Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

MLS Cup 2016: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges

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When Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders kick off MLS Cup 2016 at BMO Field next Saturday (8 p.m. ET), it’ll be the first time a postseason final is contested without any of the league’s original franchises on the field.

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Everyone who’s watched a minute of these MLS Cup Playoffs will be familiar with the stars — Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley for TFC; Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Osvaldo Alonso for the Sounders — but it’s so often one of the unsung heroes on whom, given their tactical assignment, the game really hinges.

With that, a few early thoughts on areas that each side should/will look to exploit, and where they’ll be at their most vulnerable…

TFC will struggle with… Lodeiro, the nomad. Lodeiro is a brilliant player, which is quite apparent after watching him for five minutes. It’s the Uruguayan’s versatility and perfectly-rounded game that will trouble the TFC midfield and defense in MLS Cup — he’ll start on the left, through the center, or on the right, but by the end of the evening in Toronto, he’ll have covered every zone on the field, and probably have created a chance or two from each of them. As we’ll discuss in just a moment, so much of TFC’s game plan will be to limit the impact of Seattle’s wide attackers, whoever they may be on the night, which could see Lodeiro directed to play something closer to a permanent central role. He’ll wander around the field anyway, in search of time and space on the ball, and the second TFC allow him to roam free in a patch of the field devoid of red shirts, that’ll be their first, and perhaps biggest, mistake of the year.

Sounders will struggle with… Morrow and Beitashour getting forward. Since TFC made the switch to three at the back, with a few weeks left in the regular season, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour have become impossibly important to a side which boasts the likes of Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore. (That’s MLS for you, though, right?) Relieved of much of their defensive-third duties, they’re now being asked to do more pressing in the middle third of the field when defending, and bomb further forward in possession. During the spells in which TFC had success against the Montreal Impact, Piatti and Dominic Oduro were pinned deep inside their own half by the TFC wing backs, rendering a truly great counter-attack just about useless.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Guzan reportedly considering move to MLS this winter ]

TFC will excel when… Altidore goes head-to-head with Marshall. The Altidore we’ve witnessed throughout these playoffs, in which he became the first player in MLS history to score a goal in five straight games during the same postseason, is a player we’ve never seen before. At his best, which is the present day, Altidore displays the kind of hold-up play, vision, passing ability and mobility that allows Giovinco to thrive. When Altidore occupies both center back, or a center back and a defensive midfielder, his gravity is what provides Giovinco the time and space he needs. Next Saturday, it’ll be vitally important for TFC for Altidore to tangle with Chad Marshall as frequently as possible. Marshall and Roman Torres, Seattle’s other center back, are mountainous men who can’t turn direction or accelerate well enough to recover once Giovinco gets the half-yard of space he so desperately desires. The man who can give that to him is Altidore.

Sounders will excel when… Morris pushes high, into the channels. Here’s a little secret about Morris that not many people are talking about: he’s hasn’t actually played center forward for the majority of the postseason. Sure, he’s an auxiliary second striker playing underneath Nelson Valdez, but he’s also been asked to do a ton of the grunt work in midfield, and the make the sacrificial runs into the channels to create space for Valdez and, most notably, Lodeiro. The 22-year-old rookie was rewarded with goals in both legs of the conference finals, but he’ll be a strictly functional part in the Seattle machine with three across the back. He’ll spend a lot more time occupying the space behind the full back and just wide of the center back. If/when he’s able to pull Nick Hagglund and/or Eriq Zavaleta, the men who’ll flank Drew Moor in the middle, the dominoes will begin to fall for TFC, and they’ll have to be absolutely perfect with their defensive rotations, which they were anything but against Montreal.

USMNT’s Arriola likely will miss MLS season, six World Cup qualifiers

Paul Arriola
AP Photo/LM Otero
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WASHINGTON (AP) D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola had major knee surgery Monday and likely will miss the entire Major League Soccer season and the United States’ first six qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup

The operation was to reconstruct his right anterior cruciate ligament. The team said there was no additional cartilage damage.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 25-year-old midfielder injured his knee Feb. 15 during D.C. United’s preseason match against Orlando in Tampa, Florida.

Arriola has been a regular starter for the U.S. national team under coach Gregg Berhalter. Arriola has five goals in 33 international appearances.

After failing to reach the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. starts qualifying for the 2022 tournament this year. The Americans have two matches each in September, October and November, then complete qualifying with two games apiece in March and September 2021.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

State of play in CONCACAF Champions League

CONCACAF Champions League
AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez
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Four of five Major League Soccer clubs alive in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 are in fine shape to reach the quarterfinals after one leg.

The fifth has a tall hill to climb.

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LAFC trails Club Leon by two and did not collect an away goal in Mexico during first leg play last week.

“It’s 2-0, but we’re going to work hard,” said LAFC attacker Latif Blessing. “We’re going to prepare ourselves to win the next game. … We did good, but we want to win. It couldn’t happen that way but we’re going to prepare next game to win this game. We need to win.”

The second leg in L.A. is one of the last two matches of the round, kicking off at 10 p.m. ET Thursday just as Seattle Sounders square off with Olimpia.

The Honduran side managed a controversial comeback in the 2-2 draw with Jordan Morris-fueled Seattle last week, but the Sounders will be happy to have those two away goals and home field.

Montreal Impact has the same situation for Deportivo Saprissa’s visit at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, while Atlanta United scored an away goal in a draw with Motagua and hosts the visitors from Honduras’ capital at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.

That leaves us with NYCFC, who got a Heber hat trick amongst five away goals at Costa Rican side San Carlos in a 5-3 win. The second leg begins at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday at Red Bull Arena (yes, you read that correctly).

Elsewhere, Liga MX sides don’t have it much better. Cruz Azul leads Portmore 2-1 heading back to Mexico, while Club America scored an away goal in a draw with Comunicaciones.

Finally, Tigres UANL trails 2-1 after one leg with Alianza in El Salvador.

CCL second leg schedule
all times ET

Atlanta United v. Motagua (1-1) — 8 p.m. Tuesday
Cruz Azul v. Portmore United (2-1) — 10 p.m. Tuesday
NYCFC v. San Carlos (5-3) — 6 p.m. Wednesday
Montreal Impact v. Deportivo Saprissa (2-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tigres UANL v. Alianza (1-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Club America v. Comunicaciones (1-1) — 10 p.m. Wednesday
Seattle Sounders v. Olimpia (2-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday
LAFC v Leon (0-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday

Eleven to go: Ranking obstacles on Liverpool’s unbeaten path

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Liverpool has won all five of its matches since the last time we evaluated its path to an unbeaten Premier League season.

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Those matches were ranked 14th, 12th, 11th, 10th, and 4th on our first rankings of obstacles to immortality, so very little of the heavy lifting has been conducted.

Let’s get something out of the way: If Liverpool is unable to overturn their first leg deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, you can probably etch that zero in the league loss column into stone.

That said, many expect the Reds to overcome that 1-0 disadvantage from Madrid, so here’s where we slot the difficulties moving forward.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

9. Newcastle away, time TBD May 17 — We’re now calling this the easiest date left. Klopp’s men aren’t going to lose an unbeaten season at the altar just because Steve Bruce bunkers down. St. James’ Park is a hassle, but

8. Watford away, 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday Klopp probably feels like he’s already playing with house money in the FA Cup, so there’s no reason to think he’ll hand any priority at all to the following FA Cup meeting with Chelsea.

7. Bournemouth home, 7:30 a.m. ET March 7 Situated between Chelsea in the FA Cup and the home UCL second leg versus Atleti, it’s not easy…  but the Cherries have given us less reason to believe they’ll threaten the Reds than any other team besides Newcastle.

6. Aston Villa home, 11:30 a.m. ET April 12Dean Smith‘s desperate Villans will have Villa Park rocking before Liverpool’s possible UCL quarterfinals 2nd leg days later.

5. Burnley home, 7:30 a.m. ET April 25 — Taking place just before a possible UCL quarterfinal first leg, Burnley will try to trouble the Reds in a similar manner to West Ham.

4. Chelsea home, time TBD May 9 — Both the Blues and Reds could be coming off UCL semifinal second legs. Don’t forget that Chelsea took the Reds to the wire in the UEFA Super Cup despite it being very early in Frank Lampard‘s tenure.

3. Arsenal away, time TBD May 2 — Both sides may be days away from needing a result to qualify for the UCL or UEL final.

2. Everton away, 4 p.m. ET March 16 — This may as well be the only match left on the Toffees’ docket that matters more than another, as Carlo Ancelotti and his men know the message they could send regarding the building up of Everton.

Not only that, but Everton has nothing else left to circle, no other competitions, nothing.

1. Man City away, 11:30 a.m. ET April 5 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.

Champions League: Chelsea, Napoli aim to slow Lewandowski, Messi

UEFA Champions League preview
Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images
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Four of the most dangerous attacks in Europe begin their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For Chelsea that means trying to find a way to limit the damage of away goals when Bayern Munich visits Stamford Bridge.

Of course, that means trying to slow lethal Robert Lewandowski. The 31-year-old Polish striker has scored 38 times in 32 appearances this season.

Here’s Frank Lampard, via Football.London:

Form of his life means something special with Lewandowski because of how well he’s been consistently in Europe for the last, how many years, I don’t know,” Lampard said. “Everything about him, from a distance, from afar, is just top class. Having the opportunity to watch a lot of Bayern in build-up to this game, that shines through. Of course, he’s going to be a huge threat. He’s not the only threat but he is a spearhead.”

Lampard points to the Blues work without the ball and away from it that will determine whether they can limit Lewandowski and Bayern.

“We traveled to Ajax and had a fantastic game off the ball,” he said. “We’ve had games like that this year in the league as well. But the levels have to go up.”

The Blues won’t have Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and N’Golo Kante, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is finally available after a long injury absence. Pedro may play.

[ MORE: JPW’s score predictions ]

Tuesday’s other first leg sees Napoli hosting Barcelona, which means Gennaro Gattuso trying to find a way to cool down Lionel Messi.

The world’s top player scored four goals at the weekend and had six assists in his three previous La Liga outings.

Another player who’s helped Barcelona reclaim the league lead will be critical to controlling the midfield against Napoli, and that’s Frenkie de Jong.

The 22-year-old has had fits and starts at Barca, especially this month. He admits that he’s had an odd time adjusting to Messi, the teammate, though it hasn’t been part of the problem. From FCBarcelona.com:

“When I began training with him it was strange, because when I was 12, still in secondary school, I used to watch a lot of football. He was already the best in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or back then, so I was a fan, or whatever you want to call it.”

Napoli boss Gattuso was a bit more effusive when addressing Messi, via Football.Espana:

“I have read whether to make a cage or not, but we need the collective game to combat someone like him, and it is not just him,” Gattuso said. “He is the best in the world, for how he has lived his entire career. He is always perfect, never a misplaced word, he is an example for everyone. He does things that I only see on the PlayStation. He has an incredible quality and for years he has been the best of all-time.”

Both matches kick off at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.