MLS Playoffs: 5 Key Battles in 1st Round

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It’s playoff time! With the new MLS postseason format, featuring single-elimination matches, the margins between victory and defeat are razor thin. Winning individual battles, or a battle to control a zone in the field, are more important than ever.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five key battles ahead of the start of the 2019 MLS playoffs.

5. Wayne Rooney v. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC CB’s

At this point of the season, every game could be Wayne Rooney’s last in a D.C. United uniform. Along with Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola, Rooney is clearly the key man to D.C. United’s attack. The ball will flow through him as D.C. gets going, and it will be on TFC to mark him tightly and make sure he has no space to turn and strike the ball, or get on the end of a cross into the box.

Michael Bradley, at 32-years old, is no spring chicken. Especially late in the season, it will be interesting to see how he does marking Rooney when Rooney drops into the space between TFC’s backline, or whether he can pass him off to Omar Gonzalez or Chris Mavinga in the center of defense.

4. Union central midfield v. Red Bulls central midfield

The Philadelphia Union have enjoyed an outstanding season, and a large part of that has been the play in central midfield of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The two veterans are adept on both sides of the ball, can play a pass, intercept passes, and control the tempo of the match. If they’re put off their game, with some pressure as soon as they receive the ball, the New York Red Bulls have a chance to win.

Whether it’s Sean Davis, Christian Caceres, Mark Rzatkowski, or Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra (who is coming off a goal for Paraguay during the international break), their work in the middle of the park will be crucial to determining which team controls the tempo, possession, and ultimately, who creates the most chances. Otherwise, Medunjanin and Bedoya will pick out Brenden Aaronson, Marco Fabian or Kacper Przybyłko and be off to the races.

3. Julian Gressel v. Jalil Anibaba

It’s a direct rematch of the last week of the season, where Atlanta United triumphed over the New England Revolution with a 3-1 win to close out a strong regular season campaign. While there’s plenty of focus on Josef Martinez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez – who didn’t play in the season finale – and Ezequiel Barco, the real difference-maker in the attack for Atlanta United is Julian Gressel. The German-born wing back has plenty of marauding runs forward, is always available to receive a pass and can deliver quality crosses too. He ended up with two assists in the season finale and Anibaba was eventually substituted, though it may have been more to give the Revs some offensive punch with Juan Aguedlo coming on. It will be up to either Anibaba, or someone on the Revs to shut him down, cutting off one supply line of balls into the box for Josef Martinez to rifle home.

2. Jordan Morris v. Reggie Cannon

It’s a battle of two U.S. Men’s National Team regulars. Jordan Morris has had a resurgent second half of the season and appears to be in the best form of his life. On the other side, Cannon’s parlayed his terrific form for FC Dallas, despite his young age, into a starting role for the USMNT.

Morris in recent weeks has proven he still has his game-changing pace, as well as an improved left-footed touch. It’s going to be up to Cannon to stay with Morris down the wing, or pass him off to a teammate such as Reto Zeigler should Morris cut inside and not leave space open behind Cannon for a runner down the left wing.

1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic v. Ike Opara

One of the league’s best strikers against the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. 6-foot-5 (Zlatan) against 6-foot-2 (Ike Opara). When Ibrahimovic and Opara meet, it will be one of MLS’s duels of the ages. Zlatan has been nearly impossible for defenders to contain in MLS, as he not only uses his incredible size and tactical nous to win headers, but his technical ability on the ball ain’t bad. However, if there’s one player who can push around Zlatan, it might be Opara.

Opara has been a revelation to Minnesota United and could single-handedly be the reason they’re hosting a home game in the playoffs this year, rather than hitting the road or watching from home. He’s also part of the reason Sporting KC has been a complete mess this season.

If history is to be used as a precursor, the only meeting between Opara and Ibrahimovic this season ended in a scoreless draw. We’ll see if Opara can notch another win over Ibrahimovic this weekend as well.

Manchester United vs Nottingham Forest, League Cup semifinal 2nd leg: How to watch

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The mission for Manchester United vs Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford in Wednesday’s League Cup semifinal second leg is pretty simple: Don’t mess it up.

Manchester United are in firm control after leg 1 after securing a 3-0 victory at the City Ground on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Chelsea trying to secure record Enzo Fernandez deal ]

United last won the League Cup in 2017, the Red Devils’ fifth title in the competition. Forest won the last of its four League Cup titles when it completed back-to-back titles in 1990.


How to watch Manchester United vs Nottingham Forest live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 3pm ET, Wednesday
TV Channel: ESPN+
Online: Updates via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & in-form Manchester United vs Nottingham Forest players to watch 

The injury lists for both teams mean we won’t see some serious talents including Morgan Gibbs-White and Christian Eriksen.

It will be interesting to see how Erik ten Hag lines up United without Eriksen and perhaps Scott McTominay, but we know we’ll see Marcus Rashford. The English forward is back ton his best.

Forest will hope to have Taiwo Awoniyi back in the fold, but young Brazilian center midfielder Danilo has been promising through his first two matches roaming the heart of the pitch after moving from Palmeiras.


Manchester United team news, injuries, lineup options

QUESTIONABLE: Jadon Sancho (undisclosed), Luke Shaw (illness), Scott McTominay (undisclosed). OUT: Donny van de Beek (knee), Christian Eriksen (ankle), Diogo Dalot (thigh), Axel Tuanzebe (lower back), Anthony Martial (thigh).

Nottingham Forest team news, injuries, lineup options

QUESTIONABLE: Taiwo Awoniyi (groin), Chris Wood (illness), Jack Colback (illness), Ryan Yates (illness),  OUT: Omar Richards (calf), Moussa Niakhate (thigh), Dean Henderson (thigh), Giulian Biancone (knee), Cheikhou Kouyate (thigh), Morgan Gibbs-White (ankle).

Newcastle vs Southampton, live, in League Cup semifinal: Score, updates, link, lineups

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Newcastle lead Southampton 1-0 ahead of the sides’ League Cup semifinal second leg at St. James’ Park on Tuesday (watch live, 3 pm ET). 

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]

After securing their narrow advantage down on the south coast last week, Newcastle are firm favorites to reach a major cup final for the first time since the 1998-99 FA Cup, when the Magpies were beaten by the famed, treble-winning Manchester United side.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Newcastle vs Southampton

[ MORE: Weston McKennie joins Leeds: Is this a good move for the USMNT star? ]


How to watch Newcastle vs Southampton live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 3 pm ET, Tuesday
Online: Stream via ESPN+


Key storylines & star players

Eddie Howe’s side has performed well above expectations this season, mounting a serious top-four challenge one or two years ahead of reasonable expectations. Getting to — and winning — a final in the same season would merely be icing on the cake for Howe, who took over the Premier League’s 19th-place side (5 points from 11 games) from Steve Bruce in November 2021.

Saints reached the League Cup final in 2017, but were somewhat controversially beaten by Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Southampton have won more cup ties (6 of 7) than PL fixtures (4 of 20), which goes a long way toward explaining why Nathan Jones’ side sits rock-bottom of the PL table with just 15 points.


Newcastle team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Jonjo Shelvey (calf), Matt Targett (foot), Emil Krafth (knee)

Southampton team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Valentino Livramento (knee), Juan Larios (adductor), Duje Caleta-Car (suspension), Moussa Djenepo (head), Alex McCarthy (ankle)

Follow @AndyEdMLS

Chelsea in Portugal for Enzo Fernandez medical ahead of record deal

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Chelsea is ready to trigger Enzo Fernandez’s $129 million release clause and is in Portugal to conduct a Deadline Day medical on the World Cup winner.

The fee would break the British record set by Manchester City when it purchased Jack Grealish from Aston Villa.

Fernandez, 21, has been chased by Chelsea for some time and wants to make the move to Stamford Bridge from Benfica.

[ MORE: Weston McKennie moves to Leeds United ]

The Argentina star has a goal and six assists in 22 matches across all competitions, but his skills as an elite ball progressor are what most attracts the Blues.

Fernandez ranks in the 99th percentile of midfielders in progressive passes per 90 at 9.47 and in the 95th percentile in shot-creating actions per 90 (FBref.com).

Chelsea’s revolutionized its squad since the club was purchased by Todd Boehly’s consortium last year, with Wesley Fofana, Mykhaylo Mudryk, Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly, Marc Cucurella, and many more.

Follow Peacock’s Sky Sports News simulstream from Noon-7pm ET Tuesday, and join ProSoccerTalk’s Deadline Day Show at 5pm ET.

Enzo Fernandez
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Transfer Deadline Day, live! Join our show, send questions, analysis

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Transfer deadline day is here for January 2023, as the winter window shuts at 6pm ET on Jan. 31 for Premier League clubs.

[ LIVE: Every Premier League transfer deal as it happens ]

The clock is ticking late in the window and we will have all angles covered for you here at Pro Soccer Talk.

[ TRANSFER NEWS: Liverpool | Chelsea | Tottenham | Man City | Man United | Arsenal ]

From clicking on the links above to read the latest reports and analysis, having Sky Sports News live on Peacock all day long and to our own Pro Soccer Talk live deadline day show which starts at 5:30pm ET on Jan. 31, you won’t miss a thing.

WATCH: Sky Sports News live on Transfer deadline day on Peacock

Click on the video below to send in your questions for the PST crew for our deadline day chat where we will round up all of the deals happening late in the window, dish out grades to Premier League teams based on their business and give our analysis on the best signings of the January window.