Hard way becoming the only way for finals-bound Galaxy

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SEATTLE – Of course, Los Angeles was going to make it tough on themselves. We should have seen it coming.

Even after taking a 3-0 lead in the first leg of their Western Conference final against the Seattle Sounders, the defending Major League Soccer champions were destined to revert to their drama-inducing selves, a quality that saw the team eliminated from CONCACAF Champions League by Toronto FC, plummet to the bottom of the West to start the season, fall behind against Vancouver in the playoffs’ knockout round, and lose at home to San Jose before eventually eliminating the Supporters’ Shield winners.

Those were the tea leaves that foretold LA’s Sunday struggles. The Galaxy were second-best all night, giving back two goals before a late Robbie Keane penalty kick secured the Galaxy’s third finals birth in four seasons. With a 4-2 (aggregate) win over Seattle, LA earned the chance to become the first team in five years to retain the league title.

“We know we didn’t play particularly well,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “We knew it’d be challenging. The objective was to advance to the MLS Cup final. That was accomplished.”

“Seattle played quite well. No question about that. Having said all that, we won this competition 4-2 and deserve to move forward.”

It’s a bottom line that belies the difficulty of the accomplishment. During Sunday’s first 20 minutes, Seattle’s three lead attackers – Johnson, Fredy Montero, and a surprisingly dominant Steve Zakuani – tore apart a Galaxy defense that was being beaten by every trick Seattle tried: combination play and one-on-one attacks; balls over the top and passes played through the line; considered build-up or quick, direct strikes.

“It’s probably been a while since a team came out and put that much pressure on us,” Galaxy right back Sean Franklin conceded, the former all-star forced to bear the brunt of a resurgent performance from Zakuani, who for the first time since suffering a broken leg in April 2011 showed signs of his former explosive self.

Franklin wasn’t the only Galaxy player to struggle early. Omar Gonzalez couldn’t contain Johnson. Rookie Tommy Meyer was out of sync with his partner. Perhaps most worrisome, LA couldn’t hold the ball, the team unable to adjust to a CenturyLink Stadium surface made slick by the downpour that fell during the match’s first half hour. On those occasions the defense was able to withstand Seattle’s pressure, the Galaxy would immediately give the ball back.

“We didn’t pass well tonight,” Arena said when asked about LA’s poor start. “The conditions certainly helped. It was a little bit difficult passing the ball. You could see our players [were] not fully confident on the surface.”

“If you watch the first 20 minutes, it looked as if they were playing on ice and they were playing on natural (grass),” according to David Beckham. “It was very frantic. They were passing the ball and keeping the ball, and we weren’t.”

Faced with problems in defense and midfield, LA did was they’ve done all season, resorting to the most-basic of solutions: Just play better. No tactical adjustments were needed. Bruce Arena didn’t need new personnel. His players just needed to execute.

“We understood we needed to pass the ball a little bit more,” Beckham said. “The game started to slow down … As soon as we put some passes together, we went through them and created chances.”

Still, the Galaxy were never their normal selves. At no point did they show the form that’d made them the league’s best team over the season’s second half. They team that took apart San Jose and Seattle in consecutive matches? They never showed up on Sunday, though to say that was all Los Angeles’s fault would be short-changing Seattle.

“They pressured us for every ball, played into feet,” Arena said of Seattle’s performance. “They positioned themselves better and were much more aggressive for second balls.

“Basically, on the night, they out-worked us.”

Seattle’s pressure left Los Angeles with no shots on frame through the first 45 minutes, and although the visitors had gained a greater foothold on the match by halftime, the Glaaxy still conceded 12 minutes after intermission, Zach Scott’s header off a Christian Tiffert corner pulling Seattle within one.

Then, as predictably as they allowed drama to undermine their otherwise smooth road to the final, Los Angeles regained their focused. Eleven minutes after Scott pulled Seattle within one, Keane created a penalty kick, eventually restoring a two-goal lead. Though Seattle had one good opportunity late, the Galaxy defense came together, aggressive play from goalkeeper Josh Saunders complementing a renewed organization from the back line.

“I thought Tommy and Omar did a good job of winning a few more balls, and we were picking up the second ones as well,” galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said, describing the defense’s improvement throughout the game. “We were able to break out a little bit and not just constantly be back and be pinned in with them firing from all sides. I think that was the biggest difference. We were winning the first ball and then cleaning up the second.”

Better passing, organized defending, winning the second balls. It was the formula Los Angeles used to play out the final minutes of a performance which became a metaphor for their season. It was unduly dramatic and failed to live up to the best team ever billing the champs accrued in the offseason. But it got the job done.

“Escape maybe is the right word, I don’t know,” Dunivant said. “We’re going through. To us, that’s the most important thing.

“If we’d won 3-0, we’d still be going through. We made it difficult on our fans and everyone on the sidelines, but we still got it done.”

If that was an implicit apology from the Galaxy left back, it wasn’t one endorsed by Bruce Arena.

“I don’t feel we escaped anything,” Arena said, defiantly. “We won 4-2 on aggregate. What’s there to escape from?”

“It’s been a really challenging season, and it’s taken a lot of character and talent to get where we are today,” Arena explained.

“After 14 games, we basically conceded the Supporters’ Shield. The objective then was to get into the playoffs. We went on a run that was fabulous. Last 17 games of the season we had 34 points. Thank God [the media wasn’t] smart enough to figure that out so we could kind of do it quietly and get ourselves going again.

“We’re back in the final, and hopefully we can have an improved performance from tonight.”

Napoli president accuses Roma and Liverpool of collusion

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Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has never been one to hold back words, but this one’s quite the accusation. He thinks one of his chief Serie A rivals is in cahoots with a top Premier League side.

“I always had a suspicion that the real owner of Roma is the same as Liverpool, and if this were the case, the two clubs should not be allowed to play in the Champions League,” De Laurentiis said to La Gazetta dello Sport.

Both owners are American, with Liverpool owned by John Henry-led Fenway Sports Group and Roma held chiefly by Massachusetts-born James Palotta. It’s not surprising that De Laurentiis would think this, considering the roots of both men in close proximity. What is surprising is that he’d actually say it in public.

De Laurentiis said that “a little bird has told me a few years ago” that Henry and Palotta were secretly working together, and Napoli’s Italian rivals didn’t take kindly to that.

Roma responded vehemently, with the official Twitter account tweeting a quote from Palotta. “What do you think @ADeLaurentiis is smoking over there in Naples? If he finds that little bird again, he’ll find out we also own Barca and Bayern.”

Roma then released a quote from managing director Mauro Baldissoni, who said jokingly, “He [De Laurentiis] said that this was all suggested to him by a little bird. I don’t know who: I can only think that perhaps Aurelio is listening to the wrong birds! Perhaps we could suggest to him that he should speak a bit with songbirds, who deliver nice melodies rather than speaking nonsense. For our part, we send our best wishes to president De Laurentiis and to Carlo Ancelotti, their coach who remains in the hearts of all Roma fans, along with everyone else at Napoli. We wish them good luck for the new campaign, as we do all the other clubs and players.”

Liverpool offloads Klavan to Cagliari for cheap

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Liverpool is starting to offload some of its extra weight, and it comes at the expense of the back line.

The Reds announced the sale of central defender Ragnar Klavan to Cagliari, with reports in England claiming the transfer fee was a paltry $2.5 million.

That leaves Liverpool with a relatively thin remaining central defensive corps behind starters Virgil Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren, with just Joel Matip and Joe Gomez the only ones left as natural center-backs. It’s a bold move by the Reds in a campaign full of high expectations.

The 32-year-old Klavan joined Liverpool in the summer of 2016 from German club Augsburg for around $5.5 million, but struggled to crack the first team in a consistent manner. Klavan made 39 Premier League appearances in his time at Liverpool, but was pushed back in the pecking order after the Reds brought in van Dijk last January. Still, he made a solid eight Champions League appearances last season – three of them starts – and was an important piece of Liverpool’s squad depth.

Klavan signed a two-year contract at Cagliari, where he will compete for playing time with the likes of Marco Andreolli, Fabio Pisacane, and Luca Ceppitelli.

Premier League Preview: Cardiff City vs. Newcastle

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  • Cardiff City has lost 10 straight league games to Newcastle
  • Newcastle has lost 5 of its last 6 PL games
  • Benitez has lost 3 straight PL games vs newly promoted sides

These teams have both been picked by some to face the drop this year, but if the first result of the season bears any merit, there is promise and hope on each side despite no points gained. Still, a result in this match would go a long way towards building on that foundation as Cardiff City hosts Newcastle at 7:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN.

Cardiff City was a popular pick to finish bottom of the table in various preseason selections, but they were unable to get by Bournemouth despite a positive showing. They’ll need every point they can muster, and the club’s home opener seems as good a time as any. They’ll have loan signing Harry Arter able to make his debut after he was ineligible to face his parent club last time out, but key midfielder Aron Gunnarrsson is still out due to injury.

[ WATCH LIVE: Cardiff City vs. Newcastle live on NBCSN ]

For Newcastle, Rafa Benitez will not have American international DeAndre Yedlin at his disposal thanks to a knee injury suffered in the season opener, although the injury was “not serious” according to a club release earlier in the week. Otherwise, the Magpies are at full strength, a welcome sight for Benitez who has been forced to fight tooth and nail with club owner Mike Ashley to ring out every bit of squad depth he can convince his boss to grab.

A draw in this match would be disappointing for both clubs, and while each will covet every point they can get, each team will believe there are three points for the taking at Cardiff City Stadium.

What they’re saying

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock on Rafa Benitez: “You’ve only got to look at what the fans are saying and what all the pundits are saying, the one person Newcastle can’t afford to lose is Rafa, they could get away with [losing] any player. His commitment to Newcastle has been fantastic and he’s in his last year now so it’ll be interesting to see how that develops because I think he’ll be targeted worldwide really.”

Manager Rafa Benitez on Newcastle’s transfer window: “Everybody is spending big money on players, but will they all work out? We will see. It will be easier for some of our players as they have been in the Premier League for a year, but now other squads are stronger. Is our starting 11 better than before? I hope so, but we’ll see.”

Prediction

Both teams put up a spirited performance in losing efforts last time out, but Newcastle seems the better equipped to take home the three points at this moment in the season. The Magpies will hit the road and grab all three points with a cagey 1-0 victory.

Arsenal loans David Ospina to Napoli

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Arsenal’s goalkeeping backlog has finally been solved.

With Bernd Leno signed this offseason, it seemed David Ospina would be surplus to requirements, and that’s exactly the case as the Gunners ship the Colombian international to Serie A side Napoli on loan.

The Serie A season is set to get under way tomorrow, and Napoli’s goalkeeping situation remains in serious flux after the team completely turned over its entire corps of goalkeepers from last season. The Serie A starter Pepe Reina moved to AC Milan upon the expiration of his contract, plus Luigi Sepe went out on loan and Rafael departed for Sampdoria on a free.

Now, another former Premier League goalkeeper will take over in net. Other goalkeepers on the Napoli roster include Greek international Orestis Karnezis on loan from Udinese and 22-year-old Nikita Contini, plus the injured Alex Meret also on loan from Udinese.

Ospina has been with Arsenal since moving from French club Nice in 2014, but has never been able to earn a true starting role. He started 18 Premier League matches towards the end of the 2014/15 season with Wojciech Szczesny‘s Arsenal tenure coming to an end, but since has made no more than five league appearances in any campaign, stuck behind former Chelsea starter Petr Cech.

However, Ospina often served as Arsenal’s Cup competition goalkeeper, making 14 Champions League appearances and 10 Europa League appearances over his tenure at the Emirates.

The 29-year-old Colombian has 90 caps for his country, including starts in all four matches in the 2018 World Cup this summer, where he performed admirably in a defeat on penalties to eventual semifinalists England.