MLS Playoff Preview: New England Revolution at Sporting Kansas City

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  • Revolution won leg one 2-1 on Saturday
  • Kansas City eliminated on home ground each of the last two seasons
  • First leg featured seven yellow cards

Over 180 regular season minutes, Sporting KC kept New England off the scoresheet. That’s why it was so disconcerting to see the Revolution score twice by Saturday’s 67th minute, Kelyn Rowe’s goal coming 12 minutes after Andy Dorman’s controversial opener. Granted, one of Sporting KC’s shutouts over New England (the one in Foxborough) was against a much different Revolution team – the spring version of Jay Heaps’ side that was all parry, no punch. Since, New England’s a much different team, settling on a 4-1-4-1 formation that can leverage their wealth of attacking talent. Unfortunately, they still lost 3-0 at Sporting Park in August.

But the relevance of that result to Wednesday’s second leg is questionable. The departed Kei Kamara scored the first two goals. Then New England saw two players sent off. Benny Feilhaber, who added Kansas City’s third just before the whistle, isn’t expected to play a significant part on Wednesday. With each of August’s major events unlikely to be replicated on Thursday, we might as well throw that game out the window, too.

So what are we left with? What we saw on Saturday – a chippy, often ugly affair where capitalizing on breaks defined the match. After being neutralized throughout the first half, New England got theirs with Gorman’s potentially offside goal. Rocked, Kansas City gave up a second 12 minutes later but capitalized on their own break at the end, where chaos in the penalty area left Aurelien Collin alone in front of goal. Had Kansas City done better with their first half chances, Collin’s could have been an equalizing or winning goal.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on New England ahead of tonight’s game at Sporting Kansas City]

That’s easy to say in hindsight – that benevolent state that tricks you into thinking everything will go right in the next time around. But there’s a reason why Kansas City wasn’t converting on those chances. When Teal Bunbury fires an uncontested volley right at Matt Reis, it’s because he’s Teal Bunbury and not a more established scorer. When Jacob Petersen and C.J. Sapong aren’t producing goals, it’s a reminder that this wasn’t the plan. Claudio Bieler was supposed to be Sporting’s go-to guy, but that didn’t work out, either. You can’t just look back at the previous game and expect every chance you generated to come good next time. In reality, most teams don’t have sure-fire finishers up top. It’s always a game of chance.

source: Getty Images
Teal Bunbury (left) was a surprise starter on Saturday in New England, with his best chance shot straight to Revolution keeper Matt Reis. (Photo: Getty Images)

Clearly, if Graham Zusi continues generating those types of chances on Wednesday, the odds sway in Kansas City’s favor. But those odds will balance out if New England gets more production from their midfield creators. Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe, making their first postseason appearances, are the keys to this team’s success, yet in the first half in Foxborough, they weren’t their normal selves. Some of that is on KC, but as we saw in the second half, a lot of that is on the two creators. They’ll be better on Wednesday.

Which leaves us with Kansas City’s recent history. Each of the last two years, home field went for naught, Kansas City eliminated from the postseason in front of their home fans. All the good work they did in the regular season to earn their conference’s first seed went for naught as they came up short of the MLS Cup final. Is history repeating itself?

Possibly, and when you consider the team’s personnel, style, and results, you can see why. Kansas City is habitually among the best defensive teams in Major League Soccer not only because of their great personnel (is there a better central pair than Collin and Matt Besler?) but also because of their tactics. No team is better set up (and more willing to try) to kill off a one-goal game. Sporting won took five 1-0 wins this season, winning 2-1 on five other occasions. (New England, by contrast, had three 1-0 wins and two 2-1s.)

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s visit from New England]

But often (and definitely in the 1-0 results), that approach is predicated on scoring the first goal. They didn’t in this series. They didn’t in the 2011 conference final, but they did in the 2011 conference semifinal (taking a 2-0, opening leg win out of Colorado). Now, instead of being able to revert to what they do best, they’ve been forced out of their comfort zone. Sporting’s ability to adjust will dictate whether they can truly put the last two postseasons behind them.

Report: Earnie Stewart in negotiations for U.S. Soccer GM job

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Philadelphia Union sporting director and USMNT centurion Earnie Stewart is reportedly in negotiations to become the United States men’s national team general manager.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The report, from Metro NY reporter Kristian Dyer, says the Netherlands-born executive has the proverbial ball in his court.

Stewart, 49, racked up 103 caps and 18 goals for the Yanks and had a glittering playing career spent between Willem II, NAC Breda, and DC United.

He later had high-ranking positions with NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar.

Here’s Dyer, quoting a source:

The source, speaking to Metro on the condition of anonymity, said that Stewart is believed to be the frontrunner and is in negotiations for the position following an impressive showing during the interview process.

The club, when asked for a comment, told Metro that “Since Earnie’s first interview with U.S. Soccer, we have respected their process, and as such, we will decline further comment until a final decision has been made.”

Stewart scored against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup and added markers in qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 tournaments.

His familiarity with both MLS and European leagues would be a boon for the U.S., and Stewart’s Union has brought along a number of promising young players including Auston Trusty and Keegan Rosenberry (the latter drafted out of Georgetown).

Carrick: Haven’t entertained possibility of Pogba leaving Man Utd

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Michael Carrick is hammering the idea of a Paul Pogba exit from Manchester United.

Pogba’s had his problems with manager Jose Mourinho, but recently praised the boss for the season’s education.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

But is an exit is just not going to happen, says Carrick as he heads toward a coaching role at Old Trafford.

From Sky Sports:

“Of course he’s got a future, he’s a big player for us, he’s a great age, he’s got his peak years ahead of him. It’s not even something I’d give a second thought to, to be honest.”

The retired midfielder also said he’s looking forward to working under Jose Mourinho, whom he calls “the best man to learn from.”

He also said United’s trophy-less season wasn’t ideal, but it’s more about them their competition.

“We’re not looking at City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, anyone. We’re looking at ourselves to improve, we believe we’re capable of improving a lot and we’ll see where that takes us.”

Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

Ancelotti hired to end Napoli’s scudetto drought

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Is Carlo Ancelotti the right man to end Juventus’ seemingly ages-old hold on the scudetto?

Napoli hopes so, and has inked the former Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich boss to a three-year deal.

Ancelotti’s resume speaks for itself, and the hiring promises more Serie A drama after the Neapolitan club nearly got the job done this season under Maurizio Sarri.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s Arsenal unveiling ] 

Ancelotti won scudetti as a player with Roma (1) and AC Milan (2), once more as a manager for the latter. He also led Milan to two Champions League crowns, winning the tournament with Real Madrid as well, while bringing league titles to Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern Munich.

Napoli has finished Top 3 in six of eight seasons, finishing four points behind Juve this season. Juventus has won the last seven scudetti, and Napoli’s only title came in 1987.

The club announced the move after owner Aurelio De Laurentiis let go of Sarri, thanking the previous manager for three seasons of work which included a Serie A Coach of the Year Award and wins in 97 of 147 matches.

“I’d like to thank Maurizio Sarri for his valuable contribution to the Napoli cause. He brought joy and prestige to Naples and Napoli fans all over the world with an entertaining brand of football that drew praise from all quarters. Well done, Maurizio.”