Simple things fueling LA Galaxy’s big playoff turnaround

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CARSON, Calif. — It turns out one week is an eternity in Major League Soccer. As the sole evidence of this highly scientific observation, we present the LA Galaxy.

One week ago, the defending MLS champions were walking off the carved up green of Home Depot Center having failed to take advantage of home field. They were on their way to Santa Clara carrying a 1-0 deficit after late errors gifted the Earthquakes’ Victor Bernardez the series-opening goal. One website (author’s note: this one) previewed the second leg by saying, “it’s hard to see a way through here for the Galaxy.” It wasn’t a controversial prediction.

But something happened on LA’s way to the offseason. They woke up. Bruce Arena’s team scored three first half goals in Santa Clara and sent the Supporters’ Shield winners packing. Add in Sunday’s 3-0 drubbing of the higher-seeded Seattle Sounders, and the Galaxy are back to their championship-prowling selves.

So what happened? How did the Galaxy go from near-extinction to stream rolling some of the league’s best teams?

“I think we needed a kick up the backside, and probably [the San Jose loss] was it,” David Beckham said, thinking back to the team’s mindset after last Sunday’s loss.

“Before the San Jose game away, our movement and our fitness maybe wasn’t as good,” Beckham conceded. “But I think we’ve picked it up. We realized to go all the way in this competition, we have to pick it up … We’ve brought out standards higher.”

For defender Todd Dunivant, Bernardez’s goal was almost a blessing – a wakeup call. Combined with San Jose’s passive posture to start the first leg in Santa Clara, the deficit gave LA license to jump on the front foot.

“[Bernardez’s goal] kind of propelled us,” Dunivant said.”It changes the whole mindset of the series. San Jose suddenly goes in not as aggressive. Maybe they’re just trying to protect the lead and not lose the game, and now we’re the aggressors.”

According to Dunivant, that posture has changed from the sluggish, lackluster side that gave up as many goals as they scored in their first two playoff games. Over their last two matches, LA has outscored their opponents 6-1.

“We’ve been aggressive, and we’ve taken our chances when they’re there,” Dunivant said. “We sensed the opportunity tonight.”

The biggest example of that has been Los Angeles’s suddenly unstoppable counter attack. On Wednesday, Tommy Meyer set Landon Donovan lose on San Jose, the Galaxy captain hitting Robbie Keane for the series’ winning goal. Against Seattle, it was Keane’s turn to orchestrate, feeding Sean Franklin behind the defense, LA’s right back setting up Mike Magee for the night’s second goal.

“Quick movement and quick counter attack and transitions,” Keane cites, asked to explain LA’s turnaround. “We have clever players in the team that could cause any team problems … If we keep the ball, keep it moving quickly, we’re a very hard team to play against.”

The quick movements, the sharp decisions on the ball – they weren’t there before Los Angeles departed for San Jose. Whatever the reason – fatigue, lack of focus, the need for a kick up the backside – Los Angeles was not playing like MLS champions. But with their back against the wall at Buck Shaw Stadium, things changed.

“When you play quite a few games in a short space of time, you become a little bit stale, a little bit tired,” Beckham explained. “We had that in the first game against San Jose. We’d come off a tough game against Vancouver, scraped through in that one, then [came] up against a San Jose team that was very strong.

“I think we recovered a lot better than [San Jose]. I said it that day after the game … Leading into the second one, we were ready … Our confidence was up, and it showed … It showed in this game as well.”

There haven’t been any tactical revelations. There’s been no shakeup to the lineup, no emotional pleas from the coaching staff or captain. Chalk it up to whatever you want – aggression, movement, a wakeup call – LA’s just playing better. They’re playing harder. They’re executing.

Sometimes, the most obvious answer is the right one.

“There’s never any secrets,” head coach Bruce Arena quips, asked to explain his team’s turnaround. “I’d like to tell you that we have a lot of [secrets] and we pulled them out for this. Just playing well and obviously scoring goals and being a lot more solid defensively. Just overall, we’re playing better.”

And as Bruce Arena sees it, LA’s only getting better:

“The 90 (minutes) in San Jose was good, and tonight was more complete. I think we were a little sloppy in the last 15 minutes in San Jose. Tonight was better, so that’s encouraging.”

VIDEO: de Bruyne delivers gorgeous assist on Lukaku goal

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It took a little bit of patience, but Romelu Lukaku finally got on the scoresheet at the 2018 World Cup, thanks to a delicious assist from crosstown club rival Kevin De Bruyne.

The Manchester City playmaker delivered a spectacular outside-of-the-boot cross into the box, where Lukaku’s head met it and guided it towards the far post for Belgium’s second goal of the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Arsenal close in on Leno; Man City near Jorginho signing, and more

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Arsenal looks like it will have a new man between the pipes for next season.

According to a report from German publication SportBild, Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno will be introduced as an Arsenal player on Tuesday, after a reported $23-29 million transfer fee. The 26-year-old was on Germany’s 35-man pre-World Cup squad, but was one of the last cuts as Joachim Low went with Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp in Russia.

Leno became the full-time starter for Leverkusen as a 20-year-old, and has held the position of the No. 1 for the last six seasons, earning plenty of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League experience along the way.

It’s unclear what will happen to current Arsenal No. 1 Petr Cech. The 36-year-old Premier League legend experienced one of his worst seasons in net for Arsenal and he could begin the season as a backup, unless he moves to a new club. He reportedly has a contract through 2019.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from around the Premier League and Europe.

(more…)

VIDEO: Mertens scores wonderstrike for Belgium

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After a frustrating 45 minutes, it took only two minutes for Belgium to finally get on the board, even if it was a goal sprinkled with magic dust.

Off a partially cleared ball on the right side of the box, Belgium attacker Dries Mertens whalloped a shot that arced over Panama (and former LA Galaxy) goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, giving Belgium a 1-0 lead.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Croatia’s Kalinic sent home from World Cup

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It’s only been five days, and we have our first World Cup dismissal.

According to a bombshell report out of Croatia, Croatia National Team head coach Zlatko Dalic has sent home striker Nikola Kalinic from the team’s camp, after the AC Milan player reportedly refused to be a substitute during Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

[Update: The Croatia FA confirmed the decision, releasing this statement from Dalic. “During the Nigeria encounter, Kalinić was warming up and was supposed to come on in the second half. However, he then stated that he wasn’t ready to come on due to a back issue. The same thing happened during the Brazil friendly in England, as well as before the practice session on Sunday. I have calmly accepted that, and since I need my players fit and ready to play, I have made this decision.”]

The report states that Kalinic refused to come on due to an injury, but Dalic had said recently that his team had no injuries that would keep players out, potentially meaning that Kalinic used the injury claim as an excuse.

Croatia’s FA is expected to confirm the news on Monday.

After a rough season at AC Milan, with just six league goals in 31 Serie A appearances, Kalinic, at 30, is likely finished with the Vatreni. He scored three goals in World Cup qualifying but hasn’t started for Croatia since a 2-0 win over Peru in March. Kalinic did score against Spain in Croatia’s shock 2-1 win exactly two years prior to Saturday’s match.

He was deemed second choice to Mario Mandzukic as the center forward up top, but was reportedly asked to spell Mandzukic during Croatia’s match against Nigeria, and Kalinic reportedly refused.

If true, Croatia will continue with 22 players for the remainder of the tournament.