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MLS preview, leg 2: Top seeds RBNY, SKC have work to do

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Three more places are set to be booked in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs conference finals on Sunday. One home side leads, one trails and one enters the second leg on level footing…

[ MORE: Timbers top Sounders, in PKs, in epically insane 2nd leg ]

Sporting Kansas City (1*) vs. Real Salt Lake (1)

Conservative and defensive aren’t two descriptors typically, if ever, used to describe Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side, yet the first leg saw the Western Conference’s top seed set out to frustrate and stifle the six-seed on their home patch — at least in the first half, until Albert Rusnak scored his stunning goal from just about nothing in the 51st minute. Sporting responded brilliantly, though, never panicking and hardly showing RSL another sight of goal until the game’s final few frantic minutes.

It was Diego Rubio — super-sub for most of the season, save for a two-month stretch where he was the only option to start at center forward, and he produced a goal or assist per game — who bagged Sporting’s equalizer right on the hour mark, seconds after coming on. While some will surely be clamoring for the Chilean to start the second leg, it’s important to remember that game states drastically affect an attacking player’s quantity and quality of chances. For the vast majority of Khiry Shelton’s shift, Sporting resorted to uncharacteristically long balls out of the back. Once RSL went ahead, Vermes did the right (and obvious) thing in swapping the two.

In the second leg, Sporting will be the possession-dominant side on their home field, which will play perfectly into the hands feet of Shelton, whose hold-up play and tireless movement will pull defenders out of deeper positions, thus opening up half-spaces for Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi — the team’s two top scorers this season — in ways that Rubio just can’t. It’s vitally important that Sporting attack RSL through the center of the field and don’t fall into the trap and getting the ball wide and crossing it into the box more than 20 or 30 or — gasp — 40 times, as they’ve sometimes done in the past. Patience and persistence through the center will cause RSL problems they don’t want to deal with, and ultimately send Sporting through to the West finals.


Atlanta United (1*) vs. New York City FC (0)

Of the three higher-seeded sides hosting on Sunday, Atlanta United have the most straightforward path to victory: don’t lose at home, where they lost just twice all season and haven’t done so since dropping back-to-back games (against the no. 1 seeds from each conference) in May. There is no such thing as a lock in MLS, but this is as close as you’re going to find. [cue NYCFC winning 3-0 on Sunday]

Chances will be far more plentiful for both sides on Sunday, as opposed to the four combined shots on target (all by Atlanta, the visitors) on the postage-stamp field at Yankee Stadium.

The late-season return of Yangel Herrera from his season-ending long-term knee injury did wonders to strengthen NYCFC’s shoddy midfield down the stretch, but not even the 20-year-old Venezuelan destroyer (on loan from Manchester City) could grab hold of the first leg and coax the game in any particular direction, let alone one that was advantageous for his side. It’ll take a 10-out-of-10 performance from Herrera, and a couple of his teammates along the backline, to have any hopes of even slowing down Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Co.

Good luck.


New York Red Bulls (0) vs. Columbus Crew SC (1*)

The Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls find themselves in a fairly precarious position heading into Sunday’s nightcap: trailing the side that conceded the second-fewest goals (24) away from home in the Eastern Conference and the fourth-fewest in the entire league.

The first leg saw yet another tally of just four shots between the two sides (split evenly this time) and only 14 combined efforts, period. The Red Bulls did everything they could have hoped to do ahead of kickoff, but were undone by a moment of pure magical and ingenuity from Federico Higuain, who just seems to do those things this time of year, every year.

Columbus is an interesting foil for New York, as their tendency to play the ball quickly and vertically often negates the Red Bulls’ relentless press. Like in the first leg, the midfield essentially turns into a pendulum shuttling back and forth constantly without ever really accomplishing anything for all the miles traversed. If the Red Bulls’ backline can play a little tighter to Columbus’s wingers and forward(s), making those long balls a tad tougher to see and play, that’s all the likes of Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl will need to wreak havoc in Crew SC’s defensive half. That’s where the chances — and any likelihood of a comeback — will come from.

Europa League roundup: Arsenal wins; Rangers, AC Milan bounced

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Twenty-four games in about four hours: It’s the Europa League group stage, and it’s reached its conclusion.

[ MORE: Mourinho: “Job done” in UCL ]

A very young Arsenal claimed its group, Celtic bunkered down but couldn’t advance to the knockout rounds, and rivals Rangers couldn’t quite find the offense needed to complete a promising UEL campaign.


Rapid Vienna 1-0 Rangers

Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria. A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past Richard Strebinger.

Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag

Alexandre Lacazette‘s 17th minute goal gave the Gunners a leg up on the group lead in a game with a bunch of unusual faces on the pitch. Carl Jenkinson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, and Saka Bukayo were among the starters, and Lacazette left for Zech Medley in the 63rd minute as Arsenal saved its best for a trip to Southampton on Sunday (No offense to Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, who went 90 minutes each).

MOL Vidi 2-2 Chelsea

We’ve already shown you Willian’s terrific free kick, and this match in Hungary was plenty entertaining for a relatively inconsequential outing. Ethan Ampadu scored an own goal two minutes after Chelsea took the lead, and MOL Vidi led 2-1 when Olivier Giroud restored the stalemate in the 75th.

Celtic 1-2 Red Bull Salzburg

The visitors dominated and finally found a way past goalkeeper Craig Gordon through a 67th Moanes Dabbur marker. Celtic went down two with Fredrik Gulbrandsen adding to the score line.

RB Leipzig 1-1 Rosenborg

Matheus Cunha’s goal just after halftime looked to have prodded RBL above Celtic and into the Round of 32, but Tore Reginiussen leveled for the Norwegian side.

Olympiacos 3-1 AC Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s men are out of Europe after a four-goal second half.

Elsewhere
Villarreal 2-0 Spartak Moscow
Lazio 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Sevilla 3-0 Krasnodar
Marseille 1-3 Apollon Limassol
Rennes 2-0 Astana
PAOK 1-3 BATE Borisov
Genk 4-0 Sarpsborg
Dynamo Kiev 0-1 Jablonec
Besiktas 0-1 Malmo
Akhisar Belerdiyespor 0-0 Standard Liege
Slavia Prague 2-0 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Copenhagen 0-1 Bordeaux
Dinamo Zagreb 0-0 Anderlecht
Sporting Lisbon 3-0 Vorskla Poltava
F91 Dudelange 0-0 Real Betis
Ludogorets Razgrad 1-1 FC Zurich
AEK Larnaca 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen
Spartak Trnava 1-0 Fenerbahce

FIFA won’t be bound by politics over sharing Qatar World Cup

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Political tensions won’t prevent FIFA from deciding whether to place some World Cup games outside Qatar, the head of world soccer’s governing body said Thursday.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used a summit of soccer nations in Qatar to gather support for his mission to add 16 teams to the 2022 tournament – a move that would require the tiny, energy-rich nation sharing games in the region.

[ MORE: Gerrard proud of Rangers in exit ]

That would be complicated by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar in 2017 in an ongoing political dispute that prevents flights between Doha and the boycotting countries.

Qatar won a vote in 2010 to host the World Cup with 32 teams and is only building eight stadiums. A 48-team tournament is already planned for 2026 in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Infantino wants to fast-track that expansion and add 16 more games for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Is it feasible to do it only in Qatar? Difficult probably,” Infantino said. “Is it feasible to have a few games being played in neighboring countries? Well, maybe this is an option, of course.

“I’m not that naive not to know not to read the news and not to know what is going on. But now we are in football, we are not in politics, and in football, sometimes the dreams come true.”

Given 32 teams compete for the World Cup and there are 211 nations in FIFA, adding more slots in 2022 is likely to be embraced by the members given they have already approved expansion of the event beginning in 2026.

Infantino used a trip to Doha in October to ask the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be shared with nations that are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.

“If there is something that I could do which is good for football worldwide, then we should look at it,” Infantino said at a news conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. “I have the chance and I’m lucky enough to be able to look into that without having to be bound by any political considerations, but looking at it from a purely sporting perspective.”

Infantino did use a speech to politicians at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last month to discuss using the World Cup in 2022 to bring countries together by spreading games beyond Qatar.

The 2022 tournament is already being cramped into a 28-day window to minimize the disruption to top European leagues because it was moved from June and July to November and December due to the extreme heat.

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

Gerrard proud despite Rangers exit from Europa League (video)

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Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria.

A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past goalkeeper Richard Strebinger.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“In terms of the performance, I can’t fault the players,” Gerrard said to BT Sport. “They gave me everything. In what we had available, they’ve done extremely well. The whole journey, I’m so proud of the team.

“We’ll come again in Europe. Next year we’ll be better cause we’ll have some better players with us and the young lads in the group with learn and grow. We’ll be together for 18 months instead of six.

Gerrard says he wants Rangers to bring the same intensity back to the Scottish top flight, where the Glasgow side are two points back of rivals Celtic. Rangers have played one more game than Celtic.

Men in Blazers podcast: Chelsea stops Man City, Atlanta wins MLS Cup

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Rog and Davo recap one of the shock results of the season in Chelsea’s defeat of Manchester City. Plus, Liverpool go top, Atlanta United win MLS Cup and the USWNT know their World Cup opponents.

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