MLS playoff preview: LA Galaxy take slim lead into Thursday’s Western Conference semifinal second leg

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  • The LA Galaxy won the first leg, 1-0
  • Real Salt Lake has some history of not getting the job done at home in big games
  • Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan drive the Galaxy’s potent counter attack
  • The Galaxy is bidding for a record third consecutive MLS championship
  • If the teams are level on total goals at the end of 90 minutes, a 30-minute overtime will decide the series, followed by penalty kicks if necessary

Creeping doubt can be a terrible thing. When it comes to the LA Galaxy’s visit Thursday to Rio Tinto Stadium for a concluding playoff leg against Real Salt Lake, you have to wonder if one of the sides will succumb to it? Because both of these talented Western Conference sides have something to feel good about … but a little something to fear, too.

The two-time defending champion LA Galaxy takes a tenuous 1-0 lead into Thursday’s second leg of the Western Conference semifinal. Thursday’s winner from Rio Tinto (pictured above) advances into the conference final against Seattle or Portland.

Real Salt Lake has some disquieting history when it comes to these big deciders at home. That goes all the way back to a notorious (well, from RSL’s side it was notorious) 1-0 loss to New York back in 2008, just days after the stadium opened. Jason Kreis’ team was all over New York, pinging three of its 24 shots off the post but eventually falling and missing out on a trip to MLS Cup.

[MORE: MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Thursday’s second leg against the LA Galaxy]

The big crusher came a few years later when RSL missed out on a bid for meaningful history by not finishing the job at home. That came in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final. In need of a draw against Mexico’s Monterrey to claim the crown and play in the fancy FIFA Club World Cup, RSL fell at Rio Tinto, 1-0.

Even this year, RSL lost inside its swell ground at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in the U.S. Open Cup final. (Even worse yet, they lost that match to D.C. United, which just finished with the poorest record ever in Major League Soccer regular season play.)

Overall, Real Salt Lake has hosted eight elimination matches (MLS playoffs or cup competitions) at Rio Tinto Stadium, having advanced in just two of them.

Kreis has refused to talk about it. Team captain Kyle Beckerman did:

“For us, the way I look at it, you’ve got to keep putting yourself in those positions to play those games,” the RSL veteran midfielder said. “We’re doing something good to keep getting these games and getting an opportunity to win on our home soil. … We know there’s still a lot to play for, so I think we’re really excited to get another chance to advance in a game that’s played at our place.”

That meager history for the home side is likely to land as cold comfort to the visitors, the two-time defending MLS Cup champions whose bid for a historic three-peat (it would be Major League Soccer’s first) now dangles in the balance. It does so because the Galaxy could not convert more chances in the weekend opener at the StubHub Center.

[MORE: MLS playoff focus: Notes on the LA Galaxy ahead of Thursday’s second leg against Real Salt Lake]

The Galaxy counter attack was synched up wonderfully, the movement from Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan right in time. The finishing, on the other hand …

“I don’t think that Robbie and Landon will ever miss that many chances again,” Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “It’s a positive how many chances that they did get, but I think that they’ll finish a few of those on Thursday.”

source: AP
Major League Soccer’s all-time leading playoff scorer Landon Donovan.

But will they get all those chances? It just hasn’t happened that way for the Galaxy on the road this year. And that stands as the vulnerable spot for Bruce Arena’s team Thursday.

The Galaxy was just 4-9-4 on the road this year, matching Montreal for worst mark among MLS playoff teams. Take away one of those “road” wins, a victory over Chivas USA in the building the teams share, and Arena’s club was no better than 3-9-4 outside the StubHub Center this year. One of those wins came in Utah, at least; that was back in April, a 2-0 win at Rio Tinto.

Since then, however, Kreis’ men posted a commanding 3-1 win over the Galaxy at home, this one in June.

Beckerman warned that his team could not afford to lose sight of the big picture, one that says his team needs just one goal to pull level in this one. To do so, to panic and get rash about creating chances without careful game management, is to invite danger against the Galaxy counter.

“We’ll try to put some high pressure, but I don’t feel like we’re going to have to score like we have to score in the opening 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “It’s a 90 minute game and we’ll have time to get a goal to send it into overtime or whatever we need.  It’ll be key to not get caught up and give up opportunities for them to counter. We know that I’ll happen, but if we can limit their chances it’ll help our chances for sure.”

Europa League preview: Arsenal, Chelsea debut; Red Bull Derby (of sorts)

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The Europa League group stage begins Thursday, with two London giants taking part in a relatively unfamiliar competition.

[ MORE: Full Europa League schedule ]

Both Arsenal and Chelsea have played in the tournament finals in recent years, but for the most part are Champions League mainstays.

This season, however, it’s the UEL leading one to Greece and the other to a visit from a Ukrainian side.

Both are involved in our five matches to monitor amongst the 48-team field on Day 1.

5 (tie). Villarreal vs. Rangers / Celtic vs. Rosenborg

The Old Firm rivals with plenty to prove kick off their group stages on Wednesday, in turn saying something for Scottish football.

For Steven Gerrard‘s Rangers, that means the chance to make good on their first full European tournament since the 2010-11 Europa League. They took the long way, winning four qualifying rounds to earn these nights. Now what? Perhaps their toughest test yet in Villarreal.

For Brendan Rodgers‘ Celtic, it’s an opportunity to show that while the Champions League has been a bit too rich for their blood, a Europa League group stage with Austrian, German, and Norwegian competition isn’t a problem for the best team in Scotland.

4. Arsenal vs. Vorskla Poltava

Forget the opposition: Unai Emery sees the Europa League as the opportunity to put more silverware in the halls of Arsenal HQ. From Arsenal.com:

“Every title for us is very important. In 2000, Arsenal played the final against Galatasaray but didn’t win. And also, Arsenal played the final in 2006 in the Champions League and also didn’t win. In my career, the ambition is very important for continuing to improve and continuing to achieve the objectives in my career personally and with the team. I want to play for every title going forward.”

There’s no reason to expect anything but a win for the Gunners against a team in just its second European group stage.

3. Marseille vs. Eintracht Frankfurt

Frank McCourt’s Olympique Marseille still doesn’t sound quite right, so let’s go with the manager. Rudi Garcia’s Olympique Marseille has a lot of weapons, including a trio of World Cup winners in Steve Mandanda, Florian Thauvin, and Adil Rami. Their Bundesliga visitors feature a Mexican national teamer (Carlos Salcedo) and an American (Timothy Chandler), but eyes will be trained on a Frenchman: Sebastian Heller has three goals and an assist in three league appearances this season.

2. PAOK vs. Chelsea

With all respect to Vieirinha and Amr Warda, this shouldn’t be a major challenge for Maurizio Sarri‘s men. Yes, even with Eden Hazard, Mateo Kovacic, and David Luiz being rested in London.

But it gets our circle because Sarri has called it the most difficult challenge of their group stage. BATE Borisov and MOL Vidi (formerly Videoton) are the other members of Group L. From ChelseaFC.com:

“I have seen the four matches played by PAOK in the Champions League play-offs. My staff have seen the matches of the Greek championship. I think I know everything.

“We want to play with our characteristics, to control the match with our ball possession, but I know tomorrow will be difficult. They are a good team. They have won against Basel, Spartak Moscow, they drew against Benfica in Portugal. We have to do a very good match if we want to gain points.”

1. RB Leipzig vs. Red Bull Salzburg

UEFA would prefer to avoid matches like this, even presumably one-sided ones, as two clubs owned by Red Bull square off in a meaningful competition. The pair being in the same group will be even trickier when there are chances to affect the next round fate of their brother club (The clubs aren’t technically deemed to have the same ownership, but it’s difficult to conclude the relationship isn’t a healthy one).

Tigres cruises to Campeones Cup in Toronto

(Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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What home field advantage?

Jesus Duenas scored twice to join a Toronto FC own goal on the score board as Tigres UANL beat the MLS side 3-1 at BMO Field in Toronto to win the the first ever Campeones Cup.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Lucas Janson scored late in the match for Toronto FC.

The new competition brings together the winners of MLS Cup and Liga MX’s Campeón de Campeones in a one-off trophy tilt.

The win was a small measure of revenge for Tigres, which was knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League after a fierce quarterfinal against TFC.

The breakthrough came via Duenas, who beat TFC’s back line to a Juninho pass. Michael Bradley showed Duenas to the back post, but Alex Bono didn’t have his angle covered and Tigres had a 1-0 with 10 minutes to go before halftime.

To add insult to injury for Toronto, who saw Jay Chapman head off the cross bar, Sebastian Giovinco had to leave the match soon after Tigres’ opener due when he injured himself trying a shot from 45 yards.

Duenas made it 2-0 from distance in the 64th minute when he ripped a partially cleared corner kick just off the shin of Nick Hagglund and inside Bono’s far post.

An Eriq Zavaleta own goal made it 3-0 for Tigres, but Toronto received a fortunate penalty kick in the 86th minute to get on the scoreboard via Janson, on loan from Tigre (no s).

Allegri wants VAR, Bonucci doubts ref vision on Ronaldo red

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Sky Sports in Italy says its lip readers confirm that Cristiano Ronaldo’s sending off Wednesday was down to tugging the hair of Jeison Murillo while the Valencia man was on the turf.

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t too impressed, even after his club went on to win 2-0 in Spain.

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

“As far as I could see, it was a pretty normal clash,” Bonucci said. “Murillo put his hands on Ronaldo first, he reacted, but these things can happen and we must be stronger than everyone and everything.

“Ronaldo was angry, of course. The referee saw what he saw – not very well – and we overcame the obstacles.”

Juventus boss Max Allegri wants to take it a step further.

Juve is no stranger to calling for VAR, and Allegri is upset that the Portuguese megastar will miss at least one more match due to the red card (and could miss his Manchester United reunion should his suspension go beyond one match). From Football-Italia.net:

“I can only say that VAR would’ve helped the referee in this decision,” Allegri said. “Going down to 10 men in the Champions League for an incident like that is disappointing. We risked losing tonight with this and we’ll miss him for the next games too.”

It all pales in comparison to the vitriol seething out of Ronaldo’s sister, who reportedly posted on Instagram that “there will be a high price” for his tears, adding that “God never sleeps.”

Arteta: Despite loss, Man City was “ready for the game”

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Mikel Arteta might have enjoyed the opportunity to sit in the hot seat for Manchester City when the Premier League champions opened their UEFA Champions League season at home to Lyon on Wednesday, but he sure didn’t like the result.

[ RECAP: Man City 1-2 Lyon ]

With suspended Pep Guardiola watching from the stands, Man City went behind 2-0 to the French visitors. The champs could muster one second half marker in a loss at the Etihad Stadium.

Arteta said he couldn’t say whether the game would be different with Guardiola on the touch line, but doesn’t think the loss comes down to his absence. From ManCity.com:

“We missed the right pass and didn’t find consistency,” he said. “We felt under threat every time we lost the ball, that can bring the confidence lower. We were ready for the game, keen to start to Champions League because the way we ended it last season really hurt.

“The players are not perfect, sometimes they have bad days, sometimes better. I can’t fault the effort. I won’t judge them because we lost.”

He’s finding more positives than his players when it comes to the day’s mettle.

“We started slowly, and we were inconsistent in the way we wanted to play,” Arteta said. “We lost too many duels. We gave the ball away in difficult circumstances and they scored twice, but after that, the reaction from the lads was superb. We tweaked a few things to control situations better and we created chances, but at this level, it wasn’t enough.”

John Stones was at the back for both of Lyon’s goals, and admitted that halftime hit the players hard.

“Really disappointing,” he said. “To concede two goals like we did is very frustrating,. We came in at half-time a bit deflated. We picked ourselves up and played a better second half but it was frustrating.”