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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.

Man United boss Solskjaer slams Liverpool’s trophy drought

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired one across Jurgen Klopp‘s bow ahead of Manchester United’s meeting with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday.

In particular, the former Manchester United striker took aim at Liverpool’s lack of titles over the past decade, and their lack of a Premier League title. With the knowledge that the Red Devils are not in the title race and their adversaries are, Solskjaer hopes United can get back to the top spot soon, wary of a lengthy drought.

[ PREVIEW: Manchester United v. Liverpool ]

“I have loads of Liverpool fans back home [in Norway] and every year is going to be their year,” Solskjaer said ahead of Sunday’s match at 9:05 a.m. ET. “It has got to October and it’s: ‘OK, next year.’ Now they are in the race so for them, it is going to be an exciting finish to the league. That is none of our concern. We just have to concentrate on ourselves.”

Manchester United has not won a Premier League title in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson‘s retirement. Under his care, the club won 12 Premier League titles plus five FA Cup titles and four League Cup titles. Meanwhile, Liverpool has not won a Premier League crown in its history, last winning the English top flight in 1990, two years before the formation of the Premier League as it currently stands.

“Of course they do feel that pressure,” Solskjaer said of Liverpool. “I think all the supporters do and players probably do as well. But then we have not won it for a few years and so we want to get back to that. We have to make sure that we don’t end up being happy being among the top four. If you aim too low and reach your target, then that’s more dangerous than aiming too high and missing them.”

Solskjaer is very familiar with the rivalry between these two clubs, dating back to his time as a player. Most notably, he scored a 90th minute winner in 1990 FA Cup play against the Reds after coming off the bench in the 81st minute.

Roma boss Di Francesco worried after late win

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Edin Dzeko saved Roma in the 95th minute, sealing a 3-2 win over Frosinone and moving the club back to within a point of a Champions League place. Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco wasn’t having it.

“We can’t keep getting away with this type of performance,” Di Francesco said to the media after the game.

[ MORE: Serie A recap as Roma and Torino win ]

Despite its solid league position down the stretch of the season, the club has looked shaky at times. On Saturday, the defense put forth a calamitous performance at the back filled with mistakes, bad passes, poor marking, and questionable decision-making. The game was tied 2-2 for most of the second half with Roma’s relegation-threatened opponents nearly pulling out a win if it wasn’t for goalkeeper Robin Olsen’s spectacular save.

“The positive from this evening is that we won, but I do hope he can start to play much better football from now on,” Di Francesco said. “The second goal came from our own set play and our positioning was off, Daniele De Rossi misread the situation.”

“Frosinone are scrapping for every point to secure safety and I know what that is like. We made too many mistakes and should’ve approached the game better, as we risked a draw or even a defeat. We always find a way to make life more complicated for ourselves with distractions.”

Frosinone’s first goal came from a mistake by Steven N’Zonzi, whose back-pass to no one was intercepted by Camillo Ciano who scored despite a great save attempt by Olsen. The hosts scored their second on the break as De Rossi and Aleksandr Kolarov were torn apart on the break despite a one-on-two advantage for the defenders.

“We had the game in hand and should’ve finished it off rather than just tried to control it. We’ve shown over the season that we are a team capable of scoring goals, but also of conceding them. We’ve got to improve.”

Despite the poor defensive performance, the attack played spectacular at times, with Stephan El Shaarawy the star and Dzeko a force. Dzeko was on hand to bundle in the winner five minutes into stoppage time as El Shaarawy lofted a short cross over a defender and into the chest of the Bosnian striker.

League Cup Final preview: Sarri, Pep match wits for 4th time

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Sunday’s League Cup Final could be a moment for one manager to right his ship, or drive the other to the start of an improbable quadruple.

Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri duels with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, just 14 days after the latter outmaneuvered the former to the tune of a 6-0 shellacking at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: West Ham 3-1 Fulham ]

The loss was Chelsea’s second to City this season, though the Blues did manage a 2-0 defeat in league play at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8.

It’s also the second time the two will go head-to-head for silverware, as Man City outlasted Chelsea 2-0 for the Community Shield on Aug. 5.

That loss to City didn’t send the Chelsea faithful scurrying from “Sarriball,” but they’ve become far less supportive of the Blues’ boss.

And Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger says Friday is a chance for his side to show the supporters the better side of what Sarri has implemented at Stamford Bridge.

“That will show the truth,” Rudiger said. “That will show our way this ­season. It will be the truth in terms of  keeping up with opponents like City Liverpool and Tottenham. What if it shows we are not that close? Then that is the reality.”

“You always play for your manager but you want results. You want to win. No player likes to have the kind of run we’ve had.”

Rudiger is a quote-giving marvel. Chelsea needs to keep him just for the departure from the norm he provides the media.

As for Guardiola, he’s also supportive of Sarri and thinks the Blues faithful should take a step back. He references the heat given to Antonio Conte the year after he won a Premier League crown.

Guardiola is also not thrilled that the 6-0 result is the last time City played Chelsea. From The London Evening Standard:

“In that moment I was so happy to beat them 6-0, but now in this moment I would prefer not to have beaten them 6-0. I don’t like to play in a short period of time when you’ve beaten them by so much,” he said. “They are incredible professional players, they are proud, they will do extra.”

“When we lost there and when we won here, my opinion of Sarri and his teams is always high. When we reviewed the game against us, maybe people don’t believe me, but they did incredible things.”

They’ll have to do more incredible things Sunday at Wembley, or City will lay claim to its fourth League Cup title in six tries (and seventh overall).

The winner Sunday will have the second-most League Cup wins in history.

League Cup Final Preview: Chelsea-Man City

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  • Both Chelsea and Man City have won the League Cup 5 times in club history
  • These teams have never met before in the League Cup final
  • Only 4 clubs have successfully retained the League Cup trophy

Chelsea looks to prove the 6-0 thwacking at the hands of Manchester City two weeks ago was a fluke as the two sides meet with a trophy on the line in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET at Wembley Stadium.

Blues boss Maurizio Sarri has been under fire the last few weeks for a downturn in form, with the club having lost three of its last four Premier League matches, including the heavy defeat to Man City. They have conceded 12 goals in those four matches, blown out not just by Man City but also by Bournemouth, plus a loss to an inconsistent Arsenal side to start the slide.

With a massive chance for Sarri to make a statement that he deserves his position, the Italian may be without first-choice goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga who picked up a hamstring injury of late, and could be sidelined alongside Pedro and Davide Zappacosta who both have fallen ill.

For Manchester City, Pep Guardiola will have to make decisions on who to risk amid a tight Premier League title battle with Liverpool. While the trophy obviously means something to both sides, it also presents yet another fixture that could prove costly amid a tight league race which could have implications on the final few months.

Guardiola doesn’t expect to roll over the Blues with the same ease they did two weeks ago. “I don’t like to play the same team in a short period of time when you have beaten them before,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “They [Chelsea] are incredibly professional players, they are proud and bright and will do extra. We are going to play the type of game you have to play in a final and try to win the title.”

The biggest of Guardiola’s selection questions are in net, with the decision of starting regular number one goalkeeper Ederson or third-string Arijanet Muric who has been the go-to netminder for the entire League Cup run. Backup Claudio Bravo has been sidelined for the year with a long-term injury.

“Of course it is not the most important title of the season but once we are here in an amazing stadium against a top side, we want to prepare to win,” Guardiola said.

Also in question may be striker Sergio Aguero who scored a hat-trick against Chelsea last time out. He has featured in two of the five League Cup matches, but the final could be a high-pressure situation to give Gabriel Jesus a look while also giving Aguero some time off. The 30-year-old Aguero has featured in each of the last 10 Premier League matches.