Getty Images

MLS Cup: Five key questions on Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC

Leave a comment

Despite the emergence and rise of the Atlanta United’s and LAFC’s of the world, MLS is going to complete its first MLS Cup trilogy in front of a sold-out CenturyLink Field on Sunday, as the Seattle Sounders take on Toronto FC for the third time in four years.

Make no mistakes, however, the stakes remain high – perhaps higher than ever before – as both sides look to add a second star above their crest. With the financial and quality bar consistently being raised across the board, this may be the first and last MLS Cup trilogy for a pair of decades.

So, who will win it? Will Jozy Altidore even make the visitor’s 18? Pro Soccer Talk answers some of the most pressing questions ahead of the highly-anticipated final.

Will Jozy Altidore take the field for Toronto? 

Let it be clear: Even if Altidore was ready to go, Toronto are still in Yakima, Washington looking in. Now, without the striker in the equation entirely, things start going from bitter to sour instantaneously for the Reds.

Which begs the question: where does Altidore’s health stand less than 24 hours away from the final?

“I got on the field yesterday, it felt good going through the motions and set-ups,” Altidore told reporters on Saturday. “It felt good. Today is another day to push it more and try to make myself available. This is it, the last day before the game. See how it reacts, put it under a little more stress.”

And according to coach Greg Vanney, Toronto are preparing for an MLS Cup with the 30-year-old healthy and ready to go – not 100 percent, just healthy enough to see some minutes on the field.

“We were able to get him through training yesterday, he was okay coming out of it,” Vanney said. “This morning we did as much as we felt we could do. If he comes out of it okay tonight, we’ll see what kind of role — if any — he can play tomorrow. He’s battled through this injury, I’m still hopeful that tomorrow when he gets up and feels great. If there’s nothing really wrong with him, we’ll try and make use of him as much as possible. I’m encouraged with the steps he’s been able to take so far.”

So, it sounds like it won’t take a miracle after all for Altidore to feature in the biggest game of the season. Or maybe the miracle already occurred.

Now is there enough pixie dust on the striker for him to step up and make a difference like the one he did against Seattle on a blistering cold night in Toronto back in 2017?

Is CenturyLink Field’s atmosphere going to outshine last year’s venue?  

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was loud in last year’s final, and the record-breaking 73,019 spectators in attendance had everything to do with it.

On Sunday, the attendance won’t be up to par to last year’s, but if CenturyLink Field has been known for something over the past 17 years, it’s the decibels and seismic activity it can generate. 69,000 are expected for the final, with the strong majority boasting Sounders blue, rave green, and cascade shale.

The Sounders already put on a spectacle at home throughout the regular season. With anxiety, thrill and excitement that finals bring to them by association, expect a couple of tremors in Seattle, if the Sounders deliver in emphatic fashion.

Raul Ruidiaz or Alejandro Pozuelo: Who needs to step up more? 

With Toronto being the unapologetic underdog, instinctually, one would immediately turn and point at Pozuelo.

After all, the least one can ask for in that position is for your best player to live up to the billing in the most meaningful game of the season. Espcially with Altidore’s participation still in doubt, there are more reasons to pile the pressure on Pozuelo, who has scored two goals in Toronto’s playoff run.

After taking the league and Seattle by storm, doesn’t Ruidiaz have a world of business to finish, though?

“It would be very special,” Ruidiaz said of winning MLS Cup against Toronto. “It would be my second title overseas. I won a championship in Chile. I think when you arrive at a club you always have the desire to give the team the biggest joy, which is a star (above the crest) for the team.

“I’m a small step away from that and from achieving what we we all want, which is to give a moment of joy to a city and club that deserve it.”

Long story short, he does.

Like Pozuelo for Toronto, Ruidiaz is one of Seattle’s most lucrative investments ever. His impact on and off the field has been invaluable for a team that was desperately trying to fill the shoes of Clint Dempsey. He’s elevated teammates Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. They’ve gotten everything from it besides the cup, the star above the crest.

Ultimately, it’s a world of choice. But keep in mind that one player is encouraged to be at his best, while the other is expected to deliver for a city ready to see its team lift the cup at home.

What will another MLS Cup mean for either team? 

Only five teams have two or more MLS Cups, but that will change by the time Allen Chapman blows the final whistle.

Another piece of silverware for Seattle would expand their total count to seven, while Toronto can add a ninth to their trophy case. There are no doubts that both teams are embodiment of historical success in their respective countries.

As the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., how do you pump the brakes on being MLS’ highest payroll spenders with a fresh, second star above the crest in a market that has showcased true, organic hunger for not only the sport in general, but for the Toronto FC?

You don’t, and it’s unlikely that Ali Curtis comes back to the office with a tighter financial proposal. If anything, a win would encourage higher investment all across the board and especially on the first-team, regardless if Michael Bradley’s $6.5 million option is triggered. After all, they can get creative, hence Pozuelo’s sitcom episode-esque arrival.

The same goes for the Sounders.

A second star would generate a soccer buzz unlike any other for the proper and great community of Seattle, while it would also invites majority owner Adrian Hanauer to keep the Sounders within the top six spenders of the league. With Xavier Arreaga likely to be demoted from his Designated Player role in the offseason, there will be room for the Sounders to make an additional splash.

In the end, as it is anywhere in the world of sports, titles bring bragging rights and an influx of cash. Seattle and Toronto will not be the exceptions.

When all is said and done, who will hoist the cup?

Arguably better on all sectors of the field, the 2019 MLS Cup is Seattle’s to lose, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

However, when the ball starts rolling on the artificial turf, determination and hunger will quickly weave out the side that holds lower levels of the aforementioned. With over 60,000 chanting to the tune of their crest and colors, it’s unlikely that Toronto will gain the cognitive advantage.

That said, the visitors are outweighed in both departments, and will need to lean on heroic moments like the ones showcased by Nicolas Benezet and Nick DeLeon against Atlanta United. An MLS Cup seems fitting for pure, sacred MLS soccer, no?

Sure, but there have been times in which MLS doesn’t MLS for the sake of just MLSing. The feeling in the air is that Sunday is one of those, which in practice, looks like a physical, choppy and segmented battle in which Seattle will come out on top.

Real Madrid on brink of La Liga title; record ninth-straight win

Real Madrid title
Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID (AP) Real Madrid is on the verge of reclaiming the Spanish league title, after its ninth straight win following the pandemic break.

Madrid defeated Granada 2-1 on Monday to move within two points of winning the La Liga title.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Ferland Mendy and Karim Benzema scored first-half goals to keep Madrid four points ahead of second-placed Barcelona with two rounds to go.

Madrid can clinch its first title since 2017 on Thursday with a win at Villarreal, or if Barcelona loses points when it hosts Osasuna. Two draws in the final two rounds will also be enough to secure Madrid a record 34th league trophy.

“We are a step closer but we can’t relax, we haven’t won anything yet,” Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said. “There are still points to be won. We depend on ourselves and we have a game at home coming up, hopefully we can win it and celebrate the league title.”

Madrid was in control early in Granada and Mendy’s first goal since joining the Spanish club this season came from a beautiful angled shot into the top corner after getting past a defender inside the area in the 10th minute.

Benzema added to the lead six minutes later by scoring his 19th league goal with a right-footed strike into the far corner.

Granada, which was 10th in the standings, got on the board with a goal by Darwin Machis in the 50th and pressured to the end.

The hosts came closest to the equalizer with about five minutes left, when Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to make a difficult save and Ramos cleared a shot at the goal line.

Madrid had not conceded a goal in its last five league matches.

Sevilla secured the final Champions League spot after Villarreal lost to Real Sociedad 2-1.

The loss left Villarreal nine points behind fourth-placed Sevilla with two rounds to go. Sevilla beat Mallorca 2-0 on Sunday for its fourth straight win.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have the other berths in the Champions League.

Sevilla last featured in the Champions League in 2018 when it was eliminated by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. It played in the Europa League in 2018-19 and this season, where it will face Roma in the round of 16.

Villarreal needed a win to keep alive its hopes of making it to the Champions League. It has won six of its nine matches following the pandemic break, but the home setback against Sociedad ended its chances of qualifying. It remains in good position to grab a Europa League spot, though, as it kept fifth place.

Sociedad also stayed in contention for the Europa League with its third win since the break, moving to seventh place. Willian Jose scored in the 61st minute and Diego Llorente in the 75th, while the hosts pulled closer through Santi Cazorla in the 85th.

Getafe stayed in sixth place after drawing at relegation-threatened Alaves 0-0.

A late goal disallowed by video review kept Getafe from earning its second win since the league resumed after the pandemic stoppage.

Alaves has also won only once since the break and is winless in seven straight league matches. It is four points above the relegation zone.

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

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Man United: ‘We will put it right’ and not feeling pressure in top 4 race

Leave a comment

Manchester United insist they will put their draw against Southampton right and the reaction from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players was clear that they aren’t feeling the pressure of the top four race.

Leading 2-1 in the 96th minute at home against Southampton, they conceded a late equalizer from a corner and Solskjaer looked understandably frustrated with two points dropped.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Within a few seconds they went from moving up to third with three games to now sitting in fifth, behind both Leicester City and Chelsea in the top four race.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the game, Solskjaer was asked if he believes in the mentality of his players to put things right.

“I have to say the mentality of the boys has been absolutely brilliant. We’ve had a few setbacks and this is another challenge for us. I’m very confident in the mentality of them,” Solskjaer said. “Very disappointed, of course, but you have to take the disappointments as well as the positives when you win games. Disappointment because one of the last kicks of the ball you concede a goal and you lose two points, that’s just part of football. We’ve learned a hard lesson today, hopefully. We will make it right and put it right. The boys, I trust them in that respect.”

[ MORE: Maguire reacts to draw ]

Solskjaer was then asked if the pressure of the situation, watching Chelsea and Leicester both get hammered at the weekend and giving them the chance to jump up to third, played on the mind of his players.

“Absolutely not,” was Solskjaer’s reaction. “I don’t think any of our players have been thinking what have Chelsea done this weekend. Not at all. It is just the way the games go. We all play against the same teams and we all have 38 games to go through. It will even itself out during a long season and you will deserve the position you get in the end.”

That position for Manchester United will still probably be in the top four but they have made it harder for themselves now.

From the start they looked sluggish against Saints, with Paul Pogba giving the ball away on the first goal, then they sat back and looked tired in the second half.

Although Solskjaer said tiredness wasn’t an issue, it looked like midtable Southampton were chasing third place and not Manchester United. Maybe a busy few weeks caught up with United but they now have an FA Cup semifinal and huge games against Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester City to finish the season.

Going forward they looked slick and they should have just about enough in the tank to finish in the top four. However, this will be tight and could go to the final game of the season at Leicester.

WATCH: Akinfewa’s inspires after verbal abuse, Wycombe promotion

Adebayo Akinfenwa speech
Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Adebayo Akinfenwa is living the life right now.

The 38-year-old striker has helped Wycombe Wanderers into the Football League Championship for the first time in their existence after the club beat Oxford United 2-1 in the League One playoff final on Monday.

If Akinfenwa’s name sounds familiar, it should. The muscular 38-year-old “Beast” shot into the spotlight when he used Wimbledon’s promotion to broadcast that managers should “hit him up on Whatsapp” because he wasn’t done playing the game.

[ MORE: Maguire, Solskjaer rue late Man Utd draw ]

The striker mentioned Whatsapp again on Monday, saying “The only person who can WhatsApp me tonight is Klopp so we can celebrate together. ”

He was recently in the news for vile reasons, reporting that he had been called a “fat water buffalo” in Wycombe’s semifinal win over Fleetwood Town. Akinfenwa says that if the barb wasn’t intended as racial abuse, then his opponents need to be educated on racism.

He didn’t want to speak about that on Monday.

“Today is about, listen, for me, life in football is all about opinions. Four years ago someone gave an opinion about me and that was their opinion. I hope my story shows that the only opinion that matters is the opinion you have about yourself. I was lucky and blessed to find a manager and players who believed in me. I’ll say it for the people in the back: Wycombe is in the Championship. Wait, wait, I’ll say it one more time. Wycombe’s in the Championsh- WAIT! The people in the back didn’t hear me: Wycombe is in the Championship.”

Akinfewa played the final 28 minutes of Monday’s win and his next league appearance will be the first above League One in his long career that started with Watford’s academy in 2000.

He scored 10 goals and added six assists this season, giving him 200 professional goals in more than 650 appearances.

Solskjaer, Maguire react to disappointing Manchester United draw

Manchester United reaction
Photo by Peter Powell/Pool via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The 18th game of Manchester United’s unbeaten streak isn’t going to leave a good taste in the Red Devils’ mouths.

United threw away a late lead and third place on Monday, drawing Southampton 2-2 on a stoppage time goal from Michael Obafemi that came after Red Devils defender Brandon Williams left United with 10 men thanks to a head injury.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

“Well it’s the worst time to concede a goal but that happens in football,” said United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

“You’ve gotta be strong and take it because we’ve won so many games that way. It’s part of learning for this team to be sat there really disappointed after you thought you’ve got the three points in the bag. We probably didn’t deserve the three points today. … They’re a physical, very very fit side. We never got the rhythm in our passing today especially after we got 2-1.”

Solksjaer was baffled that United didn’t play half the match up a man after Oriol Romeu clattered into Mason Greenwood.

“I know my ankle wouldn’t take that challenge. It’s a nasty one, but we’ve said enough about VAR.”

United failed to claim a top four place for the first time since September and remains behind fourth-place Leicester City on goal differential. Both sides trail Chelsea by one point with three to play.

Red Devils center back Harry Maguire was upset at the failed opportunity to pass his former side.

“Playing at Old Trafford you want to win every game you play for Manchester United. We go for three points. We didn’t get three. We’re disappointed at the moment but we know we’ve gotta dust ourselves down tomorrow. We’ve got some big games coming up and we’ve gotta go get three points.”

United has Crystal Palace, West Ham, and Leicester City on the schedule in its bid for a top four spot.