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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.

Fernandez scores twice as Portland wins thriller in Seattle (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Brian Fernandez has made the most of his first two-plus months in MLS, undoubtedly capped off by a star’s performance in his Timbers-Sounders rivalry debut on Sunday. The Argentine scored both of Portland’s goals in a 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, all while managing to annoy anyone and everyone in Rave Green with his pest-like antics.

Fernandez’s first came after just 20 minutes. His second came barely 20 seconds after Raul Ruidiaz drew Seattle level in the second half. With the result, Portland climbs to within two points of the Western Conference’s seventh and final playoff place. Seattle, meanwhile, misses out on a chance to leapfrog LA Galaxy for second.

[ MORE: Pity proves his point as Atlanta tops DCU late (video) ]

Three moments that mattered

20′ — Fernandez slams home after Moreira smashes the crossbar — Jorge Moreira’s initial blast deserved to hit the back of the net, but he’ll surely settle for Fernandez cleaning up the mess and bagging the opener.

50′ — Ruidiaz passes into an empty net for 1-1 — Steve Clark was trying to… hmm, you know what? Not really sure.

51′ — Fernandez answers right back and it’s 2-1 — It was the deftest of touches, but it’s all that was required seconds after Portland conceded down the other end of the field.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Brian Fernandez

Goalscorers: Fernandez (20′, 51′), Ruidiaz (50′)

Red Bulls escape Orlando with three points (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): The New York Red Bulls needed a little help from the woodwork to escape Orlando with a victory on Sunday, and they got it — not once, not twice, but three times in the second half. After scoring the game’s only goal just past the half-hour mark, Luis Robles and Co., held on for dear life as Orlando City SC attacked with wave after wave of pressure. Robles made four saves, while the posts and crossbar made three more for him. Brian White scored the goal, assisted by Kaku, his seventh of the season. The victory sees the Red Bulls climb past New York City FC for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, now just a point back of D.C. United in third and two back of Atlanta United in second.

[ MORE: Pity proves his point as Atlanta tops DCU late (video) ]

Three moments that mattered

32′ — White finishes Kaku’s curling ball — Brian Rowe is unlucky not to make the save, but it would have been a grave crime against brilliance for this ball from Kaku not to result in a goal.

60′ — Ascues hits the crossbar — Woodwork.

77′ — Kljestan smashes the post — Woodwork again. The follow-up accidentally hits Robles as he’s lying on the ground.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Luis Robles/posts and crossbar

Goalscorers: White (32′)

Sevilla score late winner to beat Liverpool in Fenway friendly

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BOSTON (AP) Alejandro Pozo scored in the 90th minute on an assist from Munir El Haddadi to give hard-fighting Sevilla a victory over crowd favorite Liverpool at Fenway Park on Sunday in a game that was friendly in name only.

The Spanish side finished with 10 players after Gnagnon Joris violently kicked the legs out from under Liverpool midfielder Yasser Larouci in the 76th minute; he crashed to the turf, remained down for several minutes and was taken off on a stretcher.

Despite temperatures in the mid-90s, nearly the entire 37,000-seat ballpark was full for the friendly, with most of them dressed in red to support Liverpool. The Champions League winners and the Boston Red Sox, who make their home at Fenway, are both owned by groups led by financier John Henry.

The field was laid out from the third-base side to right field, with the home team bullpen removed to make room. The teams had their benches in front of the iconic Green Monster, the 37-foot wall in left field. Much of the baseball diamond itself was covered with sod; the pitcher’s mound was sawed apart and shoveled off after the Red Sox finished their homestand on Sunday.

After the U.S. national anthem, the fans serenaded the Reds with the traditional “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

To deal with the heat, the game was stopped once each half to give the players a chance to hydrate; the Fenway grounds crew also came out with hoses to wet down the infield, and sprinklers took care of the outfield.

The fans didn’t get to see many of their favorites, with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all resting from international tournaments, along with goalkeeper Alisson. With Liverpool’s top four goalkeepers unavailable, Andy Longergan, who spent the last season at Middlesbrough, got the start in goal.

Liverpool dominated early, but it was Sevilla that scored first when a ball deflected in the penalty area to Nolito, who made it 1-0 in the 37th minute. Divock Origi tied it in the 44th minute when a header deflected to him at the post and he buried it.

The players on the field – at least those in Sevilla’s white kits – didn’t seem to be persuaded that the game was only an exhibition. A tough tackle in the 12th minute resulted in a foul on Ever Banega, and it was upgraded to a yellow card when he slammed the ball into the ground in protest.

Liverpool midfielder Harry Wilson left just before the half after apparently getting poked in the eye. But that was nothing compared to the straight red card given to Joris. He seemed to be the only person in the stadium who disagreed with the call, arguing with the referee while Larouci was attended to.

The teams substituted liberally at halftime, with every Liverpool player except Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced by a substitute. Four Sevilla players stayed in to start the second half.

Red-hot Revs beat FC Cincy, make it 10 games unbeaten (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Statistically speaking, no other team even comes close to rivaling the New England Revolution as the hottest team in MLS. With a 2-0 road victory over expansion side FC Cincinnati on Sunday, Bruce Arena’s side hasn’t lost in 10 games (nine of which have been played since he was named head coach) and now sits above the playoff cut line in the Eastern Conference. At present, two points separate them and fourth-place New York City FC. Carles Gil has been a revelation as a new signing last winter, and Arena has gotten so much more out of the rest of the remaining roster than Brad Friedel did during his 15 months in charge. Gil scored what turned out to be the early winner on Sunday, followed by an insurance goal (set up by Gil) from Antonio Delamea early in the second half. It was as routine as a road victory can be in MLS, which is as much of an indictment of Cincinnati as it is a compliment to the Revs.

[ MORE: Pity proves his point as Atlanta tops DCU late (video) ]

Two moments that mattered

9′ — Gil cleans up a mess and makes it 1-0 — Sometimes, if not most of the time, Cincinnati defends exactly how you would expect an expansion team to defend.

55′ — Delamea heads home for 2-0 — Headed goals don’t come much easier, or less contested, than this one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Carles Gil

Goalscorers: Gil (9′), Delamea (55′)