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.

La Liga roundup: Griezmann shines in Barcelona’s 5-2 drubbing of Betis

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Wins from Barcelona and Atletico Madrid highlight La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Barcelona 5-2 Real Betis

Antoine Griezmann’s Camp Nou debut was one for the books.

With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez sidelined with injuries, the floor was all Griezmann’s. He didn’t disappoint.

Down 1-0, Griezmann, sneaking past his markers inside the box, acrobatically tapped a lofting ball from Sergi Roberto into the back of the net.

The best was yet to come, however.

In the second half, as Barcelona pinned Real Betis back in their defensive third, the Frenchman’s magic came to life.

Soon after, the floodgates opened – Barcelona’s skill effortlessly began to pick apart a weaker Betis side. Just 30 minutes after the 28-year-old’s second goal, Ernesto Valverde’s side posed a 5-1 lead.

Loren Moron’s superb strike gave Betis a second, but the defending champions had already done the damage behind goals from Carles Perez, Jordi Alba, Arturo Vidal and Griezmann.

With Sunday’s performance in mind, how will Barcelona function with Messi, Suarez and Griezmann spearheading the attack?

Osasuna may soon find that out firsthand as they host the Catalonians next. Elsewhere, looking for their first points of the season, Betis host Leganes.

Leganes 0-1 Atletico Madrid 

With a goal in the 70th minute, Vitolo played the unlikely hero for Atletico Madrid in their 1-0 win over Leganes.

Following a smooth lay-off from Joao Felix, the 29-year-old calmly slotted the ball past Juan Soriano, ten minutes after replacing Mario Hermoso.

The goal certainly meant a lot to Vitolo and Atletico Madrid, who along with Sevilla, are one of two teams to start the season with six points after two matchweeks.

Although not entirely dominant throughout the course of the match, the home side was inches from stripping two points from Los Colchoneros with Jonathan Silva’s free-kick hitting the crossbar.

Despite having a pair of clear-cut opportunities on Sunday, Atletico’s $142 million summer signing is yet to celebrate his first La Liga goal. Alvaro Morata, too, is waiting to catch fire.

With Atletico hosting an underperforming Eibar next, the narrative that Simeone’s side is lacking efficiency in the attack can soon fall flat. On the other hand, no points to their name, will look to exploit a confidence-battered Real Betis.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Alaves 0-0 Espanyol

RCD Mallorca 0-1 Real Sociedad

Rapids name Robin Fraser as head coach

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) The Colorado Rapids have named former Major League Soccer player and longtime assistant Robin Fraser as their head coach.

Fraser steps in for Conor Casey, who’s been the interim coach since the team fired Anthony Hudson in May. Colorado is 7-14-6 and at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Fraser’s first match in charge will be Saturday at the New York Red Bulls.

The 52-year-old Fraser has served as an assistant coach at Toronto FC since 2015.

Fraser was the fourth overall pick in the 1996 MLS player draft by the Los Angeles Galaxy. Over his career, Fraser suited up for the Galaxy, the Rapids and the Columbus Crew. He said in a statement Sunday he considers Colorado home because he’s so familiar with the soccer community.

Rapids general manager Padraig Smith said Fraser has a “deep knowledge of what it takes to be successful in MLS.”

Pochettino upset with attacking stars, speaks on Eriksen status

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Mauricio Pochettino might’ve understood Tottenham Hotspur dropping points last week at Man City, but he didn’t plan on not taking anything from Newcastle United on Sunday at home.

“You need the capacity to step up in this type of situation but we didn’t show that quality today,” Pochettino said. “When the ball arrives in the last third you need something from the talent and quality we have there and today we didn’t have that.”

[ RECAP: Spurs 0-1 Newcastle | Bruce reacts ]

So that’s pretty straight forward, but Pochettino was less happy to answer the question of why he didn’t start Christian Eriksen. Some (read: this writer) have questioned the philosophy of putting a man you may sell for $50 million on the bench. Either put him in the Starting XI and risk him, or leave him off the 18.

“When you lose, the players who don’t play are the best. With Christian we win and we lose a lot of games. I accept that situation is like this. If we won 3-0 today no one talks about different names.

“I cannot find excuses about the transfer window being open to justify that performance or the result. We cannot find the way to be solid and to have consistency for different reasons. I am going to be happy in 10 days after we play Arsenal when the transfer window closes in Europe and to have the player involved until the transfer window again in January.”

We’re not gonna read too much into it, but it does sound a bit like Pochettino is daring teams to bid for Eriksen. Would it make sense for him to hold onto Eriksen until January before cashing in?

Newcastle’s Bruce heard criticism, happy to beat Spurs

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Steve Bruce heard a lot of the criticism from fans upon his hiring at Newcastle United, and it rang out louder after the Magpies started 0-2 including a loss at newly-promoted Norwich City.

[ RECAP: Spurs 0-1 Newcastle ]

He may well hear plenty more down the road, but the childhood Newcastle supporter was feeling relieved and maybe redeemed after a fortunate and wonderful 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday. From the BBC:

“We came to this fantastic stadium, this fantastic club and we performed. I mean, to say I ‘cannot even do a warm up’ is mad. I have managed 900-odd games and over the years you would think there would be some sort of respect but I go back to the fact that whoever took over from Rafa Benitez was going to get the abuse.”

Newcastle faces struggling Watford at St. James’ Park next week, and another result will ease a lot of nerves (though certainly not all of them.