MLS Cup Playoffs: Taking stock after leg 1 of conference semis

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We’re halfway to the conference finals portion of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs following the playing of four conference semifinals first legs on Sunday.

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As things stand, I’m feeling really good about my final four prediction of the New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact, FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers. That said, there’s still a lot of soccer to be played before I’m proven right (or right), so let’s talk about who’s feeling good ahead of Sunday’s second legs.

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. UnitedFIRST LEG RECAP

The only side to win any away from home in their respective first leg, the Red Bulls, who already have the Supporters’ Shield in the bag, are sitting pretty ahead of Sunday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena. The worry is still that they lack the guy to score the big goals in a high-scoring or high-pressure game — Dax McCarty scored the lone goal on Sunday — but they’re so incredibly solid through the spine that they limit chances better than perhaps any team in the league.

On the other side, the 2015 season has lasted roughly three months too long for the 2015 edition of United, which is a very kind way of saying they’re old, tired and crawling over the finish line that is to be the conclusion of their season. Dreadful set-piece defending, which must be the no. 1 calling card of a team playing “Benny (Olsen) ball,” seemed the surest sign there’s just no gas — or fight — left in the tank for 2015. Red Bulls should advance with a single goal on Sunday.

[ MORE: Jason Kreis fired after just one season at New York City FC ]

Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal ImpactFIRST LEG RECAP

If you’re buying into the “Impact are a one-man team” narrative, that Didier Drogba is the only thing they have going for them and can only win when he scores three goals a game, you’re sorely mistaken. 36-year-old Patrice Bernier rolled back the clock last week, scoring two goals and setting up another between the Impact’s knockout round and first leg triumphs. They’re also incredibly tough to beat because they don’t beat themselves (i.e. turn the ball over in midfield), which curtailed Crew SC’s desire to get out and run in the first leg.

So much of what Crew SC have done this year is dependent upon turning opponents over in the middle third and being the quicker side to react. They can overwhelm the very best defensive units with wave after wave of Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and 22-goalscorer Kei Kamara. To overcome their first-leg deficit — that early away goal was huge — they’ll need to create more than six chances in the second leg.

[ MORE: Gerrard “wasn’t aware of” certain challenges he’d face in MLS ]

FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle SoundersFIRST LEG RECAP

Yet another road team that got out to an early lead, then coughed up a pair of late goals to give up a chunk of their first-leg advantage, but cling to the vital away goal as reason for optimism. FCD created counter-attacking chances at will in the first leg, until they decided to ease up and attempt to ride out the inevitable second-half surge. The center of the field was there for FCD to own, given Osvaldo Alonso’s absence, and for the first 45 minutes they carved the Sounders to pieces with quick counters straight up the gut. If Alonso is unable to go on Sunday (questionable – adductor), it should be more of the same and a handful of goals scored and/or set up by Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz.

The Sounders also missed Brad Evans, who has started or finished games in five or six different positions this season, along the back line. So much more fleet of foot than Zach Scott, Evans provides a mobile partner to Chad Marshall’s hulking aerial presence. Without either one of Alonso or Evans, the Sounders might as well roll out of red carpet down the center of the field to usher Castillo and Diaz in on goal.

[ MORE: Team of the Week — Stars of the MLS Cup Playoffs (so far) ]

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland TimbersFIRST LEG RECAP

We learned nothing from the first leg. The Timbers are pleased to be the only team to have not conceded an away goal, the Whitecaps are pleased to take the series home with everything still to play for, and any of us who watched this game hate soccer a little bit more now than we did before kickoff of the first leg for having watched it.

Darlington Nagbe has finally found a home as a central midfield, though this revelation has been occurring for the better part of a month now. He’s truly a handful when he’s allowed to get on the ball north of 50 times a game, as was the case in the first leg. There’s no better dribbler in tight spaces than Nagbe in all of MLS, and the crowds of defenders he routinely attracts opens up so much space for the likes of Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace and Lucas Melano. It’s far from too late for Nagbe to have his breakout party in 2015, but thinking about him running the show next March will have Timbers fans feeling excited all winter long.

Brighton’s Potter joins Howe in taking voluntary pay cut

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Brighton and Hove Albion boss Graham Potter has joined club chief executive Paul Barber and technical director Dan Ashworth in taking a voluntary pay cut for the next three months.

The trio said the decision was made to support chairman Tony Bloom’s “significant efforts to protect all jobs at our club and charity.”

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Clubs all over the world have been furloughing workers if not laying them off altogether as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on club finances.

On Thursday, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe became the first Premier League manager to take a voluntary pay cut. The clubs were also together in a prior initiative to reward medical workers.

Here’s Potter, via  BrightonandHoveAlbion.com:

“I spoke with Tony Bloom a couple of weeks ago, and I just felt like a normal thing to offer him because he has been good to me. I know the pressure he is under as a chairman and the challenges he faces. It is a small thing we can do but I think it was an important offer.

“Tony being Tony said, ‘Thank you very much but, at the moment we are working through things.’ As things have moved forward, I think we have come to the right decision to do what we have done.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola donated $1 million to fight coronavirus in Catalonia. Whether donations or pay cuts, surely more will come.

Brazil, Argentina league soccer players seek full pay amid coronavirus

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SAO PAULO (AP) As soccer players around Europe accept pay cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of their less-well-compensated South American counterparts are fighting for every penny.

In Brazil and Argentina, players aren’t budging during the league shutdown despite forced cuts to staffing and wages in other leagues around the continent.

Negotiations in Brazil between an association of clubs and the players’ union have failed to reach a deal on pay and early vacations. Team captains and executives are now trying to reach individual decisions, but those could end up in court.

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Brazil’s top clubs, fearing a loss of sponsors and rising debts, wanted to cut player salaries by 25% until the pandemic ends. But some players – including those who have been paid late in the past – have asked for the Brazilian soccer confederation to step in. So far it hasn’t, but the union did give some ground on the issue of vacations.

Former players, executives and coaches said they were inspired by the example set by Lionel Messi, who took a 70% cut in pay to help Barcelona keep its staffers during the pandemic. But the voices in Brazil sound more like that of Atlético Mineiro defender Guilherme Arana.

“I don’t think there is a reason (to cut). We are stopping because we need to,” the 22-year-old Arana told Fox Sports. “It is the world that is stopping.”

Atlético, however, said Sunday it will cut salaries by 25%, except for staff members on lower wages.

In Argentina, which has about 4,000 male and female professional soccer players, clubs have not cut salaries and the country’s national federation has not made any recommendations on the issue.

Players’ union leader Sérgio Marchi was, unsurprisingly, against any cuts. He insisted in a radio interview that “it is fundamental” to respect the salaries of soccer players because it would allow the league to resume “without any sort of conflict after this contingency is over.”

“Some (officials) are seeking excuses or mitigating factors for their bad management or to their flawed behavior at the time they are setting up a budget,” he said.

[ MORE: Serie A could return in late May ]

Players in Colombia asked for full pay, but clubs acted swiftly to start saving money.

Jaguares suspended the contracts of 13 members of its squad, Millionarios reduced wages without much debate and Santa Fé pitched fans against players on Twitter by asking them if salaries should be cut. The query ended with 62% of fans voting yes.

Colombian league organizers are also asking the government to broaden some economic policies to help clubs, including those that have suspended players’ contracts so they wouldn’t go bankrupt.

“We don’t want taxpayer money to deal with the financial difficulties during this mandatory stop,” Jorge Enrique Vélez, the head of the league, said in an interview with Radio Caracol. “We are asking for policies that the government has already set for tourism and aviation industries. We also had to stop 100%, and we have no revenues during this time.”

In Uruguay, some players are now claiming unemployment benefits after several clubs, including Montevideo powerhouse Peñarol, suspended their contracts. The country’s soccer association has also cut pay for staff, including 73-year-old national team coach Oscar Tabárez.

The biggest exception is in Peru, where Alianza Lima players openly suggested they should be paid less so the club can afford to keep all its workers. Goalkeeper Leao Butrón said the decision was “easy to make.”

“Yes, the offer actually came from us. We wanted to give the club a break,” Butrón said in a radio interview. “They told us that it is not necessary for now. But we don’t know when this will end. We are still willing. Beyond being an economic problem, it is a liquidity issue. A financial issue. We can give a hand if extreme measures are needed.”

Associated Press writers Debora Rey in Buenos Aires and Eric Nuñez in New York contributed to this report.

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

Report: Serie A could resume training May 2, games late in month

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Blanket testing for players and a 14-day quarantine for foreign players are on the menu as Serie A reportedly looks to resume in May.

Football Italia cites a report from Italian news outlet Adnkronos that discusses a May 2 return to training with matches resuming late in the month.

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Vincenzo Spadafora is Italy’s minister for sport, and is hopeful that the worst of the coronavirus is behind the country.

According to the report, any player returning to Italy from abroad would be quarantined for two weeks before returning to training.

After an initial round of testing for all players, more would follow:

More tests would be made weekly to maintain that level of certainty all the way to the end of the season. Clubs are believed to be stocking up on COVID-19 tests, in accordance with medical structures in their cities, ensuring everyone has enough to go around.

The plan may be met with resistance, as combustible Brescia owner Massimo Cellino says his club will not play and has accepted that it earned relegation.

European bodies implore member associations to wait to abandon seasons

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UEFA is speaking up regarding its hope to finish club seasons once the environment is safer.

Sky Sports reports that UEFA has sent a letter to its 55 members associations imploring them not to cancel their competitions early and that they exhaust all options “until the last possibility exists.”

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The letter is signed by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli and European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson.

The report comes as the Belgian Super League reportedly prepares to award its league title to Club Brugge on April 15. The league would be the first to see its season abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

From Sky Sports:

“We are confident that football can restart in the months to come – with conditions that will be dictated by public authorities – and believe that any decision of abandoning domestic competitions is, at this stage, premature and not justified.”

Many leagues, such as the Premier League, continue to suspend their seasons indefinitely as they wait for improvements with the coronavirus pandemic.

Although UEFA have relaxed their previous stance that domestic seasons should be finished by June 30, it is looking more likely that the 2019-20 season would need until August or September.