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Sporting KC pulls away late v. CAI to advance to CCL quarterfinals

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It took 74 long, painful, never ending minutes. Then Sporting KC finally found the breakthrough.

Peter Vermes’ side kept the flame alive for MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League, pulling away late to rout Club Atletico Independiente of Panama, 3-0, on Thursday evening in Kansas City, Kan. Kristzian Nemeth scored a brace, including the opener with an assist from his fellow Hungarian, centerback Botond Barath. With the win, Sporting KC advances to take on Monterrey in the CCL semifinals.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

From the opening whistle, Sporting KC attacked the CAI defense, with Johnny Russell and Gerso dribbling in from the wings at their opposing defense. However, goalkeeper Jose Guerra was equal to the task, leading to a frustrating first half and first 25 minutes of the second half. Sporting KC had six shots, eight corner kicks and 74 percent possession in the first half.

That “74” number though was key, as it was when Sporting KC finally got on the board. A corner kick was lofted into the box, where Barath jumped highest and headed the ball down, into the mixer. Nemeth reacted quickest and rifled a shot past Guerra in for a goal. With that goal, Sporting KC were tied on aggregate but would advance on away goals, meaning that CAI had to push forward a bit to find a goal of their own.

CAI’s push up the field left spaces out wide yet again for Sporting KC to exploit. After Gerso missed a wide-open chance and had another called back for offside, he finally made CAI pay. Gerso launched an attack forward and crossed the ball in from the left. It found its way to Russell, who tapped it to Roger Espinoza for the easy finish in the 81st minute

In a similar play in the 86th minute, Sporting KC put the game beyond reach with a Gerso cross that was slotted home by Nemeth.

Super sub Diomande gives LAFC late win over 10-man Sporting KC

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Sporting KC fouled LAFC and fouled them some more, and while it appeared they would escape Los Angeles with a point to show for it, the strategy backfired.

After picking up five first-half bookings and six overall, Roger Espinoza was sent off with six minutes to play in regulation, and LAFC took advantage of the man-up opportunity as Adama Diomande delivered the winner three minutes into stoppage time for a 2-1 win in the season opener. Sporting KC went in front before the break, but LAFC came from behind to earn all three points.

The first half was lively on both sides as Carlos Vela was dangerous throughout. Still, it was the visitors who went in front first at Banc of California Stadium as the LAFC defense was soft to allow Krisztian Nemeth to find space near the penalty area and Johnny Russell fed him for the 16th minute opener.

Both teams had plenty of chances in the first half, the biggest of which came in the 36th minute as Lee Nguyen fed a delicious through ball to Mark-Anthony Kaye who was clean on goal. The flag went up for offside, although the decision proved to be contentious upon replay, and the assistant probably should have left his flag down to let VAR provide any necessary decision after the fact. Vela’s constant presence and LAFC’s general attacking mentality forced Sporting KC into constant fouling, racking up 12 fouls and five yellow cards in the first half, the most first-half yellows since at least 2012 in an MLS match.

Just over a minute after halftime, with the home crowd still loudly behind its squad despite the deficit, Diego Rossi brought LAFC back level as he muscled past a helpless Graham Zusi to create space and rifled a pinpoint shot past a diving Tim Melia who got the faintest of fingertips to the ball but couldn’t keep it out.

LAFC nearly went in front on 57 minutes, but Eddie Segura’s powerful header off a corner was nervously parried by Meila before the rebound was cleared off the line by Seth Sinovic. The game plodded along until the 84th minute when, with a whopping six players on yellow cards, Sporting KC finally, inevitably fell a man down. In a moment of complete idiocy, Roger Espinoza needlessly went through the back of Kaye in midfield, an easy decision to show the Honduran his second yellow and reduce Sporting KC to 10 men. The marching orders are the ninth of Espinoza’s MLS career, tying him for second-most in league history and one behind the leader Jamison Olave.

That paved the way for the winner in the 94th minute. While it appeared Sporting KC was poised to earn a valuable road point amid heavy pressure, Diomande was on hand to deliver the deathblow off the bench. Having come on way back in the 59th minute, he collected a heavy touch from Jordan Harvey, switched to his right foot, and rifled a bullet just past the outstretched hands of Meila.

MLS – West: SKC finish 1st; Sounders sneak into 2nd; Galaxy crash out (video)

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While the Eastern Conference was largely settled heading into the final day of the regular season, the Western Conference was anything but.

[ EAST: Red Bulls snatch Shield; Crew SC grab last spot (video) ]

Spots 1-6 were up for grabs, and four teams were mathematically alive in the race for first place and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Things started wildly, and only got more wild…

First-place race: FC Dallas take an early lead on Colorado Rapids, pushing themselves into second place for the time being.

https://twitter.com/MLS/status/1056653716420317184

Sixth-place race: LA Galaxy score twice in 10 minutes — both courtesy of Ola Kamara — to move into sixth place, two points ahead of Real Salt Lake.

First-place race: First-place Sporting KC lead second- (now fourth-) place Los Angeles FC, via Roger Espinoza‘s strike from 25 yards out.

Sixth-place race: The Galaxy wouldn’t, would they? They couldn’t, could they?

First-place race: Carlos Vela pulls LAFC level in KC. The home side would still finish top of the West after a draw.

Second-place race: Danny Hoesen puts San Jose Earthquakes ahead against the run of play, putting Seattle Sounders in a bit of trouble.

First-place race: 22-year-old Daniel Salloi restores the lead for Sporting KC, who have been down a man since Seth Sinovic’s handball which led to the penalty kick.

Sixth-place race: Mauro Manotas makes it 2-2 at StubHub Center, and it’s happening. It’s really happening.

Second-place race: Raul Ruidiaz has proven to be worth his weight in gold since signing this summer, and his late equalizer sends Seattle second.

Sixth-place race: There could be no more fitting end to the Galaxy’s season. What a stunningly uncontrollable disaster.

Second-place race: Dallas were unable to grab a second in Colorado and left the door wide open for Seattle.

Second-place race: Colorado get a second shortly thereafter, and Dallas tumble from second, to third, to fourth on the final day.

Second-place race: Ruidiaz does it again and locks up second place for Seattle.

Three (final) things we learned from MLS’s opening weekend

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The opening weekend of MLS 2018 is in the books.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

PST’s Joe Prince-Wright talked us through the first three lessons of the newborn season yesterday, followed by three more later in the evening, and three more earlier today…

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

Throw NYCFC into the “incredibly well-coached” category

It’s time to put Patrick Vieira into the “best coach in MLS” conversation. It’s one thing to swarm and press and overwhelm teams with numbers, but it’s another thing to do so with the discipline and the tidal wave of energy that have become synonymous with New York City FC.

Starting with David Villa up top and all the way back to Yangel Herrera and Alexander Ring in central midfield, NYCFC are simply relentless and forever in sync with one another. The way they rotate and step into passing lanes is not only impressive, but it’s also exhausting to watch. For nearly an hour of Sunday’s 2-0 victory away to Sporting Kansas City — until they had their two goals and called off the dogs — they squeezed the life out of a side that’s done precisely that to so many opponents over the last decade.

The sheer number of defensive actions from the front six — again, spearheaded by Villa (7) and made possible by Ring (8) — will make NYCFC one of the toughest teams to break down and fashion more than a handful of decent chances against this season, whether at home or on the road.

Creative hub (still) required in KC

The (presumed) idea behind Sporting KC’s offseason roster moves — trading away Benny Feilhaber, after trading away Dom Dwyer last summer; replacing them with Yohan Croizet, Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez — was that the former two additions would wreak havoc on the wings and serve as the primary danger men, while the latter teams up with Roger Espinoza and presses teams to death all over the field, thus putting Croizet and Russell into counter-attacking chances aplenty.

Against a team that presses as frequently and effectively as NYCFC — which is to say just as well, if not better than, Sporting — that all falls apart rather quickly when you’ve no one with the patience to dwell on the ball and open the field up (that was Feilhaber), nor a striker with the size, strength and aerial presence to serve as a totally different type of outlet altogether.

That sounds an awful lot like the struggles of Sporting foes from years gone by, only this time the shoe was on the other foot.

Croizet struggled terribly and lasted just 57 minutes before he was subbed off; striker Diego Rubio offered very little in terms of hold-up play to rescue a suffocating midfield; Russell being heavily involved was a promising sign, even if the final ball was always lacking; and Gutierrez was the most effective of the newcomers, but expecting no. 10-type playmaking from an all-action box-to-boxer isn’t going to lead to a ton of, if any, quality chances.

If your highest value chance of the game is an extremely difficult scissor kick to finish a chipped through ball over the defense, I’m still of the mind that you don’t have a striker problem, so much as you’ve got a chance-creation problem for the fifth year running.

Having a midfield makes a difference

The LA Galaxy spent each of the last three seasons — and even prolonged periods of 2014, en route to winning MLS Cup on David Beckham’s swan song — attempting to play the game of soccer without a functioning midfield. Neither Steven Gerrard nor Jermaine Jones — shockingly — proved to be the cure to what ailed Bruce Arena in his final two-plus seasons in LA, nor Curt Onalfo and Sigi Schmid in 2017.

Then, the Galaxy tried something truly whacky and zany this winter: they signed Perry Kitchen, a well above-average MLS defensive midfielder. We’re only one game into the 2018 season, but if Sunday’s 2-1 home victory over the Portland Timbers is any indication whatsoever, Kitchen makes the Galaxy a real-life, functioning, professional soccer team again.

Not only was his final stat line of defensive actions (5 recoveries, 2 interceptions, 2 clearances, 1 tackle won and 1 block) far in excess of any Galaxy d-mid in recent memory, the majority of his contributions are done on the front foot, as he reads the game and snuffs out chances before they come to pass. There are still plenty of questions to be asked about who’ll ultimately start at center back for this team, but regardless of who it is in the end, they’ll be infinitely better protected with Kitchen patrolling the midfield in front of them.

Surely there’s someone on this team that wants to drop deep into midfield, get their foot on the ball and drive the attack forward. Once they get that (significant) kink worked out, they’re pretty easily a playoff team.

Don’t gloss over Toronto FC’s richly deserved crown

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The embarrassment of riches that is 2017 treble winning Toronto FC is a richly-deserved experience for the Ontario faithful.

That may seem a bit farfetched for a supporter base with just 11 seasons of league play under its belt, but in many ways the Reds crammed about 50 years of misery into their first decade.

Allow me this personal indulgence as a regional microcosm of TFC trials.

[ MORE: Recap | Bradley’s rewarded obsession ]

The year is 2008, and friends north of the border have need of partners in their two-year-old habit of TFC season tickets. Given a love of the game and a less than two hour drive from Buffalo to BMO Field, we leap at the chance.

The Reds had won seven games in their inaugural campaign, but had signed Pescadito and hired ex-Leeds and Newcastle assistant John Carver (We didn’t know then what we know now). And it all looked great when Rohan Ricketts scored a brace on June 14, moving the team to 6W-4L-2T.

They won one of the next 14 league games. Toronto committed a similar grievance the following season — Two wins from 11 after a 7W-6L-4T start — compounding it by failing to score over 180 minutes of CONCACAF Champions League play against the Puerto Rico Islanders. Following a scoreless friendly against River Plate, we bid TFC the best and saddled up with a nascent club closer to home.

More misery followed for Toronto supporters, and little soothed the frayed nerves of the faithful enough Red Patch Boys. Little swings, like the signing of Mista, missed. The drafting woes were almost comical, selecting consecutive players the picks before Sporting KC took Roger Espinoza. The next year? O’Brian White when three of the next four picks were Rodney Wallace, Chris Pontius, and Matt Besler. 2010 and 2011? First round picks traded for Adrian Serioux and Nathan Sturgis.

This is a long way of describing why embattled American fans may not quite understand what Michael Bradley and Company have done up in Toronto, and why Canadian fans adore their bald-domed metronome. Even forgetting for a second that Bradley was a 90-minute force on Saturday.

Bezbatchenko(Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Yes, Toronto spends money. This is nothing new, though, having names like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans through the door in years past. But it’s how they spend money now under general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.

And for every discussion on how Bradley and Jozy Altidore may be better for country had they stayed overseas, or how Sebastian Giovinco somehow wound up in Toronto, there’s a solid acquisition like Justin Morrow or draft pick Alex Bono. There are savvy signings Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour, and the mining of MVP candidate Victor Vazquez from Club Brugge via Cruz Azul.

Jonathan Osorio developed in house.

Eriq Zavaleta for a second round pick.

Marky Delgado off the Chivas USA scrap heap.

Chris Mavinga from no more than 20 league matches anywhere in the world in recent history.

This is, without a doubt, the best team in Major League Soccer history. MLS is by far as good as its ever been, and Toronto FC took that class and dominated it. Say what you will about where the league stands internationally, but TFC didn’t just beat the teams on its docket; It largely crushed them.

We can only hope it sticks together through a CONCACAF Champions League season, and maybe gives MLS its best chance at a Club World Cup.

But for now, appreciate that Toronto’s ambitious project finally executed the plan its supporters deserved. On a cold night and its third time of asking — the first time TFC wasn’t even in the match — an MLS Cup was won by the boys in red at BMO. And the entire crew deserved it.