MLS Cup Playoffs: Field to be cut from 8 to 4 in leg 2 of conf. semis

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Sunday afternoon is drawing closer and closer, which can mean only one thing: another quadrupleheader of 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs action, this time to send four teams through to the conference finals and four more teams home for another winter of wondering “what if?”

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The conference semifinals, which will see four second legs played from Sunday afternoon to late in the evening, set up as follows…

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. United — Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Red Bulls are the only remaining side to hold an advantage before kicking off the second leg at home. As such, they’ve got to be considered massive favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, though it won’t as straightforward as that without center back Damien Perrinelle, who was lost for the rest of the playoffs after he suffered a left knee injury in the first leg.

That is, of course, dependent upon United venturing into the Red Bulls’ final third every now and then to put a shot on target — something they have thus far failed to do even once through 90 minutes. A mass exodus and complete reshuffling of the United roster presumably looms this winter, so it’s last chance saloon time for Ben Olsen’s current edition of the Black and Red.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-1 (3-1 agg.) United

[ MORE: An MLS postseason awards ballot — MVP, Coach, Rookie & more! ]

Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal Impact —Sunday,  5 p.m. ET, ESPN

No second leg presents itself with the excitement and vast array of possibilities of Columbus versus Montreal. An early Crew SC goal makes this one all the better, considering Montreal will have to chase an away goal, thus opening themselves up tot he devastating counter-attacking ways of the Black and Gold. Crew SC were largely reined in during the first leg, unable to counter into the open field so regularly as the regular season.

For the Impact, their season almost entirely comes down to their midfield three — Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Patrice — taking care of the ball in the middle third of the field, not allowing Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara to start counters inside their attacking half, and quickly snuffing out those chances in the (hopefully, for their sake) rare event. Oh yeah, then there’s Didier Drogba, who has 12 goals in 13 games (playoffs included) since signing for the Impact, biding his time for a chance to play hero.

Prediction: Crew SC 1-1 (2-3 agg.) Impact

[ MORE: Which MLS teams should be in the Cubo Torres sweepstakes? ]

FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle Sounders — Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

To put it simply, FC Dallas blew a golden opportunity to put their semifinal tie with the Sounders away in leg no. 1 last Sunday. After 18 minutes, Oscar Pareja’s side held a 1-0 lead at CenturyLink Field and had the Sounders on the ropes, shaking at the knees and ready to be knocked down. Instead, FCD took their foot of the gas, dropped deeper defensively, conceded more than 56 percent of possession the rest of the way and watch the Sounders scored two deserved late goals to undo a brilliant opening half-hour from FCD.

That said, FCD are still in a great position to go through, especially if midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and/or defender Brad Evans (injuries) are unable to go in Sunday’s second leg. In Alonso, the Sounders lose one of MLS’s strongest engines and ball-winners, without whom the red carpet is rolled out for Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo to stroll through the middle of the park. In Evans, they lose a mobile center back partner to Chad Marshall’s aerial dominance and cement-block feet, without whom Marshall, 31, and Zach Scott, 35, will be playing catch-up to Castillo, Tesho Akindele and David Texeira all game long. Spoiler alert: the Sounders will lose that battle.

Prediction: FCD 3-1 AET (4-3 agg.) Sounders

[ MORE: Gerrard won’t be returning to Liverpool (to play) ]

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland Timbers — Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, FS1

If you think you have any idea which way the second leg of Vancouver versus Portland is going to go, you’re flat out lying. 0-0 in the first leg had a lot to do with the Timbers playing 120 minutes and needing 11 rounds of penalty kicks 72 hours earlier in the knockout round. If not for goalkeeper David Ousted coming up big on two occasions, the Timbers still would have taken an advantage into leg no. 2. Darlington Nagbe has put together the best month of his professional career after moving to the center of midfield, so he’ll (as always) be the X-factor on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps continue to fly under the radar as the side who concedes very few goals and takes very few chances going forward — a far cry from the wide open, run-and-gun side of March and April. Pedro Morales is still working his way back into fitness after a hamstring injury robbed him of the final month of the regular season, which means it’s entirely possible we see the workman trio of Gershon Koffie, Matias Laba and Russell Teibert in the center of midfield once again. If Diego Chara (foot) is unable to go for the Timbers once again, that’s a battle the ‘Caps will win — and exploit — all night long, right into the Western Conference finals.

Prediction: Whitecaps 2-2 (2-2* agg. – away goals) Timbers

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool, Chelsea through to UCL knockouts

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle on Liverpool’s nervy 2-0 win against Red Bull Salzburg to take first place in Group E of the Champions League (1:55), Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Lille to secure a place in the Round of 16 (13:15) and who is the current favorite to win it all (20:45).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Plus, what Arsenal’s come-from-behind 3-1 win at West Ham means for both London clubs (29:10) and the Robbies discuss what they’re looking forward to most at the next Live Premier League Mornings Fan Fest in Miami Beach (46:05).

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 16

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The Premier League didn’t issue too many surprises at the bottom of the table this week, but two top-tier sides didn’t behave as such and shook up our rankings.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Chelsea and Man City have dipped low, and Bournemouth’s skid doesn’t have it sinking lower (yet) because of the teams beneath it.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Watford — Liverpool and Manchester United are next, and it’s looking a long way back to safety.
Last week: 20
Season high: 17
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 0-0 v. Crystal Palace
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Liverpool

19. Norwich City — Outshot, out-passed, our possessed Sheffield United at home and still lost. Bad vibes, man.
Last week: 18
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Leicester City

18. West Ham United — Just feels like there’s something lurking below the surface here. Doesn’t smell right given the Irons talent.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-1 v. Arsenal
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Southampton

17. Bournemouth — Losing to Liverpool is no shame, but it’s almost officially time to worry.
Last week: 16
Season high: 6
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 3-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

16. Aston Villa — Tom Heaton is a heck of a goalkeeper but he can’t be expected to save four A-plus danger chances per game.
Last week: 14
Season high: 8
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 4-1 v. Leicester City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Sheffield United

15. Southampton — West Ham and Villa back-to-back have to provide four points if Saints revival is to be believed.
Last week: 15
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Newcastle United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. West Ham United

14. Everton — Duncan Ferguson gives the Toffees board reason enough to be patient with their managerial hire, and then Napoli goes and fires Carlo Ancelotti.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

13. Burnley — The defending against Spurs — we know, Spurs are good — was enough to drop them far lower than four spots. Abject stuff from a Sean Dyche side.
Last week: 9
Season high: 5
Season low: 15
Last match: Lost 5-0 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Newcastle

12. Arsenal — Freddie Ljungberg started Nicolas Pepe, and Nicholas Pepe was his best player. Stunning stuff, really. Look at the assist below.
Last week: 13
Season high: 4
Season low: 12
Last match: Won 3-1 at West Ham
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Man City

11. Crystal Palace — I want to believe, but am holding out for something more. A derby win versus Brighton would suffice.
Last week: 7
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 0-0 at Watford
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Monday v. Brighton

10. Newcastle United — Again, Steve Bruce‘s men are getting tremendous Fortune and he’s pushing almost all the right buttons (It takes guts to start Andy Carroll over the struggling record signing Joelinton). This could be a sign of the Geordie Apocalypse.
Last week: 11
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

9. Sheffield United — A little wobbly lately, but still a good comeback at Carrow Road.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Norwich City
Up next: 10 a.m ET Saturday v. Aston Villa

8. Brighton and Hove Albion — Doesn’t it say something that a country who starves for young, strong English coaches had one sitting in Sweden for eight years? Graham Potter is legit.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 2-1 at Arsenal
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

7. Chelsea — Some of those young guys who’ve played so well, so early, are looking a little ragged. It’s a shame Frank Lampard is still waiting on Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who will really help things take another step.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

6. Manchester City — It probably has nothing to do with the system, and a lot to do with not having Aymeric Laporte, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane… Still, it needs to be better than a home derby loss to a Paul Pogba-less United.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Manchester United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday at Arsenal

5. Tottenham Hotspur — We’re gonna need multiple screens on Sunday morning, as Wolves-Spurs and Man Utd-Everton are both must-monitor.
Last week: 8
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 5-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Wolves

4. Manchester United — Ole’s at the wheel, and still doesn’t feel like Lewis Hamilton or anything but we’re not worried about heading off a cliff.
Last week: 6
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 2-1 at Man City
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton

3. Wolves — Beat Spurs on Sunday and I’ll go ahead and bet on them as a Top Four finisher, even after the Brighton draw failed to deliver the goods.
Last week: 3
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Brighton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Spurs

2. Leicester City — Wow.
Last week: 2
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Norwich City

1. Liverpool — Wow, only atop the table.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 3-0 at Bournemouth
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Watford

Champions League Weds. preview: Two spots remain

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Only two spots remain in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, and those will be settled Wednesday afternoon.

In Group C, hosts Shakhtar Donetsk need to beat Atalanta to go through, while the visitors can also go through with a win if Dinamo Zagreb fails to defeat Man City.

[ MORE: Ancelotti reportedly speaking w/ Everton ]

In Group D, Atletico Madrid is through with a win over Lokomotiv Moscow, though Bayer Leverkusen can complete a remarkable comeback from an 0-3 start to the group stage if they beat already-qualified Juve and Atleti loses to their Russian visitors.

You certainly wouldn’t be against Diego Simeone there, though.

“Tomorrow is a great opportunity, every day that you wear the Atletico shirt is,” Simeone said, via Marca. “I believe in my team, in the humility that they have at the moment. The results will come based on what they are demonstrating on the field.”

Premier League sides Man City and Tottenham Hotspur both have their fortunes settled, with City having won Group C and Spurs settled into Group B’s second spot, but they still have plenty to figure out on Tuesday.

Jose Mourinho’s Spurs are going up against a Bayern team that walloped them at home, while City is living an unusual 2W-3D-2L lull in form.

Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League action

12:55 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Atalanta
Dinamo Zagreb v. Man City

3 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen v. Juventus
Paris Saint-Germain v. Galatasaray
Olympiacos v. Red Star Belgrade
Bayern Munich v. Tottenham Hotspur

Ancelotti fired by Napoli as Everton, Arsenal lurk

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Carlo Ancelotti won a place in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, then lost his job.

The Napoli’s boss strained relationship with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis came to a head, with the Neapolitan side advancing in Europe to end a nine-match winless run.

[ MORE: Sporting KC adds Liga MX top scorer ]

That run may’ve included seven draws, but it also saw Napoli dip into seventh on the Serie A table. They are seven points back of sixth and 17 points behind leaders Juventus.

A strained relationship got worse when Ancelotti refused to take the team on a De Laurentiis-ordered “team retreat” following a draw against Salzburg in early November.

Gennaro Gattuso is rumored as Ancelotti’s replacement, and the fired coach himself is being mentioned as an immediate target for Arsenal and Everton.

In fact, the Toffees are in discussions with the Italian legend already, according to Sky Sports. Football Italia claims Arsenal is in on the action, too.

Ancelotti has won the Champions League with AC Milan twice and a third time with Real Madrid. He’s claimed domestic titles in five of Europe’s top leagues, with silverware at Chelsea, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid.