leg one advantage (Rosales versus RSL’s left back), it also took away the man most likely to augment the Sounders’ battle against Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake’s central defenders).

RSL took the chance of leaving their defenders two-on-two against Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero. With those numbers, you’d expect Seattle to generate some chance through their forwards, given enough opportunities. But thanks to strong performances from Olave and Borchers, Seattle’s 27-goal duo had very few opportunities. Olave had the speed and strength to compete with Johnson, while Borchers shadowed Montero’s forays backward to connect with his midfield.

With Olave and Borchers in form, Seattle was going to need a goal like Martínez’s to break through.

Alonso, Gspurning key the defense. Again.

Tonight, Michael Gspurning won the battle, even if he didn’t approach Rimando’s Friday heights. Tonight, Seattle’s goalkeeper lived up to Sigi Schmid’s year-long superlatives, making nine saves while keeping his 180-minute clean sheet.

In front of him, it was again Alonso cleaning everything up. Perhaps he was fortunate not to get called for a first half shoulder charge in the box, but after four years in Major League Soccer, the league’s premier destroyer knows how to walk that line. Late in the match, long after he’d picked up a 51st minute yellow card, Alonso made a number of key tackles deep in Seattle’s end that allowed his team to kill off the game’s final moments.

Packaged for takeaway

  • It was not a series to remember for Chris Wingert. The RSL defender, who was left looking at so many first leg crosses, picked up an injury in warmups. Kenny Mansally got the call at left back.
  • RSL also started without Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio’s normal partner held back with an injured hamstring. The Argentine came on in the second half for Paulo Jr.
  • In the first half, Salt Lake was intent on using Paulo Jr.’s speed, repeatedly feeding balls into space behind Seattle’s defense. Nice reads from Gspurning thwarted the tactic.
  • Seattle and Los Angeles met in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals, the Galaxy getting a 1-0 win in Seattle en route to a 3-1 series victory.
  • For Real Salt Lake, the question is whether they keep this core together. They finished second in the West, but after three-straight playoff disappointments, Garth Lagerway and Jason Kreis may look to shake things up.

Barcelona ends contract with company accused of fake posts

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona has ended its contract with a company that made negative comments on social media about people within the club.

Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said Tuesday the decision was made after the club found out that one of its service providers used an account to make “inadequate” comments about people in the club. He did not name the company nor give any detail about the comments.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Bartomeu reiterated the club’s denial of accusations it hired a company to make negative comments about its own players and opponents on social media in order to boost the image of senior club officials.

The Cadena Ser radio network said Monday a company used fake social media accounts to discredit opposition figures and some of Barcelona’s players when they expressed views that went against the club. Cadena Ser said some of the figures included star players Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique as well as former coach Pep Guardiola.

Bartomeu said other companies will continue to monitor social media on behalf of the club.

“It’s the responsibility of the club to know what is said on social media around the world,” he said. “But the club has never contracted services to discredit anyone, and we will do whatever is needed to defend ourselves from such accusations.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Premier League Preview: Man City v. West Ham

Premier League Preview: Man City v. West Ham
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Manchester City takes the pitch at the Etihad Stadium for the first time since UEFA hammered it with a two-year Champions League ban when it hosts West Ham United on Wednesday (Watch Live at 3 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Manager Pep Guardiola has reportedly stated his commitment to the club ahead of the match, which was rescheduled from last weekend after Storm Ciara hit England.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Second-place City opens the day 25 points back of leaders Liverpool, while West Ham is one point behind 17th place.

The Irons have not won a Premier League match since New Year’s Day, David Moyes‘ first match in charge.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 


Injuries/suspensions

Man City: OUT —  Oleksandr Zinchenko, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane. QUESTIONABLE — Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy

West Ham: OUT — Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko. QUESTIONABLE — Felipe Anderson


Probable lineups

Man City: Ederson; Cancelo, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Walker, Rodri, Gundogan, De Bruyne, D. Silva, Aguero, Mahrez.

West Ham: Fabianski; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Diop, Zabaleta, Rice, Soucek, Noble, Snodgrass, Haller, Antonio.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s David Moyes on the relegation fight: “I’m more than confident we will climb the table. I think the players here are more than capable. I think we have got a good group. I think they are all fully aware of the situation we’re in and the improvement we need to make to make sure we’re not in the bottom three, and I’m sure come the end we will do.”


Prediction

A blowout. While West Ham has the urgency to get out of the drop zone, City will be pouring its full focus into finding form for next week’s Champions League tie with Real Madrid. City, 4-1.

Champions League preview: Spurs host Leipzig, Valencia visits Atalanta

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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties kickoff Wednesday, including one being labeled as the biggest in a club’s existence.

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That would be Serie A side Atalanta, which hosts Valencia at 3 p.m. at Gewiss Stadium.

Atalanta had played in two consecutive Europa Leagues, but this is their first move into the Champions League. To make the knockout rounds is exceptional, and club president Antonio Percassi is fired up.

“We must be honest, this is the most important game in the history of this club,” Percassi told Sky Sport Italia. “It doesn’t seem real. It’s exciting just thinking that tomorrow we’ll be in a Champions League Round of 16. It’s wonderful for our fans too. … This is going to be a unique experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Atalanta finished second in its group to Manchester City, and is fourth in Serie A. Valencia won its group.

There’s a Premier League side in action on Wednesday, too, as Spurs begin life without Heung-Min Son.

Jose Mourinho spun a tale about how badly Tottenham will need its fans against RB Leipzig, comparing the home-field advantage to an emergency rescue crew of sorts.

Leipzig is led by Julian Nagelsmann, who was once referred to as “Baby Mourinho” by his players.

The 32-year-old was quick to distance himself from the story.

“Tomorrow it is Leipzig against Tottenham, not Mourinho v. Baby Mourinho,” he said. “I have great respect for Mourinho. He has won lots of titles with big clubs, the Champions League twice. He has made his mark on European football at some big European clubs. I think it his 59th knockout game in the CL and it is my first so there is obviously respect there.”

Liverpool’s Robertson not a fan of Atletico Madrid theatrics

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Liverpool fullback Andy Robertson was not impressed with Atletico Madrid’s display as his side fell 1-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Reds fell behind on a fourth-minute Saul Niguez goal and couldn’t get a shot on target despite 73 percent possession in Spain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Atleti executed its plan to near-perfection, slowing restarts and taking advantage of counterattacking opportunities to assuage the constant pressure of Liverpool.

At times it was reminiscent of early-century Italian national team play, and both neutrals and Liverpool knew what they were in for once Atleti took the lead.

“We gave them the best possible start to get the fans behind them and then they can start falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin a bit which I think we handled quite well to be honest,” Robertson told BT Sport. “We know we are better than (how they played). We put in a decent performance and we can be better than that. Luckily we have got a second leg to put it right.”

Given the performance and the reputation, you’d still fancy the Reds to “put it right” at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp thinks Atleti will feel plenty of pressure at Anfield, and he will certainly feel the officiating will be more to his liking.