Drilling down on: at Seattle Sounders 2, L.A. Galaxy 1

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It was something less than convincing – and that’s being kind – but the Galaxy came into Seattle and left with just enough.

It will be difficult for Bruce Arena’s Galaxy to feel warm and wonderful about a 2-1 loss, but they can sure like the opportunity that results from Sunday’s, er, “achievement” at CenturyLink Field: a chance to defend their MLS Cup inside their very own building.

Eddie Johnson’s early goal and another from Zach Scott kept hope afloat, but a controversial penalty kick for the visitors turned things in favor of the champs.

So the Galaxy prevailed in the two-leg, total goals series by a 4-2 margin and stands once again as Western Conference champion.

(MORE: Match highlights are here)

Man of the Match:

The midfield Sunday was no contest. At all. Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso, assisted by central partner Brad Evans, crushed the Galaxy in the center of the park. The league’s top ball-winner did his usual bouncing around, and his distribution was sharp and precise. But his game had a better tactical discipline than we sometimes see. He remained central and kept himself out of tackles and tussles that might incur referee wrath. When Alonso did get a booking, it looked like a smart one to take.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

One decision can change everything:

The Galaxy didn’t have much going right in this one; they were beaten pretty well all over the field.

It looked so much different from the day’s earlier match, where Houston came into a hostile environment with a lead and a plan, and nursed home the mission a certain calm and cool.

The Galaxy looked surprisingly rattled and even a little overwhelmed. They were without Landon Donovan (sore hamstring) and didn’t have central midfielder Juninho until the second half. Still, there was plenty of experience out there.

And yet they were being run out of the stadium. Robbie Keane, so good for the last few months, never had much chance to be a factor; the Galaxy just never got enough possession. Even steady center back Omar Gonzales was having a bad match.

But then …

Sounders right back Adam Johansson had his arms out, away from his body as Keane tried a tricky little chipped cross on one of the few Galaxy incursions. Referee Mark Geiger had a good look as the ball hit first Johansson’s left hand and then skimmed his right.

Sounders fans may not agree, but it was the correct call.

To that point, the Sounders were rolling downhill, on a rave green rampage, powered by on the momentum of the playoff record crowd of 44,575. Seattle had a 2-0 lead in the match, still trailing by one on aggregate but surely feeling that the equalizer was in them.

But what a buzz kill the PK was. Keane converted and you never really got the impression Seattle had enough left to overcome the two-goal margin that had just been re-created.

Steve Zakuani had a big impact on things:

Sounders’ manager Sigi Schmid is never afraid of playing the hunch, gambling and trying something new, never mind the big circumstance. Sometimes things work out, sometimes not. Clearly, going with Steve Zakuani on a slick field, on a big occasion, was something of a gambler’s hunch. But this one paid off.

The Sounders went down Zakuani’s left side time and again in the first 45. He zipped by L.A. right back Sean Franklin early and that one seemed to power up the confidence. Fredy Montero, recognizing where Seattle was hurting the visitors, drifted left to create better connections.

It all had the added benefit of more or less shutting down L.A. right-sided attack; not only was right back Franklin utterly uninterested in roaming forward, right midfielder Christian Wilhemsson expended lots of energy in retreat, looking to give Franklin a defensive hand.

The Fredy Montero mystery deepens:

Did we just see the last of Fredy Montero’s turbulent four-year run at CenturyLink?

And wasn’t this the perfect microcosm of his up-and-down time in Seattle?

Montero looked like he could win it all by himself in the first 45 minutes, alive with ideas and energy, making those killer connections with Eddie Johnson and Zakuani, even winning aerial challenges with the towering Gonzalez.

And then came the second half, when Montero looked more like the broken and beaten shell we saw last week, when the Colombian striker was shockingly ineffective in Los Angeles.

So here’s the bottom line on Montero in the playoffs across four years: 10 games (829 minutes to be precise) and zero goals. And in the critical moments, season on the line, Montero was on the bench. Schmid removed Montero – the man who has absolutely carried Seattle’s offense over stretches since 2009 – after 73 minutes.

That cannot speak well of Montero’s chances of staying around.

Packaged for take-away:

  • Good as Alonso was over 90 minutes, he made himself look bad after the final whistle, berating Geiger and earning a second yellow card. He will miss Seattle’s first match next year, at least.
  • Johnson struck in the 11th minute. He was ruled offside, although replays showed otherwise.
  • Goalkeeper Josh Saunders may have been the one and only Galaxy man to have a match worth remembering.

ProSoccerTalk will keep up the discussion of the chase for MLS Cup through the Dec. 1 final.

Report: Paunovic close to returning to Fire, Casillas on team’s radar

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The Chicago Fire brass appear to be sticking with embattled manager Veljko Paunovic for the foreseeable future.

Despite being out of contract, the Athletic reports that the Fire and Paunovic have been negotiating for weeks and are close to bringing the Serbian back on a multi-year contract. Keeping Paunovic could be a way for the Fire to keep one of its marquee players, Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is also out of contract this summer.

[READ: O’Neill, Keane out as Republic of Ireland coaches]

The Fire are coming off a disastrous season, in which the side finished second-last in the MLS Eastern Conference and fourth-worst overall. It was a huge change from 2017, when Paunovic, Schweinsteiger and co. led the Fire to third place in the Eastern Conference regular season standings. The season ended on a sour note though as the New York Red Bulls came to Chicago and romped past the Fire, 4-0.

It was all downhill from there, as the Fire struggled to build momentum and keep clean sheets in 2018. The 61 goals allowed was third-worst in the Eastern Conference.

While Paunovic will be looking to upgrade his defense, his side could be adding another huge name from European soccer. According to a report in Spain, former Real Madrid great Iker Casillas is on the Fire’s radar, and should he announce his intention to leave FC Porto, the Fire would be ready to make an offer.

Considering that Paunovic started Richard Sanchez, Stefan Cleveland and Patrick McClain at various times last season, the team could use an experienced goalkeeper who can give the backline come confidence.

It’s a big leap of faith for the Fire ownership group to stay with Paunovic after a horrendous 2018, but they must see something that they like in him to bring him back. Hopefully for the club’s sake, they have more performances like they did in 2017 to bring fans back to Toyota Park.

Former Arsenal striker Bendtner drops appeal, will serve time

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) Former Denmark forward Niklas Bendtner will have to serve a 50-day jail sentence after dropping his appeal against an assault conviction.

Early this month, Bendtner was found guilty of beating and kicking a cab driver in the Danish capital on Sept. 9. The 30-year-old Dane admitted to hitting the man but said he had acted in self-defense after a quarrel over the fare.

[READ: What’s next for the USMNT?]

Bendtner was sentenced to 50 days in prison and fined 1,500 kroner ($230).

The State Prosecutor of Copenhagen wrote on Twitter that it also abandoned its appeal after Bendtner’s move, adding “the verdict is therefore final.”

It was not immediately clear when Bendtner would serve his time.

Bendtner, a former Arsenal and Juventus forward who now plays for Norwegian club Rosenborg, has not been selected for his national team in recent months because of his poor shape.

What is next for USMNT after baffling transition of 2018?

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GENK, Belgium – On a freezing evening in a Belgian town close to the border with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the performance of the U.S. men’s national team summed up that they are, quite literally, at a crossroads.

Playing against Italy in Genk to finish off their 2018 schedule was a beautifully apt, if not cruel, metaphor.

[ MORE: Pulisic on being captain, Dortmund ]

The U.S. conceded in the 94th and final minute to lose 1-0 to Italy, and the neutral venue for this game reinforced the gear the USMNT are currently stuck in.

Due to many factors, most notably the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle but also a U.S. Soccer presidential election, the Americans have been stuck in a strange place the past year with no permanent head coach and no clear plan.

There isn’t much optimism around this program right now. Even the youngest side in USMNT history seems bemused as to why veterans aren’t being called in and why they’ve not been told what the plan is and who the coach will be moving forward.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]  

Lacking direction after a year spent dishing out caps to 50-plus players (which included 23 debutants) as they went 3-5-4 since their World Cup qualifying debacle, this is not the fault of interim head coach Dave Sarachan.

The U.S. lost to England, Italy, Colombia, Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, they drew against Portugal, Peru, Bosnia and France, and beat Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. This young team was stretched to its limit and the hope is that these tough experiences, in games they were they were largely dominated, will hold them in good stead in the years to come.

Sarachan — who confirmed on Tuesday that the injury time defeat to Italy was his final game in charge of the USMNT — has done all he can with the brief of playing as many youngsters as possible. He put out the youngest lineup in the modern era against Italy.

After 13 months (yes one, three) in charge on a temporary basis, what progress has been made since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup last October, if any?

“It was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it is evident there is going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarchan said. “I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program and I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of the program, I feel as though we have moved it forward. It may not look like that to everybody on the outside but to look back on the games we played, the players we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth. I am certain it is going to pay dividends down the line. For me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they are going to have a great starting point. That makes me feel good and the program feel good.”

In other words, the transition period is over and whether or not these kids have developed and learned in these games, it is no longer Sarachan’s problem.

There’s no more experimenting. This is where it all begins.

As U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (elected in February) and new USMNT GM Earnie Stewart (appointed in the summer to start on Aug. 1) stood on in the press conference room in Genk and watched Sarachan deliver his final comments as USMNT head coach, the attention has switched to them. They’re on the clock.

They have to not only appoint a new head coach but usher in a new identity to this program which is focused on one thing: making the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That journey, with or without most of these kids, begins now.


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Michael Dovellos, a lifelong USMNT fan, travelled to Europe from Chicago along with his parents to watch the final two games of 2018. Like many fans, he is extremely optimistic about what this young team can achieve in the coming years but there’s no doubting they need extra direction.

“It would have been great to go into 2019 now, finishing these last two games playing against England at Wembley and Italy here in Genk with a brand new coach,” Dovellos explained. “Take these guys, tweak the system, play these two games against great oppositions and make them your team. It is frustrating not to have that happen. We’ve waited all year, there’s no coach. We waited until after the World Cup, there’s no coach. Here we are now, at the end of 2018, and we don’t have a coach yet.”

Coach or no coach, this last week has been a humbling experience for anyone connected with the USMNT.

Getting spanked 3-0 at Wembley by England’s C team in a game which the Three Lions treated more as a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was the low point of Sarachan’s reign. The U.S. were so far off the pace it was scary. Playing all of your youngsters at the same time will lead to that but was getting this experience for them all together, without much veteran leadership, healthy for their development?

Against Italy — a team also packed with young talent with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Marco Verratti sprinkled in – they had 26.6 percent of the ball and only a string of fine saves from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath kept them in the game.

Will Trapp, who has captained this young U.S. side for much of the past 13 months, was honest after the defeat to Italy.

“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine. Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes,” Trapp said. “The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”


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It is clear that just being able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup will need a huge amount of improvement from this group of players.

We all knew there was a long road ahead for these USMNT youngsters to gain the experience needed to navigate the CONCACAF gauntlet in the coming years, but the past 12 months has taught us one thing: this process will take longer than we thought.

Christian Pulisic, the undisputed star of this team who also became the youngest USMNT captain in the modern era on Tuesday at 20 years and 63 days of age, knows they have a long way to go.

“They [Italy] came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”

U.S. supporter Eric Sarno echoed Pulisic’s views, as he took part in what almost became a group therapy session with other American fans ahead of the game against Italy. They pointed to the changes at the top and how Cordeiro and Stewart now needed to deliver, but only one thing matters to these fans.

“We are in CONCACAF. We have to qualify for the World Cup. There are no excuses,” Sarno said. “We have 300 million people, we have millions of soccer fields, tons of coaches, tons of facilities. It is not okay for us to be passed by Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. I like that the game is growing in our region but we absolutely have to qualify no matter what, every tournament out of CONCACAF. This year was about shock and sadness.”

It all hinges on one thing: U.S. Soccer hiring the right head coach to take this young group to the next level. Is that even possible without at least a few more experienced heads around?

“That would be up to the coach, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and to see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”

Gregg Berhalter is the USMNT’s heir apparent but you would excuse the current Columbus Crew coach if he has cold feet after these demoralizing, rather embarrassing friendly defeats.

A dank, cold, miserable night in Genk summed up the mood hanging over the USMNT. Nobody knows what has been gained from 2018, and nobody knows if the majority of these young players will be called in again.

“The only improvement that we’ve made is that we’ve gone younger,” Steve Crump, a U.S. fan who had travelled to Genk from Colorado, said. “But we are still in constant tryout mode. 25 players are different than the last 25 players every single time. Why can’t we just have a lineup and get on with it?”

Crump, who declared his anger to the group outside the stadium in Genk, has a fair point. The time for experimenting is over. The youngsters who have taken their chance over the past 13 months should remain but the best 23 players available should now be selected.

“Whoever the new coach is, they need to come in and start making things happening,” Dovellos said. “Make this team theirs, make the captain theirs, make them play for him and make them play for their country. Make them play well. At the end of the day, if a player doesn’t play well, they should then make way for another young guy to make a name for himself and make the team the best this country can have.”

Dishing out caps for the sake of it has to end.

Only time will tell if 2018 was a ‘lost year’ or one that handed young players vital experience to push on and become stars on the international stage.

Right now, the latter seems a stretch and the former more realistic.

“From last October there has just been turmoil, man,” Sarno said, scratching his head. “Not knowing who the coach is, who is going to be on the roster, the transition time. Turmoil. We are positive, we have a lot of support for our youngsters who are hopefully going to make Qatar. But it has been rocky to say the least.”

O’Neill out as Republic of Ireland coach

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Martin O’Neill, and his bombastic, fiery assistant coach Roy Keane, are out of a job.

The pair, along with another two assistants, left their jobs with the Republic of Ireland National Team by mutual consent on Wednesday morning, one day after a scoreless draw in Denmark. The result ensured that the Republic would be relegated to League C in the next UEFA Nations League, earning just two points in four matches against Denmark and Wales.

O’Neill and his staff were in charge for 55 games since he took over on November 5, 2013. O’Neill nearly led his side to the 2018 World Cup, falling in the UEFA qualifying playoffs to Denmark over two legs. O’Neill’s Ireland squad was one of the darlings of Euro 2016, in part because of the fan support in France and because of Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Italy In the group stage, which put the Republic in the knockout round for the first time.

The future is bright for the Republic. O’Neill gave 28 players their first caps, including exciting 18-year-old Southampton striker Michael Obafemi, who could lead the line for the Irish in the years ahead.