ProSoccerTalk’s MLS playoff picks and predictions

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Major League Soccer’s 18th playoff season begins Wednesday. ProSoccerTalk’s writers have a few thoughts on how they might play out:

Who will come out of the East?

Liviu Bird: The New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have proven that they are actual contenders this year. They have only briefly relinquished first place and deserved to win the Supporters’ Shield.

Kyle Bonn: Sporting KC

With the Red Bulls getting all the attention, Sporting KC quietly won six of their last eight matches, conceding just four goals. For all the goals NY is scoring, KC have it in them to be the team that stops the NY hot streak.

Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

I know New York is the hot pick, but SKC has the better defense and better goalkeeper. Plus, lessons learned over the last two years – when good Sporting KC teams got so close – will pay off now.

source:  Richard Farley: New York Red Bulls

As much as I want to pick Kansas City, I think New York has enough to defend that number one spot.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

Expect Sporting KC and New York to battle it out for the Eastern Conference, but New York gets it done.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

I love to watch Sporting KC play and think a potential matchup against NYRB in the Conference Semifinals will be an absolute blockbuster. But as long as the Red Bull’s play up to their potential, they are the superior team.

Who will come out of the West?

Liviu Bird: Portland Timbers

My pick is based on their strong season from start to finish. The turnaround Caleb Porter has engineered is nothing short of sensational, and they are the most consistent team in the league.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

LA did just enough to get in, and I’ll take experience over youth in crunch time any day of the week.

Steve Davis: L.A. Galaxy

The asterisk here is whether Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez are healthy. If they are, the Galaxy and all that collective playoff knowledge will be hard to beat. Plus, Robbie Keane is the best player in the MLS post-season.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

As hard-to-call as the West looks, I’ll take the proven commodity.

Joe Prince-Wright: Portland

I think the Timbers will get it done. Of course they’ve tailed off a bit, but I think they’ll come up big when it matters.

Mike Prindiville: Real Salt Lake

In a wide open and unpredictable West, those who grind the hardest, prevail.

Where we would PREFER to see MLS Cup (based on “best atmosphere,” or “not LA again,” or whatever):

Liviu Bird: Somewhere in Cascadia

Not just because it’s the shortest trip for me — the atmosphere here is the best in the country, and if you want to advertise MLS to the rest of the world, the Timbers Army is probably the best conduit.

Kyle Bonn: New York

What better way to complete the redemption story than in your own house? New York proved this weekend the stadium and atmosphere have what it takes.

source:  Steve Davis: New York

The Big Apple? As Christmas approaches? I mean, it’s so darned romantic! Plus, the Red Bulls were Supporters Shield winners, so there is a beautiful symmetry to it … in addition to all those pretty lights!

Richard Farley: Seattle

It’s all about the numbers. Also, Seattle’s not a bad place to throw a party.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York

It’s about time the Red Bulls won MLS Cup, and I think a sold out RBA would be a great advert for MLS.

Mike Prindiville: New York

A number of other stadiums are considered better atmospheres but to have Red Bull Arena finally filled to capacity and rocking-out for a final would be a thing of beauty.

Where are the dark horse favorites?

Liviu Bird: Seattle

It’s hard to call them dark horses because of the star power on the team, but Seattle could still make a run at the Cup. The Sounders have proven they can beat teams 5-0, be beaten 5-0, and everything in between. Anything can happen in the MLS playoffs.

Kyle Bonn: Portland

It’s not often first-place teams fall under the “dark horse” category, but with everyone off the bandwagon thanks to their poor(er) form down the stretch, they qualify. First order of business in playoffs: don’t lose. They don’t.

Steve Davis: Real Salt Lake

Alvaro Saborio’s scoring rate (52 goals in 97 MLS matches) is prodigious. Nick Rimando is tops in goal. Kyle Beckerman commands that strong midfield and some of those “kids” are going to be something else.  So remind me again why we aren’t talking about this team a little more?

Richard Farley: Portland

Only five losses all year.

Joe Prince-Wright: Colorado Rapids

On their day they can beat anyone in the league. So many good young players, and having come up against Dillon Powers and Tony Cascio in their college days, I know how good those guys are.

Mike Prindiville: Colorado Rapids

Probably the darkest of all dark horses but with Seattle’s poor form, Portland’s playoff inexperience and a little bit of luck, it could happen.

The 18th MLS Cup champion will be …

Liviu Bird: Portland

It’s Portland, for all the reasons I listed above. One final nugget: on only five occasions in 2013 have the Timbers failed to get at least one point on the road and all three at home — and that’s a formula for playoff success if I’ve ever heard one.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

It’s that experience thing again. So hard to pick against. I know, I know. I hate myself for going here too, but with having put New York out in the semifinals, the Galaxy get it done.

source:  Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

The league’s best road team (8-5-4 away in 2013) won’t mind playing in New York, so they’ll get through to the final … and they’ll host MLS Cup in KC.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

In the absence of a truly convincing alternative, I’m picking three-peat.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

I just don’t think the big boys out West, Seattle, LA, and RSL, are in top form heading into the playoffs and the Red Bulls are flying.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

The time has come. Mike Petke’s passion and dedication is what this squad has been in dire need of for a long time. Most importantly, this is a team that’s peaking at the right time. The stars have aligned in New York.

(MORE: Are there too many playoff teams?)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

(MORE: Top story lines for the MLS playoffs)

(MORE: MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

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.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

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.

Liverpool’s Klopp: ‘Our people will be ready’ for second leg at Anfield

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Jurgen Klopp didn’t have any issue with Diego Simeone’s defense-first Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Spanish side flummoxed Liverpool’s attack and the Reds didn’t manage a shot on target despite eight attempts and 73 percent possession at the Wanda Metropolitano.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

What Klopp didn’t appreciate was the referee’s work, though, implying that Polish official Szymon Marciniak was overwhelmed by the occasion. Marciniak has worked UCL matches for six seasons, twice overseeing quarterfinal ties.

Klopp was shown a yellow card in the second half, and the Liverpool boss felt Sadio Mane was harassed by Atleti. Klopp removed yellow-carrying Mane at halftime.

“He was targeted obviously,” Klopp said after the game. “The only thing they wanted was to make sure he got a yellow card. The score is 1-0, that’s all but you need to be really strong as a ref in this atmosphere. So many things happened, after 30 minutes already three players were on the ground. The first yellow card was a striker from us. I’m not sure they even got a yellow card, which is funny.”

Atleti’s Angel Correa was shown a yellow, while Klopp, Mane, and Joe Gomez were cautioned for Liverpool.

The Liverpool boss found himself laughing a few times, especially when he was asked about Simeone’s touchline personality.

Klopp said before the game that if the German was a four in intensity, then Simeone was a 12. Simeone followed suit by constantly urging the crowd to get behind the home side on Tuesday.

That didn’t bother Klopp, but he issued a public relations officer’s dream in reacting to it.

“Wow, wow,” he laughed. “That’s energy. I don’t think I have to do it that much (at Anfield). Our people will be ready. Welcome to Anfield. It’s not over yet.”

Klopp finished his remarks by saying of Jordan Henderson‘s removal from the game with a hamstring injury, “I hope it was a precaution, but I’m not 100 percent sure”

Haaland wins first leg after Borussia Dortmund-PSG comes to life late

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Erling Haaland scored twice in a mid-second half flurry as Borussia Dortmund beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The hosts also got an assist from teenager Giovanni Reyna, who became the youngest American to appear in a Champions League match.

Haaland now has 39 goals in 29 appearances between Red Bull Salzburg and BVB, 11 of those for his new German employer.

Neymar scored off a Kylian Mbappe goal for PSG, who brings an away goal back to the Parc des Princes for a March 11 second leg.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Neymar had an early free kick, missing just wide of the far post.

Jadon Sancho troubled the keeper twice in the first half hour, first with a cross that Mats Hummels headed over goal. Then, Keylor Navas picked another Sancho offering out of the air.

Sancho kept serving, and Erling Haaland couldn’t turn a promising cross on target.

Dortmund walked into halftime with a scoreless match but a 7-2 edge in shot attempts. Neither of PSG’s shots were on target.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Borussia Dortmund boss Lucien Favre put in American teen Giovani Reyna in the 67th minute.

Two minutes later, it was 1-0 to the hosts through Haaland’s close-range goal.

Neymar replied from close range himself after a powerful, clever dribble from Kylian Mbappe led to a pass through the box.

But Haaland got his second in the 77th minute with a scorching shot that serves as the first senior assist of Reyna’s senior career with Dortmund (Watch it here).