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.

Griezmann: Playing for Barcelona is ‘not the easiest’

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Over the summer, Barcelona shelled a whopping $135 million to land Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid.

It was a match made in heaven; the rest was supposed to be history.

Only that hasn’t been the case for the Frenchman in Barcelona.

Despite scoring a brace in his debut at the Camp Nou, Griezmann’s impact and influence on the field has quickly dwindled. In 11 league appearances with the Catalan giants, the 28-year-old has scored four goals and added three assists, signs that the World Cup winner is, in fact, struggling with his new team.

Speaking to Telefoot, Griezmann revealed that playing for Barcelona is not an easy thing to do, but that with hard work, his fortunes will turn around for the best:

“It is hard, I knew it would be, it is not the easiest place. This is a new team, a new club, new tactics, a new position. I have to work, try to understand my team-mates, after they will understand me too and it will work just like that… Critics will always be there. But I am good, I am proud of where I am. Only work pays off. I have to take confidence and it will all come just like that.”

This season, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has frequently deployed the Frenchman as a left winger, with the hope that he will link up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The positives form such an ideology have yet to be reaped, however. Griezmann is scoring a goal every 224 minutes, a career worst.

The 28-year-old, too, has played in a central role on a couple of occasions, specifically during the absences of Messi and Suarez, but it hasn’t worked out for a player that has made a career from roaming that part of the field.

The building clamor at the Camp Nou is borderline justifiable – mainly because it’s now evident that Griezmann is wrestling with adapting to the expectations and systems in place in Barcelona.

But the high-flying attacker has proven he’s worth the price time and time again, and now he’s on the record saying that he’ll do everything in his power to do so with his new club.

Real Monarchs beat Louisville City to win first ever USL Cup

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Real Monarchs scored three unanswered goals as they routed Louisville City 3-1 at Lynn Stadium to win their first ever USL Cup title.

Noah Powder’s goal in the 66th minute sealed the deal for the visitor’s, adding to the goals scored by defenders Erik Holt and Konrad Plewa in the first half.

Surprisingly enough, it was Lou City who got off to a superb start on Sunday night, though.

Only six minutes after the initial whistle, Lou City’s leading goalscorer, Magnus Rasmussen, scored the game’s first goal, breaking a record for the fastest goal in a USL Cup final.

The defeat brings an end to Lou City’s historic run of consecutive USL Cup-winning seasons.

On July 1, former Real Salt Lake defender, Jamison Olave, took over as the Monarchs interim coach following Martin Vasquez’s unexpected resignation.

Man arrested after English soccer player reports homophobia

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TRANMERE, England — A footballer in England’s third tier reported being subjected to homophobic abuse from the stands, leading to police making one arrest.

Wycombe goalkeeper Ryan Allsop told the referee of the abuse at halftime of the League One soccer game at Tranmere as his team won 2-0.

Tranmere says it is very disappointed to learn of a homophobic comment made.

In a statement, Merseyside Police condemned abhorrent incidents.

Police Chief Inspector Jason Crellin added that “hate crime has no place in our communities, and not least at a showcase sporting event attended and watched by many people.”

Brazil beat Mexico to win U-17 World Cup (video)

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Brazil became Under-17 world champions for a fourth time in dramatic fashion as Lazaro Vinicius Marques’ scored a 93rd-minute winner to edge Mexico 2-1 at Estadio Bezerrão on Sunday.

Brazil’s comeback started in the 84th minute when Kaio Jorge converted from the penalty spot, following VAR’s decision which ruled contact on the tournament’s Golden Ball winner, Gabriel Veron, inside the 18-yard box.

With Brazilian legends Ronaldo and Cafu in attendance, the host’s had the better of chances throughout the first 45 minutes. Without any luck, however, Brazil were unable to get the ball past Eduardo Garcia, instead hitting the bar on several occasions.

Then in the 66th minute, Mexico – winners of the tournament in 2005 and in 2011 – stunned the home crowd when Bronze Ball winner Eugenio Pizzoto’s cross into the box was headed into the back of the net by Bryan Alonso Gonzalez Olivan, breaking the deadlock between two sides that had met in the same game back in 2005.

What was going to be a stunning, underdog victory for El Tri, turned into a heartbreaking night for Marco “Chima” Ruiz and company.

Brazil, on the other hand, are now only one championship away from tying Nigeria’s record of five championships.