Crew SC (probably) favorites for MLS Cup 2015 — but why?

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We are now less than 68 hours away from the kickoff of Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 (4 p.m. ET) between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers at MAPRFE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

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Here at PST, we’ve already delved into just what it would mean if the Timbers are crowned 2015 champions in their first MLS Cup appearance, so now it’s time to take a look at their opponents, and how Crew SC, who are after MLS Cup no. 2, will go about attacking one of the league’s stingiest defenses (39 goals conceded in 34 games – third-fewest).

1. Home-field advantage — it matters in MLS Cup

Since MLS opted to play MLS Cup at non-neutral sites in 2012 (the 2011 final was played at a pre-determined site which also ended up being an LA Galaxy home game), home teams are 3-0 (4-0 counting LA in 2011). LA won three times at home (2011, 2012 and 2014), while Sporting Kansas City were crowned 2014 champs on their home field.

The two sides’ lone meeting of 2015 ended a 2-1 victory for the Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium on Sept. 26.

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons another stadium site, plan ]

2. The best full back duo in the league

Full backs matter in the modern game — they matter a lot. As we’ve gotten away from the days of 4-4-2, which provided lots of additional defensive cover to full backs through wide midfielders sitting much deeper, the two-way demands placed upon full backs have skyrocketed. Gregg Berhalter knows this well, which is why he made a point to sign a pair of do-everything fullbacks inside his first two seasons in charge — left back Waylon Francis (winter of 2013) and right back Harrison Afful (summer of 2015) to serve as massive building blocks for Crew SC.

Afful arrived only in August, yet he’s established himself as the best right back in MLS; opposite him, Francis is in the same conversation at left back; together, they are far and away the best duo. (Coincidentally, Portland’s Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell might just be no. 2.) As discussed this week on a podcast I host, the biggest impact Crew SC’s full backs will have during Sunday’s final will be exhibited in the amount of time Timbers wingers Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla spend tracking back into their own half to defend, which will ultimately see Fanendo Adi stranded on an island up top, trying to hold the ball up against three and four defenders again and again. Oh, and they’re also really solid defensively, often times freeing wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram to stay well up the field with even more freedom to attack.

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3. Ability to overload and overwhelm in midfield

There’s probably no team in MLS that regularly overwhelms opponents by overloading one side, or one player, with the success of Crew SC. Take, for instance, Diego Chara in Sunday’s showdown — playing as the (presumed) lone defensive midfielder, he’ll be simultaneously responsible for playmaker Federico Higuain; center forward Kei Kamara, when he drops into midfield; and wingers Finlay and Meram when they tuck inside, as they’ll look to do every time the Black and Gold are in full flow.

Throw in the fact that Villafana and Powell are likely to need help in regular two-on-one situations with overlapping full backs, and Chara’s plate is going to be extra full on Sunday. It also means center backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell will be defending hugely athletically superior players in lots of space, which is far from ideal. The obvious solution is to play one of Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury next to Chara to ease the Colombian’s burden, but would mean Darlington Nagbe is shunted back out to the wing, where he proved largely ineffective for nearly five full seasons. New to his quasi-box-to-box central midfield role, Nagbe’s the one who has to step up and hang out in Higuain’s back pocket all game long for the Timbers to have a chance of slowing down a vicious Crew SC attack.

Liverpool – Aston Villa preview: How to watch, stream, prediction, odds

Liverpool - Aston Villa preview
Photo by Ian Cook - CameraSport via Getty Images
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Liverpool – Aston Villa preview: Liverpool will welcome Aston Villa to Anfield on Sunday with a more urgent perspective on its place in history (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool hasn’t gotten its usual return on results for some time. Dating back to the 3-0 loss at Watford on Feb. 29, the Reds are 2W-1D-4L from their last seven outings across all competitions.

STREAM LIVERPOOL – ASTON VILLA

In an odd coincidence, Liverpool won the Premier League during this stretch.

Take the start of that run back another week to the first leg against Atletico Madrid and the Reds have won just three times from nine, beating Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and West Ham.

Alanis Morrissette screwed up the concept of irony for me forever, but I think that applies here somehow? Maybe?

[ RELATED: Liverpool win title – everything to know ]

Of course all Aston Villa will see is one of the best teams in the world in the first match at Anfield since clinching a first English crown in 30 years and, oh yeah, their last outing was a 4-0 blowout loss to their rivals Man City.

The Villans have 27 points, one point back of 17th place Watford and three fewer than West Ham.

Team news

Liverpool’s Joel Matip is out for the season and Dejan Lovren won’t play Sunday. Xherdan Shaqiri makes the bench and there are starts for Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Divock Origi.

As for Villa, Matt Targett misses out through injury, as do Bjorn Engels, Wesley, and Tom Heaton. Frederic Guilbert is available on the bench after injury, while American prospect Indiana Vassilev is also a sub.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on not taking a club job post-Liverpool“When it is time, hopefully I am still healthy and I can say … ‘great, I loved it but now I would like to watch other people doing it. So, I hope I find this inner mood to say … ‘see you later, I wish you all the best, best of luck, love you all but don’t call because of any football matters.’ That’s the plan.”

Dean Smith on Villa taking inspiration from other upsets“You saw Brighton win in the last minute against Arsenal and West Ham win in the last minute against Chelsea. It didn’t escape me that West Ham’s stats were pretty similar to ours against Chelsea but they managed to stick the ball in the net a couple of times. We can take great heart from that, knowing you can go and beat these big teams.”

Odds and ends

Villa are tied with Southampton for the second-biggest underdog status in Matchweek 33 (+800). A Liverpool win stands at -315, according to DraftKings.

Villa took Liverpool to the limit at Anfield earlier this year, taking a Trezeguet-inspired lead into the 88th minute only to see Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mane score in the final throes of the match.

Prediction

The Reds record in those nine referenced matches doesn’t match their performances. Liverpool comes out of this one with a 3-1 win.

Report: Rangers sell one-time USMNT player Polster to New England

Matt Polster Rangers
Photo by Ian Rutherford/PA Images via Getty Images
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An American abroad is coming home after an uneven time in Scotland.

Former Southern Illinois and Chicago Fire mainstay Matt Polster will return to Major League Soccer this summer with the New England Revolution.

Bruce Arena’s Revs will reportedly pony up about $375,000 to buy Polster from Rangers, where he signed on a free transfer in January 2019 following three-plus MLS seasons that saw him earn a USMNT cap.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]

He was called up to two January camps for the U.S., going 90 minutes at right back against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018. Polster was also a contributor to the U.S. Olympic qualification push in 2015.

Polster, 27, finishes his time with 10 appearances and an assist Steven Gerrard’s Glaswegian set, getting Scottish Premiership and Europa League experience this season.

A defensive midfielder and right back in MLS, Polster played only the latter with Rangers thanks to Scott Arfield, Ryan Jack, Steven Davis, and Glen Kamara chewing up minutes in the middle of the park.

Transfer news: Saint-Maximin in demand, Norwich back to German giants

Saint-Maximin to PSG
Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images
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The Sunday morning papers are helping the transfer rumor mill buzz after a weekend of matches in Europe.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]

Newcastle is mentioned as a home for several players but the biggest Magpies name is one linked with a departure to big, big clubs.

Saint-Maximin to PSG, PL big boys

Newcastle supporters, avert your eyes and trust Steve Bruce (What a sentence and maybe a mantra).

Magpies talisman Allan Saint-Maximin has caught the eye of everyone on Tyneside and most of the Premier League but is being linked with a big money move back home.

Steve Bruce is flat-out denying there’s any chance of selling the Frenchman, 23, who is being linked with Paris Saint-Germain and “all of England’s current top six sides.”

“ASM” has four goals and seven assists in 25 appearances entering Sunday morning’s match versus West Ham and is one of just three players to average more than four dribbles per game, his 4.7 sandwiched between Adama Traore (5) and Wilfried Zaha (4.5).

It’s not just about the numbers with Saint-Maximin, though, whose magnetic dribbling and personality keep both a defense off-balance and a team hopeful and happy. Newcastle is 1W-3D-7L in the Premier League when Saint-Maximin plays, 10-6-5 when he’s out there.

Any sale, especially with Newcastle’s takeover looming, would have to be well over the approximately $20 million paid by the Magpies last summer.

Schick to Newcastle (amongst others)

The same report lays out a more realistic shopping list for the Magpies than many of the rumors since reports emerged of a big money takeover at St. James’ Park.

Newcastle is being linked with Roma’s Patrik Schick, Nice’s Arnaud Lusamba, Benfica’s Florentino Luis, Penarol’s Facundo Pellistri, and Norwich City’s Ben Godfrey.

Let’s focus on Schick and Lusamba.

Patrick Schick Leipzig Bundesliga
DORTMUND, GERMANY – DECEMBER 17: Patrik Schick (Photo by Jörg Schüler/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Schick was once among the most sought-after names in the game. The 24-year-old Czech striker has nine goals in 22 caps for his country.

Three seasons removed from his breakout season at Sampdoria, Schick has profound his footing on loan to RB Leipzig from Roma. The center forward has 10 goals in 22 matches despite Timo Werner carrying the water in fine fashion for Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig.

Like Saint-Maximin last season, Lusamba has been in- and out-of-favor with Nice boss Patrick Vieira. But it’s worth noting that the manager has tried to find a place on the pitch for the 23-year-old center midfielder, deploying him at center forward and right mid at times.

Lusamba averaged 1.2 key passes and 1.3 dribbles per Ligue 1 appearances this season.

Godfrey to Borussia Dortmund

Speaking of Godfrey, could he be going from the bottom of the Premier League table to the upper reaches of Germany? For close to $30 million, to boot?

Two of the Bundesliga’s top clubs continue to monitor top young Premier League talent including the aforementioned Godfrey, with Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig eyeing the 22-year-old.

A center back in Norwich’s maligned and injury-battered defense, England youth international Godfrey has played the seventh-most minutes for Daniel Farke’s Canaries.

Relegation victims have often yielded incredible value for bigger clubs, two great cases in point being ex-Hull City man Andrew Robertson and former Aston Villa force Idrissa Gana Gueye. We don’t need to tell you where they wound up.

Sheffield United snares late point at Burnley

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John Egan’s late goal gave Sheffield United a 1-1 draw with Burnley at Turf Moor on Sunday.

James Tarkowski had put the Clarets ahead in the first half.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Blades stay above Burnley by two points but both will lament not strengthening their Europa League stock.

Sheffield United’s point gives it 48 points and eighth place, two points and one spot above the host Clarets.

BURNLEY – SHEFFIELD UNITED FULL MATCH REPLAY

Burnley has lost just once in 11 outings including a win over Manchester United and draws with Tottenham and Arsenal.


Three things we learned

1. Blades never say die: Burnley will lament not putting the game to bed with some promising chances but don’t take credit for the point away from Chris Wilder’s Blades. A late short corner routine involved four players on its way to goal, the last moves a clever Billy Sharp flick to the back post for Egan to finish with style. There were some stumbles out of the coronavirus pause and this result can fit in that camp but the resolve of United is real.

2. Burnley’s hopes of a Europa return take a hit: The Clarets booked a pair of 1-0 wins after a blowout loss to Man City and looked very much set for the same on Sunday before the late Blades corner kick. Burnley would’ve loved to directly affect a rival’s point total but has a lot of points available on the docket even considering upcoming matches with Liverpool and Wolves. And might success keep Sean Dyche around his beloved Turf Moor a bit longer despite recent drama with the board?

3. Deputizing skipper as Man of the Match: Tarkowski was quite good apart from his rare goal despite usual center back partner Ben Mee’s absence from the lineup. It was fitting that Tarkowski took the arm band in Mee’s stead, making nine clearances, an interception, two tackles, winning myriad duels including 13 in the air, and completing four of nine long balls (SofaScore).


Burnley – Sheffield United recap

Sheffield United had the best of the first 20 minutes, though Burnley had one solid chance that Matej Vydra was unable to convert.

Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope had a rare rough moment when a long throw-in made its way into the goal but he was saved by a foul in the build-up

VAR did not see an unknowing Erik Pieters handball off a corner kick reason to send Blades to the spot.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

So it follows that, in Burnley fashion, the hosts went ahead of a set piece. Tarkowski slid onto Jay Rodriguez’s flick of a free kick to give the Clarets a 43rd-minute lead.

Burnley kept the game in control and nearly doubled its advantage with a classic Rodriguez rip from distance, which Dean Henderson parried in a good place for a misfiring Dwight McNeil.

It was a really good goal to make it 1-1, a well-worked corner kick routine flicked to the back post for Egan to finish with authority.