Three things we learned from Sporting KC’s 1-1 draw with New York Red Bulls

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Following Sporting Kansas City’s 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls (full highlights above), it’s safe to say both sides are far from finished products as Week 1 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season draws to a close.

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Sunday night taught us a lot about both Sporting KC, as head coach Peter Vermes attempts to re-boot an already-accomplished side and return it to MLS Cup glory, and the New York Red Bulls, as Jesse Marsch looks to assemble his new team in a mold of his own.

THE FEILHABER-ESPINOZA DOUBLE PIVOT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS

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Those are Feilhaber and Espinoza’s passing diagrams. That’s a whole lot of red (65 percent completed) for two midfielders of their caliber, and with such a high defensive line behind them, it’s going to have to be much better going forward. In mid-season form, Felipe and/or Dax McCarty feed Bradley Wright-Phillips a better ball in behind the backline, and he’s finishing the one-on-one chance.

[ READ: All of PST’s 2015 team-by-team MLS previews ]

They also struggled positionally in defense, particularly in transition. The tendency for both players is to get forward, press high and always remain active. They did just that in the build-up to Lloyd Sam’s equalizing goal, and it cost them two points.

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That’s with the ball en route from Felipe to Sam. Notice where Krisztian Nemeth, the third central midfielder, is. Because he leaves such a gap in the center of the field, Feilhaber (right) and Espinoza (left) push forward to fill the void. Let’s have a look at what that leaves Sporting with defensively once Lloyd receives the pass.

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The answer: acres of space. Matt Besler rightly steps up to challenge Sam, but already on a yellow card, he can’t blow the play up with a firm tackle. Instead, Sam skates by Besler, turns him at the top of the penalty area and applies the perfect finish. Basically, soccer is dominoes, and one of Feilhaber or Espinoza has to be content to sit deep when the other presses forward, no matter the situation. They’ll get it because they’re both elite MLS players, but it’ll take a bit of gelling first.

All that said, Feilhaber was still the best player on the field. The above criticisms say a lot about how good he’s been for 18 months now, that I expect him to be near perfect every time out.

LIFE IS GOING TO BE A LITTLE TOUGHER FOR BWP IN 2015

Life was pretty good for Wright-Phillips when he had Thierry Henry feeding him five, 10, 15 or 20 golden goalscoring chances each game. So great, in fact, he managed to score 27 goals in 2014. Now, that’s not to say Henry was the lone maker of BWP’s historic goalscoring run, but it’s going to take all sorts of different contributions from BWP this year if the Red Bulls are to make the playoffs.

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Tha’s Felipe’s passing diagram. It’s actually pretty good (80 percent completed), but notice all of one pass completed into the final third. If that’s Henry hitting balls forward for BWP, at least half are complete and probably a couple in the back of the net, given Sporting’s high line.

I fear the Red Bull attack is going to struggle this season, unless/until BWP finds a way to be a bigger part of the build-up. Chances are going to be few and far between otherwise, and he’ll have to strike near perfect all year to put up his numbers.

MATT BESLER HASN’T LOOKED HIMSELF FOR NEARLY A YEAR

Look, I don’t know if it’s time to start asking, What’s wrong with Matt Besler (I don’t think it is), but he’s not been great since before the World Cup last year. And it’s not the “mistake” that led to the goal, or even the two yellow cards that got him sent off. It’s the little things at which Besler used to excel — practically to perfection — that haven’t been…right…for a while.

[ MORE: Kaka, Diskerud score as Orlando City, NYCFC draw in dual-debut ]

No doubt the absence of a true defensive midfielder shielding the back four has hurt the entire defense since Uri Rosell was sold in May 2014 — and Besler has often taken upon himself the responsibility to step forward and fill the void — he’s just not looked the same confident, never-puts-a-foot-wrong defensive commander I watched week in and week out from 2011 to early-2014.

We’ll leave it at that for now and see what the next few weeks look like before we go sounding any imaginary alarm.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
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Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
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Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.