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MLS Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Conference finals edition

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Toronto FC’s 7-0 humiliation of New York City FC was the most lopsided margin of victory in MLS Cup Playoffs history (two-leg tie era), so it comes as very little surprise the Reds sit atop the latest edition of MLS Power Rankings.

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Note: Five games of soccer — anywhere between 450 and 540 minutes — is all that remains in the 2016 MLS season. Unbelievable.

1. Toronto FC

Hell hath no fury like an MVP scorned. Sebastian Giovinco was not happy about being left off the list of finalists for 2016 MVP despite leading the league in goals and assists combined for a second straight season. Poor NYCFC paid the price in the conference semis, most notably his hat trick in Sunday’s second leg. The formula to winning in the playoffs is the furthest thing from science. The New York Red Bulls, for instance, finished the regular season 16 games unbeaten, and their season is over after 180 minutes of playoff soccer — there goes the “hottest team to finish the year” theory. Same goes for FC Dallas and “the best team all season” (though the injury to Mauro Diaz undoubtedly had played its part). TFC were neither of those things coming into the playoffs (just two wins in their last eight regular-season games), and they didn’t even benefit from a knockout-round bye, which meant they faced three games in eight grueling days. In the end, finished third was a godsend for Greg Vanney’s side, as Giovinco, who missed a month due to injury before returning in mid-October, needed that one more game to reach full fitness and sharpness. TFC’s perfect path to a first-ever conference finals appearance was a complicated one, because of course it was.

2. Seattle Sounders

The July-to-October turnaround is, for my money, the best MLS story this decade — from last place in the Western Conference late in the summer, to conference finalists for the third time in their eight MLS seasons, all rescued over the course of three and a half months. The injuries are piling up, though, and could be their ultimate undoing: Jordan Morris (hamstring) left Sunday’s second leg against FCD with a hamstring; as did fellow striker Nelson Valdez due to a calf injury, to go along with Roman Torres’ continued fight for fitness, Andreas Ivanschitz knee injury and Alvaro Fernandez’s hamstring strain, all three of whom missed both legs of the tie against FCD; and, of course, Clint Dempsey, who’s out for the season with an irregular heartbeat. Brian Schmetzer has done a masterful job massaging an aching roster for weeks now, which is cause for optimism, until you realize the Sounders are set for 180 minutes against one of the most accomplished fouling sides in the league, the Rapids (13.5 per game, 3rd-most in 2016). With the first leg of the conference finals to be played in Seattle, though, expect a repeat performance of the first-leg demolition of FCD to earn their first-ever trip to MLS Cup.

3. Montreal Impact

Way back in the middle of summer, I practically begged MLS to give us TFC versus Montreal in the East finals, because at the time they looked far and away the two best sides with the highest ceilings. Then came an abysmal finish to the season for Montreal (five wins in their final 18 games), so naturally they’ve rallied and on Sunday eliminated the East’s top seed in the conference semis, barely breaking a sweat in doing so. As was the case when everything was great early in the season, Ignacio Piatti has gone to another level in the postseason (three goals and an assists in three games, including both goals in Sunday’s second-leg victory at Red Bull Arena). Speaking of playoff formulas, defend-deep-and-counter is the way to go if you’ve got the requisite personnel to pull it off. With center backs Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera hitting their stride following an up-and-down regular season, the Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello midfield-three suddenly looks like a world-beater in midfield. With Piatti on one side and Dominic Oduro on the other, and Matteo Mancosu a capable finisher in between them, that’s a formula meant to squeeze every last drop out of a group set to undergo extensive changes in the offseason.

4. Colorado Rapids

If the conference finals go to chalk, the Colorado Rapids, who finished 18th out of 20 teams in a single-table format last year, will be hosting MLS Cup 2016 just 13 months later. It’s not always almost never been easy on the eye this season — Sunday’s second leg comeback and penalty-kick triumph over the LA Galaxy perfectly exemplified this — but Pablo Mastroeni’s grind-it-out style sure has been effective thus far. The problem: while they’ve certainly not perfected the art as have the 2016 Rapids, FCD tried that in leg 1 of the conference semis, and that ended horrifically for them. By design, the playoff format levels the playing field to an unfair degree (in my opinion) and puts all the pressure on the higher-seeded side in the first leg: don’t fall victim to an insurmoutable deficit while playing for 0-0 on the road. If Shkelzen Gashi (ankle/leg injury on Sunday) isn’t able to go and provide the game-changing moments, it’ll be tough sledding against the Sounders.

Pearson: ‘I was semi-retired’ before Watford came calling

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Nigel Pearson had come to terms with the fact he would never again manage in the Premier League — or any league, perhaps — before Watford came calling out of sheer desperation last month.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Lampard prepared to go without January signings ]

“I was semi-retired, more or less,” Pearson admitted on Friday. He had been out of work for nearly 10 months following an 18-month spell at Belgian side Leuven. That came on the heels of a disastrous five months at EFL Championship side Derby, where he compiled a win percentage of just 21.4 percent — quotes from the Guardian:

“I wouldn’t have been thinking it was possible, of course I wouldn’t. It really is a situation that’s come out of nothing. I was semi-retired, more or less.”

“I’ve been asked whether I was worried about getting a reputation as a ‘firefighter’ and it doesn’t bother me. If that’s how people want to look at it, fine. From my own perspective, coming into a situation like this, it’s just a good opportunity to work back in a league I didn’t think I’d be working in again. In terms of risk to my reputation or anything like that, I’m not bothered about those things. I wouldn’t have taken on the challenge if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of succeeding.

“It’s just one of those situations where clearly there was a need for something different. So far it’s going OK. I’m pleased with how we’ve started to turn things around but I’m also experienced enough to know that it’s still going to be a tough job to maintain the standards we’ve set and push on again.”

Now at Watford, and back in the PL for the first time since 2015 (Leicester City), Pearson has guided the Hornets to four wins in his first seven games, including five straight without a defeat, and a 17th-place standing ahead of the weekend’s round of fixtures. When he took over, Watford sat 20th out of 20 teams with eight points from 15 games. Less than a month later, they sit a point outside the relegation zone with 22 to their name.

USWNT: Olympic qualifying roster minus five from World Cup team

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The United States’ roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament will look very similar to the one that won the Women’s World Cup in France, with notable exceptions.

Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Allie Long, Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson were on the title team but were left off the 20-player CONCACAF tournament roster announced Friday.

Morgan is expecting her first child with husband Servando Carrasco. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said that Davidson is still recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined her during January camp.

Pugh, a young forward who has shown promise, was one of the most surprising omissions. Andonovski said she has been invited to train with the team even though she didn’t make the roster.

“It was competitive and she did well,” Andonovski said. “But there were other players that I believe that performed better than Mal. Now, I just want to be clear that she is very good, very talented player and she performed well. She has a big future in front of her. So I’m really sure that if she keeps on developing going forward, she will be on this roster.”

The roster includes 18 players who were on the World Cup squad. Newcomers include midfielder Andi Sullivan and forward Lynn Williams.

Sullivan, a former standout at Stanford who plays for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, has 13 appearances with the national team. Williams, who plays for reigning NWSL champion North Carolina, has made 21 appearances with the national team since 2016, scoring six goals.

Carli Lloyd, who will turn 38 before the Tokyo Games, is the oldest player on the roster. Lloyd scored three goals in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan, but last year in France started in just one game as she took on more of a reserve role.

Andonovski, who was named coach of the team last October after Jill Ellis stepped down, praised Lloyd’s work ethic and said that if she continues to play well, he sees “no reason for her not to be a starter.”

Andonovski said Megan Rapinoe, the Ballon d’Or winner who scored six goals in the World Cup, was also nursing minor injuries during January camp.

“In the end, the ones that I believe will give it the best chance to be successful, that will give us the best chance to win the games and qualify for the Olympics, are the ones that made the roster,” he said.

The United States opens qualifying on Jan. 28 in Houston with a match against Haiti. The top two finishers in the eight-team tournament’s two groups advance to the semifinals in Carson, California, on Feb. 7. The final is in Carson on Feb. 9.

Two berths in the Tokyo Games this summer are up for grabs. The United States has made the field for every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was added to the Games in 1996 and has won four gold medals.

FULL USWNT ROSTER

Goalkeepers: Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars).

Defenders: Abby Dahlkemper (North Carolina Courage), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Emily Sonnett (Orlando Pride).

Midfielders: Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Samantha Mewis (North Carolina Courage), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit).

Forwards: Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue), Jessica McDonald (North Carolina Courage), Christen Press (Utah Royals), Megan Rapinoe (Reign), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage).

Bundesliga: Schalke spoils Gladbach’s chance to go top

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GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (AP) Michael Gregoritsch scored one goal and set up another as Schalke dealt a blow to Borussia Monchengladbach’s Bundesliga title hopes in a 2-0 win on Friday.

In the Bundesliga’s first game of 2020 after the winter break, Gladbach’s defense was frequently overwhelmed by host Schalke’s rapid team moves, especially on the counterattack.

After a string of first-half saves by Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer kept the score 0-0 at the break, Schalke scored twice early in the second half to secure the win.

Gregoritsch took the ball out to the left flank in the 48th minute, stretching the Gladbach defense and opening up space in the middle. He then passed for Suat Serdar to charge through the gap in Gladbach’s back line and score from the edge of the penalty area.

Ten minutes later it was Gregoritsch’s turn to score, finishing off a counterattack which ran almost the length of the field, with a lay-off pass from Benito Raman.

“We had trouble the whole game with Schalke’s movement. They put a lot of pressure on us and it was hard to play the ball out too. We gave them too much room,” Sommer said in televised comments. “We had chances in the first half when we could have scored a goal, but in general we were not good enough today.”

As well as his key role in attack, Gregoritsch also made a key intervention in defense, clearing Marcus Thuram’s header off the line in the 38th in what proved to be one of Gladbach’s best chances.

“When it works like this, it’s really great,” Gregoritsch said, crediting Schalke’s home crowd for the win. “We’re at home and we can hit the gas pedal a bit more with the 12th man here.”

Starting in goal for Schalke due to a suspension for first-choice Alexander Nubel, Markus Schubert made a good reaction stop to deny Gladbach’s Patrick Herrmann just before the break.

Gladbach stays two points behind leader Leipzig and can be overtaken by third-place Bayern Munich on Sunday if Bayern beats Hertha Berlin.

Gladbach was the surprise leader earlier in the season as its fans started to dream of a first German title since 1977, but it’s started to stall, having won just one of its last five games in all competitions.

Schalke moves up one place to fourth, overtaking its fierce rival Borussia Dortmund, which visits Augsburg on Saturday.

Chelsea’s Lampard prepared to go without January signings

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Frank Lampard is not only prepared for, but almost seems to prefer that, Chelsea make no new signings this month despite the club’s transfer ban being reduced to allow the Blues to sign players in January.

[ MORE: Report: Bruno Fernandes to Man United after Lisbon Derby ]

It’s not that Lampard believes he has the perfect squad, but he fears upsetting the balance and good vibes for a young group of players who have performed admirably thus far. Signing players for the sake of signing players would be “a knee-jerk reaction,” according to Lampard — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t want to comment on those deals because I think it’s easy with hindsight. … I think the idea of January being a time to buy players, it’s difficult for everybody: for players coming in — especially if they’re coming from a different league — for the club and for the settlement of the group. I think that’s why we have to think ultra-carefully.

“I don’t want to make some knee-jerk reaction to say: ‘Here’s my first big signing’ because we couldn’t sign anyone in the summer. No, I want to do the right thing for the club. That’s why if I do it I’ll try to consider all things. Hopefully it’s the best thing for us. Whether that’s more of a short-term option or a long-term option, we’ll also have to consider.”

As for potential outgoing players, West Ham United reportedly made a bid to take midfielder Ross Barkley on loan, but Chelsea rejected the offer and have no intention of letting the player leave Stamford Bridge this month.