MLS Playoff Preview: Sporting KC at New England Revolution

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  • Kickoff from Gillette Stadium outside Boston is set for 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN
  • Saturday is the first of two legs in the aggregate goals series
  • The Revolution is playing its firsts playoff match since 2009
  • Sporting Kansas City was the league’s best road team this year, an 8-5-4 record, and also the best defensive team
  • Young scoring sensation Diego Fagundez, just 18, led the Revolution with 13 goals this year

In Saturday’s Eastern Conference semifinal opener, we have a textbook instance of a playoff newbie in terms of the current roster and team makeup (New England) against an old hand at this MLS playoff business.

New England, a team with so much MLS playoff success in the previous decade, is back into the post-season swing for the first time since 2009.

Meanwhile, not only has Sporting Kansas City made the playoffs for the third consecutive season, but Peter Vermes’ team delivered relatively strong post-season accounts the last two years. Sporting trounced Colorado in the 2011 conference semifinal before falling to Houston in a tight conference final.

And came the downfall from Houston again in 2012, although Vermes’ team was strong in the return leg in the Midwest, dominating the Dynamo at Sporting Park (out-shooting the visitors 20-3) but falling a goal short on aggregate.

So a big edge in playoff experience goes to the visitors Saturday, a team that certainly doesn’t mind playing on the road. Sporting KC’s 28 points earned away from home this year (an 8-5-3 record) was best in MLS by some distance.

Kansas City is also the league’s top defensive team, with just 30 goals allowed.

Plus, Sporting KC went undefeated in Group Stage of Champions League – in fact, only allowing two goals in four matches while advancing to next year’s quarterfinals – while adding even more “big-game” largesse to this year’s checklist of achievement. Mostly though, it’s that feeling of being close to accomplishing something special the last two years, taking hardy sides into the playoffs but coming up short, that is providing all the drive to this year’s post-season bid.

“We’ve got a good, core group of guys that have been through this the last three years,” Vermes said this week. “That gives us, not comparing us to anyone else in the league, that just gives us a much better foundation as we move through the playoffs.”

The “foundation” includes what is probably the top back five in the playoffs (back four plus goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, that is). Center back Matt Besler, a U.S. starter, provides the stabilizing arm alongside the more volatile side the duo, Frenchman Aurélien Collin. In fact, we talk so much about those two that we probably don’t spend enough time commenting on right back Chance Myers and left back Seth Sinovic, both of whom are tough one-on-one defenders who can contribute a little punch to the attack, too.

Sporting KC’s offense mostly goes through U.S. international Graham Zusi (pictured above), whose assist total was down this year (from 15 to 8), but who did drop a career-best in goals, with six. Zusi’s recent return from a minor fall injury setback was among the reasons Sporting Kansas City finished on a four-game undefeated streak. Vermes’ team also won six of its last eight matches – and that was all after Kei Kamara left for England in a summer transfer.

New England has a little momentum of its own, however. Jay Heaps’ team from outside Boston looked a bit dead in the Back Bay about a month ago, staring at a tough schedule of road games, in need of a bunch of points to punch its way into the post-season. Well, punch they did, gathering up huge road wins at Montreal and Columbus, in addition to a draw at Supporters Shield winners New York, all in the month of October.

source: Getty Images
New England’s Diego Fagundez, only 18 … but he just finished tied in league scoring with a team-leading 13 goals.

Heaps’ team clinched its playoff spot just last weekend, in fact, with that 1-0 win at Crew Stadium.

One of the great things about having New England back in the playoffs is another chance to see Diego Fagundez, the Revs’ 18-year-old scoring sensation. Fagundez, finished tied for fifth in league scoring – and imagine what he could have done had he been the Revs’ PK taker, as league scoring leaders so frequently are.

He usually lines up wide (left lately) in the Revs’ 4-1-4-1 arrangement.

At the other end of the experience spectrum is goalkeeper Matt Reis, who lost his place this year – a difficult year that included unfortunate family involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings. Reis got things together and will be big part of this playoff push. So will center back Jose Goncalves, one of the real finds of the Major League’s Soccer’s off-season.

Another intriguing figure in a team full of them is Juan Agudelo, a young U.S. international (a bit farther back in the pool) who shook off some late-season injury struggles to make the Revs’ last four starts. In fact, his first goal since Aug. 25 was the playoff clincher last weekend against Columbus. Agudelo has already signed to play for Stoke City in January.

(MORE on MLS playoffs: ProSoccerTalk’s post-season picks and predictions)

AT THE HALF: Pulisic’s chip gives USMNT early lead (briefly)

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Christian Pulisic gave the U.S. men’s national team a very early lead over Chile — for a very short period of time — before eventually succumbing to injury and leaving the game not long before halftime.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT v. Chile ]

Gyasi Zardes — yes, that Gyasi Zardes — was responsible for creating the chance, but it was all Pulisic on the confident chip over the goalkeeper. It was the 10th goal of Pulisic’s international career, making him the youngest American to double digits (20 days, 189 days).

As good as the interplay between Zardes and Pulisic was on one end, the USMNT’s defending was that bad five minutes later on the other bad. Feel free to count up the total number of “what are you doing?” moments below.

FOLLOW LIVE — Berhalter’s USMNT taking on Chile

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The U.S. men’s national team, without a pair of prominent youngsters and building blocks for the future, is set to take on Chile at BBCA Compass Stadium in Houston.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT v. Chile ]

Following the departures of Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie from camp, Gregg Berhalter has made changes up and down the squad from Thursday’s 1-0 victory over Ecuador.

Hit the link above to follow along live, and check back with PST for a full recap and player ratings after the game.

Prime minister May joins England players in calling for strong punishment

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LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday urged soccer authorities to take strong action against Montenegro after England players faced a torrent of racial abuse during a European Championship qualifying match.

UEFA charged the Montenegro Football Association over its fans’ racist behavior in Podgorica on Monday night after England players Callum Hudson-Odoi and Danny Rose complained about being targeted with monkey chants during the team’s 5-1 victory.

UEFA’s anti-discrimination group had sent a monitor to the game because there was judged to be a “high risk” of racism and their evidence will now feed into a disciplinary case that will be heard on May 16 by European soccer’s governing body.

The treatment of England players was debated in the House of Commons between discussions about the Brexit deadlock and there was an intervention from May’s Downing Street office.

“The abuse England players were subjected to last night was disgusting and completely unacceptable,” said James Slack, the prime minister’s spokesman. “It is right that UEFA are now investigating. We urge them to do this quickly and to take strong and swift action.”

In a sign of the extent of the racism problem in European soccer, UEFA announced a separate investigation on Tuesday into abuse aimed at Hudson-Odoi while playing for Chelsea. UEFA said it appointed an inspector to assess a complaint by Chelsea that the 18-year-old winger was targeted with racist insults by Dynamo Kiev fans during the London club’s 5-0 win in Ukraine in the Europa League.

“It is a disaster,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said of racism in European football. “I cannot believe these people still exist.”

In the Montenegro incident, the Fare network which monitors discrimination at games in Europe will provide evidence which could lead to a partial or full stadium closure for the team’s next Euro 2020 qualifier in June against Kosovo.

“We had an observer present who picked up evidence of racial abuse,” Fare said in a statement. “Our monitoring team have been compiling the evidence we have before presenting it to UEFA.

We commend the reaction of the England players involved, no human being should have to face abuse and vilification for their race or identity, something that many Montenegrins will understand from the divisive and bloody recent history of the Balkans.”

In one unsavory incident, England winger Raheem Sterling cupped his ears after scoring England’s fifth goal and Montenegro fans responded with jeers before an object — reportedly a lighter — was thrown onto the field. It was picked up by Hudson-Odoi.

“All of us know what skin color we are,” Sterling said after the game. “It’s not like you are telling us anything new.”

Hudson-Odoi, in another post-match interview, mimicked the monkey chants he and Rose heard.

“We hope that UEFA will act decisively, the sanctions that could be applied for an offense of this kind range from a partial stadium closure to full stadium closure,” Fare said in a statement. “These sanctions are being applied regularly for offenses in UEFA competitions, often against resistance from supporter groups and football stakeholders.

“The challenge of tackling racism and other forms of discrimination in European football however remains an ongoing issue. The societal change and education that is the ultimate solution is slow to take place. Even in the countries of Western Europe where there has been investment and focus on these issues, discrimination remains a stain on football.”

The Football Association of Montenegro said it was only “alleged” there was “racist behavior of few spectators” but committed to identifying anyone deemed responsible and banning them from all matches in the country.

“At the matches played by our respective national teams until now, we have not had any incidents related to religious, gender or racial discrimination and we are fully convinced that there will not be any such incidents in the future,” the federation said. “In a multicultural and multiethnic society as Montenegro is, there is not any space for such conduct, which was the feeling most intensively experienced by our guests from England during the previous two official matches they played in Podgorica.”

The English Football Association said much work is required to eradicate racism across the game.

“The issues we saw last night are not isolated to any specific country, and despite progress English football still has its own incidents of discrimination,” the FA said.

“Our experience is that by combining both sanctions and education, whilst working alongside campaigners such as Kick It Out, real progress can be made.”

Inter and Milan close to announcing plans for new stadium

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MILAN (AP) Inter and AC Milan are close to announcing a joint project for a new stadium, casting aside potential renovations to the San Siro.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule

Inter CEO Alessandro Antonello tells the Gazzetta dello Sport the clubs agree the best way forward is to build a new stadium next to the city-run San Siro then tear down the old stadium.

Antonello says, “Inter and Milan are working together. We still have work to do but the time is right. Soon we will inform the city of our shared choice. Milan needs a stadium worthy of the top European cities.”

The San Siro, officially named Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, opened in 1926 and has already had several renovations. Modernizing the San Siro again could take more time and money than building a new stadium – plus would require Inter and Milan to play elsewhere during construction.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports