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The case for (and against) every Western Conference MLS playoff team

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On Monday, PST’s Nicholas Mendola made the case for (and against) the six sides vying for the Eastern Conference’s place in MLS Cup 2016. Today, I’ll do the same for the Western Conference.

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Real Salt Lake (6)

Why they could win it: Yura Movsisyan, Joao Plata and Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez combine to form one of the league’s most terrifying attacking trios (25 goals, 17 assists combined) … when they’re at their best (more on that in the section below).

Why they won’t: Momentum. They have none. Seven games without a win to finish the regular season (three draws, four losses). Scored all of two goals in their final six games. Five straight losses on the road (last win: July 31), which is where they’ll be playing the LA Galaxy on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET) in the knockout round. They never actually figured what to do at center back alongside Justen Glad — you simply can’t count on Jamison Olave or Chris Schuler to be healthy and stay on the field.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Sporting Kansas City (5)

Why they could win it: They’ll outwork just about anyone in the midfield, which is a trait that typically translates to success in the playoffs. The core of the team — Benny Feilhaber, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Dom Dwyer and a few others — have been there and won it all before. Realistically, they needed to win four points from their last two games to get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what they did. There’s something to be said for that.

Why they won’t: Though they faced the fewest number of total shots during the regular season, they gave up way too many big chances due to catastrophic mistakes at the back and deep in midfield. The lack of a consistent scoring option beyond Dwyer (16 goals) makes them extremely one-dimensional as it’s too easy to cut off service to the lone man up top. A deep playoff run would have to look something like this: 1-0 win; 1-0 win in the first leg, 0-0 draw in the second leg; 1-0 win in the first leg, 0-0 draw in the second leg. Margin for error: extremely thin.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Seattle Sounders (4)

Why they’ll win it: Momentum. They have all of it. Since Brian Schmetzer took over as interim head coach on July 26, they’ve suffered just two defeats (eight wins, four draws). Nicolas Lodeiro was the best no. 10 in the league the day he arrived, and he’s been worth his weight in gold thus far (four goals, eight assists in 13 games). Jordan Morris gets stronger and stronger with each passing game, and that’s never the case with rookies. Cristian Roldan solved their problem deep in midfield, perhaps extending the career of Osvaldo Alonso by two or three years if they roll with the same setup in 2017.

Why they won’t: Have you ever seen what the Sounders do in the playoffs? I also still worry about Tyrone Mears and Joevin Jones at the two fullback spots. If teams can transition following a turnover quickly enough, they’ll find a ton of joy down either flank.

Alvaro Fernandez; Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders (Photo credit: Seattle Sounders / Facebook)
(Photo credit: Seattle Sounders / Facebook)

[ MORE: The case for (and against) every team in the East ]

LA Galaxy (3)

Why could win it: They’re the Galaxy, and Bruce Arena is still their head coach. Giovani dos Santos enjoyed an otherworldly end to the summer (seven goals, seven assists from late-July to early-September). With Robbie Keane out injured for extended periods, this is now his team. Lost just once at home all season — combined with RSL’s road struggles, the Galaxy are a solid bet to get out of the knockout round. Oh, and Landon Donovan lives for the playoffs.

Why they won’t: What’s up with the midfield? Is it Baggio Husidic and no one else? Is Steven Gerrard going to be healthy? Is Jeff Larentowicz the answer? You do know Sebastian Lletget isn’t a defensive midfielder, right? They’re fine at the back, and still pretty scary on the attack (despite injuries — Gyasi Zardes), but you can’t overlook the total absence of a midfield.

[ MORE: Biggest 2016 disappointment — Portland or Columbus? ]

Colorado Rapids (2)

Why they’ll win it: 32 goals conceded during the regular season (fewest in MLS). No one has perfected the art of the 1-0 victory quite like Pablo Mastroeni’s Rapids. 60 minutes will go by, and you’ll have taken all of two shots, both from 35 yards out. One can’t begin to imagine how frustrating it must be to play against team. Home losses in 2016: zero.

Why they won’t: 39 goals scored during the regular season (second-fewest in MLS). If/when they go a goal down, they won’t be able to get back into the game against a Cup-contending side. Their margin of error in this regard is practically nonexistent. Jermaine Jones returned to action after nearly four months on the sideline (knee injury) over the weekend, but there’s no way he can be expected to contribute in a meaningful way on that kind of a turnaround, right? Right? Don’t count this team — or him — out. Seriously, don’t do it.

Pablo Mastroeni, Colorado Rapids (Photo credit: Colorado Rapids / Facebook)
(Photo credit: Colorado Rapids / Facebook)

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

FC Dallas (1)

Why they’ll win it: Here are two inarguable statements about FCD: they’re the most talented team in MLS; they’re the deepest team in MLS. Fabian Castillo was transferred two-thirds of the way through the season, and they didn’t skip a beat. They can play with pace; they can grind it out in ugly affairs; they can pummel you with set pieces. However you choose to force them to beat you, they’re happy to oblige. No one maximizes each and ever facet of the game quite like Oscar Pareja’s Hoops. Matt Hedges was far and away the best defender in MLS this year, and Walker Zimmerman, his center back partner, was top-five (-three?) himself. Maxi Urruti, Michael Barrios and Tesho Akindele complement each other wonderfully and give Pareja an infinite number of tactical tweaks to apply.

Why they won’t: Mauro Diaz is out for the season (torn achilles). That’s a massive blow for any team, even FCD. No one has a better feel for the tempo of the game — when to push it; when to ease off the gas — than Diaz, and FCD will inevitably play themselves into trouble a handful of times each game without their guiding light. That’s it, though. On paper, prior to Diaz’s injury, it would have been nigh impossible to make a case against FCD completing the first treble in MLS history.

Bartomeu vows Messi will finish career at Barcelona

Messi staying with Barcelona
Photo by Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images
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Lionel Messi will finish his career at Barcelona, says embattled president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The exit clause in Messi’s latest Barcelona contract expired on June 1, putting a temporary end to worries that the world’s top player would leave a messy Barcelona season.

Messi, 33, is still near the top of his powers. He has 22 goals and 19 assists in 29 La Liga appearances this season, adding five goals and four assists in nine cup games.

[ MORE: Premier League standings ]

“(Messi) will end his working and footballing life at Barcelona”, said Bartomeu in a Monday radio interview. “We are negotiating with many players but Messi has explained to us he wants to stay. And so we’re going to enjoy him for much longer.”

Only four players in Europe’s top five leagues have scored more league goals than Messi and none of those players has more than eight assists. Messi’s 19 La Liga assists are two behind Thomas Muller in that same group.

It had been reported since November that Messi would not exercise his option to leave the club, but there were numerous reasons to think he might rethink things given problems at Barcelona.

There has been chaos in the board room and players including Messi were angry to be thrown under the proverbial bus when Ernesto Valverde was fired early this year.

Notably, he called Barcelona “home” but noted “weird things happening” at the Camp Nou. Fortunately, the club announced that an independent inspector cleared Barca’s hierarchy of wrongdoing after allegations that a third-party company contracted to the club tried to smear current and former club legends on social media.

Bartomeu needs Messi to stay as the club waits for Frenkie de Jong and Ansu Fati to come into the peaks of their powers. If the Argentine leaves Barca, who looks destined to finish second to Real Madrid despite leading the table for most of the year, the pressure on the president will reach an even higher level.

The president has overseen a mostly successful time at Barca during his tenure, winning four domestic titles and the 2014-15 Champions League.

FC Dallas withdrawn from MLS is Back tourney; Vela to sit out

FC Dallas withdraws from MLS is Back
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Carlos Vela’s decision to sit out the MLS is Back tournament has been one-upped by reports that MLS has pulled an entire team out of the fray in Florida.

Vela, considered by many to be the league’s top player, is opting out of representing LAFC and choosing to spend time with his pregnant wife and children.

The Mexican star, 31, said he would love to play but the coronavirus pandemic means missing out is in “the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy.”

[ MORE: Mourinho, Lloris react to Son spat ]

LAFC released a statement supporting Vela’s “difficult decision,” which will not help the West’s top side in its bid to outlast the Galaxy, Houston, and Portland in Group F, should the tournament go forward as planned.

Meanwhile, FC Dallas’ bad month has gotten much worse. Six players reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 last week and reports grew to include 10 players and one coach.

The side’s opening match against Vancouver was postponed on Saturday. Now FC Dallas says it is supporting an MLS decision to take the team out of the tournament. FC Dallas says it will take every precaution to make sure its return to Texas “minimizes risk of exposure to all parties involved.”

Dallas was drawn into Group B with Seattle, Vancouver, and San Jose. Two of the teams were set to advance to the knockout rounds.

Here is MLS’ statement on FC Dallas’ withdrawal:

“Major League Soccer announced today that FC Dallas have been withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament due to 10 players and one member of the technical staff confirmed positive for COVID-19. Each of these positive tests either occurred upon the club’s arrival or within a few days of arrival. The decision was made in the best interest of the health of all players and staff participating in the tournament, and in line with protocols created in conjunction with local and national health authorities and infectious disease experts.
“’Given the impact of the number of positive tests on the club’s ability to train and play competitive matches, we have made the decision to withdraw FC Dallas from the MLS is Back Tournament,’ said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. ‘The health of everyone involved in our return to play has always been our top priority, and we will continue to make decisions consistent with that priority.’
Of the 557 players currently in Orlando, Fla. 13 total players have been confirmed positive for COVID-19, 10 of those being FC Dallas players and the remaining three from two other clubs.”

Mourinho: ‘Nice boys only win the fair play cup’

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The reaction to two Tottenham players having a scrap was very on brand for Jose Mourinho.

[ MORE: Premier League standings ]

Mourinho called a half time coming-together between captain Hugo Lloris and star forward Heung-min Son ‘beautiful’ and praised the fighting spirit of his players as they beat Everton 1-0.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the win, Mourinho made a point that he wants his Tottenham side to be nastier as he was asked about saying they needed to grow up.

“A team of good boys, nice boys, the only thing that they win at the end of the season is the fair play cup. Which is something I’ve never won and I’m not interested in winning that,” Mourinho said. “You need to have a certain character. You need to grow up in terms of your mentality, in your responsibility because it is very, very important to be consistent. To have a good game, win a match, then lose the other one, then win another one, then draw another one. That is the kind of mentality that doesn’t take you further in your ambitions. It is not a specific concept but it is a concept that covers many, many areas. I think it is very, very important. I don’t like a team without communication, without demanding from each other. I don’t like a team without a critical sense. Probably what happened today at half time shouldn’t happen there, should happen just inside the dressing room, but I can promise you my teams, my winning teams, we had big fights in the team.”

That Jose Mourinho reaction said it all as to what he expects from Tottenham. He certainly knows all about winning and that is why Tottenham hired him.

A narrow win to beat Everton at home to move in to eighth place, nine points off the top four, probably isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but Mourinho loved what he saw.

“I think they are the same thing, the same spirit,” Mourinho said when ProSoccerTalk asked him about the fight of his players on and off the pitch. “We spoke a lot after the game at Sheffield United and one of the things we spoke about was to have a critical sense, to be open with each other and be demanding with each other. Don’t accept the attitude. Don’t be passive in relation to the others. I think that was a consequence of that. The performance was very solid. My feeling was that the game was under control and I never felt the game wasn’t under control.

“Could we play better? Could we score more? Yes, of course. I always fear matches after bad defeats because sometimes you stay in the bad defeats. Sometimes you carry to the match the weight of the bad performances, the weight of the critics and the boys were great in their attitude. They really fought hard for the three points and in this moment of the season the most important thing is the points, to try to finish in the best possible position.”

Tottenham are becoming a Mourinho team and that means the play on the pitch won’t be as good to watch as it could be, but he will grind out results like this.

Mourinho was asked about becoming just the fifth manager in Premier League history to win 200 games, with only Sir Alex Ferguson reaching that milestone in fewer matches than him, and this was his response.

“Of course, as you know, I am not a very humble guy, but when you coach three of the best clubs in England you have more chances to get to that,” Mourinho smiled. “Sir Alex did it because all of his career in England was at Manchester United. I did it because I was with Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham. I think nobody asks the coaches without titles that their teams put in 200 amazing performances. You are telling me your teams won 200 Premier League matches. You don’t tell anyone who won nothing, ‘your team had 100 or 200 amazing performances.’ But I want to admit that today I would be even more happy if it was not just a victory, but it was a beautiful victory, I would be more happy and I want my team to do that.”

Mourinho will be playing ‘all I do is win, win, win’ over the radio on his car ride home on Monday. Then he will probably officiate a punch up between Harry Kane and Eric Dier just because.

Lloris explains Son scuffle, which Mourinho deems “beautiful”

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Tottenham Hotspur captain Hugo Lloris explained his halftime dust-up with teammate Heung-min Son, with all in better spirits after a 1-0 home win over Everton on Monday.

Lloris needed to be separated from Son as the two walked off the pitch, though cameras caught them making up at halftime and hugging after the final whistle.

Lilywhite reconciliation.

TOTTENHAM – EVERTON FULL MATCH REPLAY

As our broadcast crew surmised, Lloris was unhappy that Son quit on his press after a giveaway. That led to a Richarlison scoring chance before halftime.

Lloris faced the cameras after completing the clean sheet in North London.

“What happened between me and Sonny is something that’s part of football some times but there’s no problem at all,” Lloris said. “You can see after the game that we are more than happy to be part of the team. … To concede a chance a few seconds before halftime because we don’t have the proper press is annoying but that’s football.”

Spurs manager Jose Mourinho loved it.

“It’s beautiful,” Mourinho said to Sky Sports after the game. “Probably it’s consequence of our meetings. If you want to blame somebody for that, it’s me because I was critical of my boys because they are not critical themselves of each other. I asked them to be more demanding, to put their colleagues under that pressure, that team spirit where you have to do everything for everything.

“An amazing kid that everybody loves like Son, a team boy, but in that situation the captain said you have to do more and give more to the team. A couple of bad words, I don’t know if there was a push, but that’s important for a team to grow up. I was really pleased. At halftime I told them, when you have those reactions I have no doubt you will stick together til the end.”

Mourinho went on, calling back to Spurs’ Thursday loss at Sheffield United which featured a bizarre and controversial decision from VAR chief Michael Oliver to take a goal off the board after a fouled, falling, and looking the other way Lucas Moura had the ball hit his arm prior to a Harry Kane goal.

“It tells me that they care. They were upset, frustrated and probably blaming each other for the last result. I could be very protective of my team and my players and put all the blame on Michael Oliver. A lot of people did it and rightly so but inside I was in the direction of forget Michael Oliver and focus on our performance so today we knew, right?”

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The North Londoners are one point behind local rivals Arsenal ahead of this weekend’s big derby (though there’s still a Thursday visit to Bournemouth for Spurs).

“We are in a situation we need to fight against,” Lloris said. “We are not happy to be in that position but what’s important today is to say focused on the team and do everything to finish as high as we can. When you play a system like this one, it’s very easy to fall apart as a team. To think about the interest. But today we showed we are ready to fight until the end.”

Spurs will like their chances to win at desperate Bournemouth if they can stay focused on the task at hand and not focus on the North London Derby.