Jalil Anibaba

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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.

MLS early wrap: Sporting KC throttles Montreal; Revs, Fire win

Ryan Weaver/The Kansas City Star via AP
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An early slate of Saturday matches which started with a one-goal snoozer ramped up to include an absolute onslaught of goals as Major League Soccer continued its match week following Friday’s Pozuelo show in Ontario.

[ MORE: What did we learn in the PL? ]


Sporting KC 7-1 Montreal Impact

Krisztian Nemeth scored a hat trick as Sporting KC completely dominated visiting Montreal at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday.

Johnny Russell scored two goals and added an assist, Felipe Gutierrez posted a goal and an assist, and Gerso Fernandes had a pair of assists in a win which puts the team at 2-1-1 on the young season.

Sixteen-year-old Gianluca Busio used the club’s sixth marker to record his second career MLS goal and first of the season. Saphir Taider struck in the 89th minute for Montreal’s only goal.

It was just… too… good from Peter Vermes’ men. The energy was enough even when the passes were a bit off, as Gerso showed this frightening burst of speed before putting the ball in the path of a sliding Nemeth for the game’s second goal.

New England Revolution 2-1 Minnesota United

Brad Friedel‘s Revs finally have a win, and it came after the ex-Blackburn goalkeeper called out his men for a lackluster performance in its third-straight loss last week.

Carles Gil, to no one’s surprise, was at the heart of the victory. Gil now has three goals and an assist through five MLS appearances after setting up Jalil Anibaba for the opener.

Brandon Bye scored New England’s other goal, while Darwin Quintero converted a penalty kick for the Loons’ marker.

Chicago Fire 1-0 New York Red Bulls

Chicago put just one shot on target in its first win of the season, and it wasn’t its goal; Tim Parker’s own goal was the only marker of a poor match in Bridgeview.

Seattle gives up Hurtado and Ianni, gets Anibaba, room to maneuver in trade with Chicago

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Two players who had been with Seattle since the team’s 2009 MLS debut will start the 2014 campaign elsewhere, with the Sounders sending center backs Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni to Chicago on Wednesday in exchange for defender Jalil Anibaba. Balancing out the trade, Seattle and Chicago also swap first round picks in Thursday’s draft, the Sounders jumping from 13 to eight, while the Fire give up a conditional third round pick 2015.

On the surface, it appears Seattle is targeting somebody with the eighth overall pick, but the trade’s real intrigue may be in the salary the Sounders have shipped to Chicago. Based on 2013 players union numbers, Seattle are saving around $200,000 with this deal, and while Anibaba looks set to start along side Chad Marshall in the Sounders’ defense, the real payoff may come with the acquisition of somebody like Marco Pappa. (This Seattle blog has a great breakdown of the possibilities.)

The former Fire winger has been a rumored target of Seattle’s throughout the week, and while at least one other move would be necessary to get the Sounders in position to select the Guatemalan international, the money end appears to be falling into place. Whether Seattle’s new cap space goes toward Pappa or somebody else, Wednesday’s trade gives general manager Adrian Hanauer the flexibility he needs to continue reshaping the team’s midfield.

“One of the most difficult parts of this job is losing good people,” Hanauer said, alluding to the time Hurtado and Ianni had spent with in Seattle. “Jhon and Patrick are both quality individuals who have been with our organization from the beginning. We wish them the best in Chicago.”

source: Getty Images
Initially used as a central defender, Jalil Anibaba was pushed to right back last season. During the 2013 campaign, he appeared in all 34 games for the Chicago Fire. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Part of the payoff, however, sees Seattle get slightly younger along the back, with the 25-year-old Anibaba also bringing a durability Hurtado had lacked. Whereas the 29-year-old Colombian had missed at least seven games in each of the last three seasons, Anibaba has played 67 of 68 possible matches over the last two years.

“Jalil is a center back who has tremendous upside,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said, adding “… we expect him to contribute right away.”

Chicago’s point of view on the deal may require some reading between the lines. With Frank Yallop having taking control at Toyota Park, Anibaba went from a staff that drafted him out of North Carolina to somebody who had less familiarity with his talents. Given the opportunity to get two defenders he faced often during his last four-plus seasons n San Jose, Yallop has elected to add two veterans to help Austin Berry in central defense.

“[Coming in] right away I recognized that we were light on the defensive side of things,” Yallop told the team’s website

“Adding Jhon, a former Defender of the Year finalist and  defensive All-Star, automatically makes our team better,” Yallop said. “Along with Patrick, we are adding valuable depth on the defensive side.”

Add in the salary Chicago’s taking on and the swap of draft picks, and this looks like a curious move for the Fire, though seen another way, the deal looks like a challenge trade. While it isn’t Kennedy for Anibaba straight up, Yallop is implicitly wagering the acquisition of the veteran Colombian justifies dealing the younger player. For Seattle, any downgrade from Kennedy to Anibaba will be offset by the improved draft position and the players they bring in with their new flexibility.

At least, that’s the theory. Tomorrow, when the MLS SuperDraft draft hits pick number eight, we’ll see how Seattle starts using their new resources.

Chicago hangs on to beat Dallas, go fifth in the Eastern Conference (video)

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x87nf7jKQXs]

Dallas needed a win to keep their postseason hopes alive, but seven minutes after halftime, Schellas Hyndman’s team was down three to the visiting Fire, who looked set to go fifth in the East with a win in Frisco.  The result would leave them on 46 points, even with fourth place Montréal and sixth place Philadelphia, who would slip by virtue of having one fewer win than Chicago.

Kenny Cooper, however, had other ideas. After holding off Gonzalo Segares to score Dallas’s 63rd minute opener, Cooper pulled his team within one with 15 minutes left, converting a controversially-awarded (and from Ramon Nunez’s perspective, selfishly-taken) penalty kick. Down 3-2, FCD had a little more than a quarter-hour to salvage their season.

But after a couple of close calls, Chicago finally settled down, and over the last minutes of this match, Dallas’s will drained. They needed two goals and a win to stay mathematically alive, so when their momentum didn’t quickly yield a third, the odds become very long, very quick. Juan Luis Anangonó’s opener, Mike Magee’s 19th of the year, and Jalil Anibaba’s game-winner would hold up, giving Chicago a 3-2 win.

The loss leaves Dallas seven back of Colorado (and Los Angeles) with two games to go, but although that makes Saturday the night the end point to their playoff dream, the team’s hopes had been running on fumes all fall. Leaders in the West going into the summer, Dallas seemed to regress to their mean as their year went on, finishing the season at the level many picked in February. While eighth place may have been slightly lower than most predicted, their 10-11-11 record describes a team many foresaw this winter.

For Chicago, their playoff destiny’s back in their own hands, though their final two games match them with opponents from opposite ends of the spectrum. That doesn’t mean they should sleep on Toronto, who visit Toyota Park on Saturday. Though TFC is struggling, they’ve still taken points in as many games (16) as they’ve lost. With Chicago drawing in Toronto last month, the Reds present a real danger to Frank Klopas’s side.

But if all goes as planned, Chicago’s big obstacle should be their finale at Red Bull Arena, where their playoff hopes may hinge on taking points from a team striving for the Supporters’ Shield.

Hunter Jumper’s first career goal lifts Chicago past Sporting KC (Video)

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Before Friday night, the most memorable thing about him was his name. After Friday, the most memorable thing about Hunter Jumper is still his name (come on, his name is Hunter Jumper), but with his goal early against Sporting Kansas City, the Chicago Fire’s 2012 first round pick started giving fans, especially Kansas City fans, a reason to remember him. Instead of being the defender from Virginia with the comic book name, he’s the defender from Virginia with the comic book name who beat Sporting.

The moment comes at the beginning of the highlights, above, in the 13th minute at Toyota Park. Look at the two touches prior to Jumper’s header: A cross from Jalil Anibaba that was a little more driven than we’re used to seeing; and a nice touch from Mike Magee (who else) to keep it in play. That effort led to the game’s only goal.

For Kansas City, who had a chance to go clear at the top of the East, it’s their fourth loss in five games, the second-in-a-row to teams on the wrong side of their conference’s playoff pictures (having lost to San Jose on Sunday). That slump’s kept New York, Montréal, and Philadelphia within reach, with Houston lurking.

Chicago, rebounding from their weekend loss to New England, continue to lurk on the edge of the playoffs. They’re now within two of fifth place Dynamo, having temporarily re-passed New England for sixth. Although the Revolution face Philadelphia this weekend, giving them a chance to reclaim fifth, Chicago will have one fewer game played than the Revs.

Not that sixth place means anything. Fifth is the goal here.