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

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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

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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

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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

Arsenal bests Eintracht Frankfurt behind teen hero Saka

Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Bongarts/Getty Images
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Arsenal got its Europa League campaign off to a pleasant if uneasy start, riding a deflected first half goal and solid goalkeeping before breaking out late for 3-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt at the Commerzbank-Arena on Thursday.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Joe Willock scored the early marker, while newly-minted 18-year-old Bukayo Saka capped a strong performance with a late insurance marker and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put it to bed.

American defender Timothy Chandler was a second half sub for the Bundesliga hosts.


Three things we learned

1. Goalkeeper matters huge: Even as underrated Bernd Leno got a night off, Arsenal got a big performance from its goalkeeper. Eintracht took double the shots of its visitors over the first hour of play. Emiliano Martinez made his season debut and was very, very good for the Gunners. He played just one Europa League match last season and spent half the year with Reading on loan, but the 27-year-old looks in line for more experience this season and even played a role in Arsenal’s second goal.

2. Young stars shine: Willock was very good in the win, and produced several nice chances, but it’s fair to say that his goal was a good deal of Fortune. Saka’s big day was even brighter. The 18-year-old was a menace for most of the day, and scored a deserved goal late off a Nicolas Pepe feed. Saka then forced the turnover that led to Aubameyang’s goal, Arsenal’s third.

What a hit for his goal, too.

3. Emery deploys star subs: Unai Emery knows a bit about winning this competition, and he took out Willock and Smith-Rowe in order to protect the lead late (He also put in Ainsley Maitland-Niles for Sead Kolasinac, who was on a yellow card). He deployed fire power in Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos, which was unlikely a welcome site for the hosts.


Martinez was exceptional in posting his clean sheet, needing many big moments in the first half to allow Arsenal its 0-0 score line before fortune smiled upon the Gunners.

Willock’s shot took a mean turn off Eintracht mainstay center back David Abraham to produce a halftime lead (see video below Thing No. 3).

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

The floodgates opened late, doubtlessly aided by a second yellow card dished out to Eintracht’s Dominic Kohr.

Martinez’s day went to the wire, tipping a Danny da Costa ball away before denying Filip Kostic with less than 10 minutes on the clock.

He then started the play that led to Arsenal’s second goal, finding Pepe for a long dribble en route to Saka’s career milestone. He turned 18 just two weeks ago.

It was a day to remember for Saka and one to forget for Abraham, as the teen stripped the Eintracht captain of the ball before making a silky pass to Aubameyang.

UEL, LIVE — Man Utd, Wolves face Kazakh, Portuguese opposition

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The Europa League group stage begins play on Thursday, with Arsenal in Germany and taking care of 10-man Eintracht Frankfurt.

A younger Arsenal took the lead on a deflected shot from Man of the Match candidate Joe Willock, before Bukayo Saka took the MOTM mantle with a late goal and assist.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Manchester United and Wolves are set to kick-off their respective matches against Astana and Braga at 3 p.m. ET.

Lineups are out for both sides. United will be very young against Kazakh side Astana ahead of a Sunday visit to West Ham United, while Wolves start Raul Jimenez and Patrick Cutrone up top versus Braga.

Full slate

12:55 p.m. ET
CFR Cluj v. Lazio
LASK v. Rosenborg
Getafe v. Trabzonspor
PSV Eindhoven v. Sporting Lisbon
Basel v. Krasnodar
APOEL Nicosia v. Dudelange
Copenhagen v. Lugano
Standard Liege v. Vitoria SC
Qarabag v. Sevilla
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Arsenal
Rennes v. Celtic
Dynamo Kiev v. Malmo

3 p.m. ET
Wolfsburg v. Oleksandriya
Espanyol v. Ferencvaros
Rangers v. Feyenoord
Porto v. Young Boys
Slovan Bratislava v. Besiktas
Borussia Monchengladbach v. Wolfsberg
Partizan v. AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma v. Istanbul Basaksehir
Gent v. Saint-Etienne
Manchester United v. Astana
Wolves v. Braga
Ludogorets Razgrad v. CSKA Moscow

Top Premier League storylines: Week 6

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Of the seven Premier League sides to handle midweek Europeans challenges, only two face-off and that predictably is the hallmark of the weekend in England.

[ MORE: Silva to Inter Miami? ]

What else is cooking? Smell the aromas of the weekend ahead, below.


How will Frank Lampard attack Liverpool?

  • Chelsea v. Liverpool, Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The Blues’ 5-2 defeat at Wolves last week did not help spin a win over Valencia in the Champions League, and Frank Lampard’s next chance to make a statement comes against a team that is perfect in PL play and finds itself licking its wounds from a subpar performance at Napoli. Can a very fresh Christian Pulisic make the difference for Chelsea? Will Callum Hudson-Odoi take the positive vibes from his new contract and solid PL2 appearance into the fray?


Will Fernandinho help stabilize Man City against improving Watford?

  • Man City v. Watford, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN

City went to Ukraine and blanked Shakhtar Donetsk with Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho at center back, and the Brazilian center midfielder says he’s been preparing for his possibility for some time. If Watford looks anything like it looked in a 2-2 draw with Arsenal, we could see a very decent test for City’s back line.


Weary Spurs get top-half test from Leicester City

  • Leicester City v. Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Inconsistent Tottenham meets a Leicester City side with Top Six ambitions, licking its wounds from a 1-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford which probably deserved a point. Spurs aren’t feeling great following another blown 2-0 lead in a big spot away from home. How will they react in Leicester?


Will Solskjaer’s midweek rest risk reap rewards on Sunday?

  • West Ham United v. Manchester United, Sunday, 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is set to hand heavy minutes to youngsters and second-choice players against Kazakh side Astana on Thursday at Old Trafford. Will that pay off when trying to stop Sebastien Haller, Felipe Anderson, and Manuel Pellegrini‘s Irons on Sunday morning?


Early season six-pointer at St. James’ Park

  • Newcastle United v. Brighton and Hove Albion, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

Look, it’s Week Six and normally we’d say anything can happen in a Premier League season, but let’s be reasonable: If you’re looking at the teams for Newcastle and Brighton, this result will matter as many as any down the stretch in determining Premier League status for 2019/20.

Hudson-Odoi signs new deal with Chelsea

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Man, is Bayern Munich gonna feel like it wasted its time.

Chelsea starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi has re-upped with the Premier League side to the tune of five more years, inking a deal through at least the 2023-24 season.

[ MORE: Silva to Inter Miami? ]

Hudson-Odoi, 18, made his breakthrough with Chelsea last season and was heavily recruited by the German giants.

He joins Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic as young wingers committed to the club for the long-term, but is still away from the Blues first team after an achilles tear late last season. He registered an assist in 61 minutes for Chelsea’s PL2 side last week.

Here’s manager Frank Lampard, via ChelseaFC.com:

“I have seen Callum come through and he’s a fantastic talent. He is going to be central for us on the pitch and that is the opportunity in front of him now. There are things as a young player that he will want to improve but he can be central to this team and for England. I want to work with him, I want to drive him forward and I want to improve him as a player.”

Hudson-Odoi has five goals and five assists in 28 appearances for the Blues and isn’t 19 until November.

American eyes can’t help but wonder how this will affect Christian Pulisic, himself a big investment for Chelsea. One thing’s for sure: Chelsea has depth on the wings.