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.

Premier League clubs vote VAR into use for 2019-20 season

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It’s been inevitable for quite some time, but now it’s official: video review will be used in the Premier League when the 2019-20 season kicks off next August.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

20 of 20 current PL clubs voted on Thursday to confirm the use of the modern technology beginning next season.

The Bundesliga and Serie A began using the video assistant referee (VAR) at the start of the 2017-18 season, and have continued (successful) operation of the system in 2018-19. Major League Soccer introduced the protocol two-thirds of the way through its 2017 season, to far greater degrees of varying success. La Liga is set to begin use of VAR next season as well.

[ MORE: England vs. USMNT preview ]

VAR was first used in the English game last season, when select FA Cup fixtures were used as test runs, while the same is being done in the EFL Cup this season.

Chelsea expected to let Cahill leave on loan in January

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Gary Cahill is no longer first-choice at Chelsea — anything but, in fact, as he’s played just 21 minutes in the Premier League this season — and the club is prepared to allow its captain to leave on loan in January as a reward for six years of excellent service, according to a report from the Guardian.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

New Blues boss Maurizio Sarri has used Cahill sparingly thus far — even leaving him out of the 18-man team for Sunday’s draw with Everton — but has praised the 32-year-old for his professionalism and influence as a valued member inside the locker room. For those reasons, Sarri is prepared to do right by one of the club’s most senior members as Cahill seeks regular first-team minutes.

[ MORE: England vs. USMNT preview ]

Cahill’s current contract is set to expire in the summer of 2020, thus a loan in January and an ensuing permanent transfer this coming summer represents the club’s final opportunity to recoup a small fee for a player who will surely garner plenty of interest from within the PL. Having paid under $9 million to sign him from Bolton in January 2012, Chelsea have gotten pretty good value for their initial investment, including two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup, and one Champions League and Europa League title each during Cahill’s spell at the club.

U.S. U-20 men one win from World Cup

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One win.

That’s all the United States’ U-20 men’s national team will need to advance to this summer’s World Cup in Poland and the Pan-American Games in Peru.

[ MORE: Surgery for Mendy ]

The Yanks cruised through group play with a nearly perfect nine days of soccer, the closest of five wins a 6-1 defeat of Trinidad and Tobago.

Competition is a bit tougher in the knockout stage, but Costa Rica and Honduras did the U.S. a massive solid by drawing 1-1 in their opener.

Now Tab Ramos’ kids can qualify for the World Cup with a defeat of Costa Rica on Friday or Honduras on Monday.

The top two teams in each group qualify for Poland, while the Group A winner advances to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship to face the winner of Group B (Mexico, El Salvador, or Panama).

The U.S. has spread the scoring around, lead by 17-year-old Ulysses Lainez of LA Galaxy II (six goals). His former Galaxy Academy buddy, Alexis Mendez of Freiburg has five goals, as does Toronto FC 18-year-old Ayo Akinola.

Atlanta United sits atop Forbes’ list of most valuable MLS franchises

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Atlanta United came up just short of the Supporters’ Shield, but it’s off-the-field success is No. 1 with a bullet.

Giving high marks to attendance and merchandise sales, Forbes places the Five Stripes atop its list of the most valuable franchises in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Surgery for Mendy ]

United sits first, with a valuation of $330 million. Both Atlanta and the second place Galaxy have valuations ahead of the two-least valuable teams combined (Columbus and Colorado). And the Five Stripes are worth twice the individual values of those teams and Vancouver. Full list here, from Forbes.com:

“Last season, average home-game attendance was 48,200, and this year the team is drawing over 50,000 fans per game. In just two seasons Atlanta has already laid claim to the league’s eight best-attended games ever, and nine of the top eleven.”

The margins are fine, relatively speaking, with Atlanta’s advantage over second place LA Galaxy by $10 million. Seattle is third at $310m, with newcomers LAFC at $305m, and Toronto FC at $290m.