Friday, 9 November 2012

Seattle sense urgency to make playoff history: "Time is now"

TUKWILA, Wash. – Win or go home.
It’s a rather familiar refrain around the Seattle Sounders. Whether it’s the US Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League or MLS Cup playoffs, the Sounders have played at least 24 matches in which the result would determine whether or not they continued in that competition.
Facing Real Salt Lake on Thursday (10 pm ET; NBC Sports Network, LIVE chat on in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals with the aggregate score tied 0-0, this game seems a little different than the previous ones. “We’ve talked about it for a number of years that if we don’t get it done this year, then things are going to change,” Sounders midfielder Brad Evans said. “The group has been together for four years and we’ve implemented a number of bodies into positions that we needed to. We have the players now that everyone wants from the top down. If there’s any time, the time is now.”
READ: Rosales' status TBD, but Seattle's Schmid feels "good vibe"
Part of what makes this game so important is that for all the Sounders’ accomplishments – four straight years in the playoffs, three US Open Cup titles and two trips to the CCL quarterfinals – the MLS postseason is the one place they’ve yet to succeed.
In each of the previous three years, Seattle have faced an increasingly difficult task. In 2009, they entered the second leg tied 0-0. In 2010, they were trailing 1-0. Last year, the deficit was 3-0. Each time they ultimately fell short.
The Sounders say those failings, as well as their performance in the first leg, have taught them some lessons.
“We have to come out with the same attitude, the same style of play, the same physicality, everything, and push forward because at the end of the day goals are going to get us through,” Evans said. “I think we’re a fit enough team. We’re used to playing games within four or five days of each other, so it shouldn’t be an excuse. I think guys are rested. I’d like to think we have experience in the playoffs and we have a chip on our shoulder from the past couple years.”

The Throw-In: In the end, only one trophy really matters

SANTA CLARA, Calif. ­– In the immediate aftermath of the LA Galaxy’s scalp of the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday night, Bruce Arena had an odd moment, one of those temporary lapses where you started to think, “Dude, is Bruce OK?”
He complimented the Supporters’ Shield winners.
Not odd in and of itself. Arena never really got involved in the war of words as to San Jose’s physical style. And Bruce respects a winning team no matter how they get the job done. A winner’s a winner.
But when it comes to the Shield, Arena has been a critic of its value for some time. So it was a little unexpected to hear this shout-out for the Quakes:
“When you go through the entire season – even though I’m not a great believer in the way they have the Supporters’ Shield – they earned it,” he said after the 3-1 victory over the West’s No. 1 seed. “They’re champions of the league, and we’re still participating in another competition called the MLS Cup.”
Right there, Arena summed up the reality of Major League Soccer: The regular season and the playoffs are two very different animals.
Nowhere else in American sports will you find an award for the best regular-season record. Well, except the NHL, which hands out the Presidents’ Award. But there’s no bonus for that – if you don’t win the Stanley Cup, it hardly matters.
And that’s what the Earthquakes are feeling on Thursday morning, when they wake up with a horrible post-knockout hangover. That’s a feeling that has stung 11 Shield winners before them: morning sickness from failing to do the double.
There is, of course, a nice little carrot for the Quakes despite that failure, as Chris Wondolowski pointed out: “We’re playing CONCACAF Champions League next year,” he said. “That’s pretty cool, but right now, it means absolutely nothing.”
Sporting KC will tell you the exact same thing: Sure, that US Open Cup title is great, and so is the CCL berth that comes with it. But none of it measures up to the big prize that is MLS Cup.
That’s perhaps the way it should be. In our American sporting culture, it’s that trophy at the end of the road that means the most. We’re indoctrinated with the idea of playoffs, and our athletes are conditioned to expect to give it their all when the regular season is done, with the ultimate goal of winning a tournament.
But Arena hit it right on the head: It’s a tournament, just like the Open Cup. So, too, is the Supporters’ Shield, albeit more in the mold of the European balanced-schedule set-up.
But that doesn’t necessarily add up anymore either, does it? There is no balanced schedule to justify a single prize for the regular-season champion anymore. With the conference set-up emphasized now more than ever – and let’s be honest, those in-conference races were terrifically exciting this year – what exactly is the point of the Shield?
Maybe it truly is time to abandon the idea of the Shield. Or at least to switch it up entirely. By the time team No. 20 enters MLS, the idea of a balanced schedule will become even more laughable and the title of “regular-season champion” will ring more hollow than ever.
Tomorrow might be another story for the Earthquakes, especially when they start thinking about Champions League play next summer. But today, they’d give it all back to be able to win MLS Cup.
In the end, that’s the only trophy that matters.

OL are through to the Europa League knockout stages after a fine win away to Athletic Bilbao on Thursday, but a Joey Barton goal direct from a corner was not enough for OM to beat Borussia Mönchengladbach. Bordeaux got the better of CS Marítimo.

UEFA Europa League, Matchday 4
Group I
 Athletic Club Bilbao 2-3 Olympique Lyonnais  
Lyon are through to the knockout stages after making it a highly impressive four wins from four games in Group I. As usual, though, Rémi Garde's side did it the hard way, squandering a two-goal lead against Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés before securing a 3-2 victory.
Having been called up to the France squad earlier in the day, Bafétimbi Gomis celebrated by giving OL the lead midway through the first half when he edged in front of his marker to turn in a Yoann Gourcuff free-kick from close range.
Last season's runners-up Athletic desperately needed to win this game and they immediately stepped up the pressure in search of an equaliser. However, Rémy Vercoutre made a fine flying save to keep out a first-time Óscar De Marcos effort from the edge of the box, before Anthony Réveillère cleared a Carlos Gurpegi header off the line.
Vercoutre then made a stunning save down low to his right to deny De Marcos, and moments later De Marcos fired over from a brilliant position after a pass from Iker Muniain cut open the Lyon defence. And having survived the onslaught, OL went on to double their lead right on half time when Gourcuff lashed in the loose ball after Gorka Iraizoz had saved from Gomis.
Marcelo Bielsa's side did fight back after the restart, though, and Ander Herrera reduced the arrears following a scramble which left both Milan Bisevac and Vercoutre down injured. By the 55th minute, the Basque outfit were level, Aritz Aduriz netting from the penalty spot after Maxime Gonalons had brought down Herrera in the area.
But Lyon showed great character to hit back and score what proved to be the winning goal just after the hour when Alexandre Lacazette fired a Gueïda Fofana cut-back past Iraizoz from 12 yards.
With Hapoel Kiryat Shmona and Sparta Prague drawing 1-1 in the other Group I encounter, Lyon now know that a point in the Czech capital in two weeks time will seal first place in the section.

Group C
Olympique de Marseille 2-2 Borussia Mönchengladbach 
In a pivotal game in Group C, Marseille thought they had taken an early lead when Loïc Rémy turned the ball goalwards after Mönchengladbach 'keeper Marc-André ter Stegen had flapped at a corner. However, the ball was cleared by a combination of Oscar Wendt and the crossbar, with home fans at the Stade Vélodrome claiming it had already gone over the line.
From thinking they had taken the lead, OM fell behind in the 20th minute. It was not a goal that Benoît Cheyrou will want to see again, with the midfielder being punished for trying to pass the ball out of his own box. Juan Arango intercepted before squaring low for Mike Hanke, who had the easiest of tasks to stab the ball into the net.
Élie Baup's side had to wait until the 54th minute to draw level in an entertaining contest, thanks to a goal that will live long in the memory. Joey Barton somehow found the net direct from a corner, his inswinging delivery looping over ter Stegen and into the net at the back post.
When Jordan Ayew pounced on a failed clearance attempt by visiting captain Roel Brouwers, drove into the box and beat ter Stegen with a powerful rising shot from 17 yards, Marseille looked on course to avenge their 2-0 defeat in the reverse fixture in Germany a fortnight ago. They had chances to put the game to bed, but Gladbach rescued a draw in the third minute of stoppage time, when a low cross from the right came all the way to Venezuelan winger Arango, who fired past Steve Mandanda with his trusty left foot.
Both sides remain locked on five points with two group games remaining, and OM will probably have to win at home to Fenerbahçe, who are top with ten points, and away to bottom side AEL Limassol if they are to progress to the knockout stages.

Group D
 Girondins de Bordeaux 1-0 CS Marítimo 
After ending a six-match winless run with a 1-0 home win against Toulouse in the Garonne derby at the weekend, Bordeaux took another step in the right direction on Thursday thanks to a victory by the same scoreline at home to Portuguese top-flight side CS Marítimo.
Girondins coach Francis Gillot brought Fahid Ben Khalfallah and Cheick Tidiane Diabaté into his line-up for the game at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, while David Bellion was brought in at the last minute to replace Yoan Gouffran, who pulled up injured in the warm-up. And Bellion turned out to be the hero of the evening, the former Manchester United winger arriving at the near post to head in a Nicolas Maurice-Belay left-wing cross after just 16 minutes and set the Ligue 1 club on their way.
The home side had chances to increase their lead, with Diabaté failing to turn in a Benoît Trémoulinas centre and Lamine Sané heading against the post just before the interval. Marítimo pushed in search of an equaliser after the restart, but Frenchman Valentin Roberge saw a late effort disallowed for offside as Bordeaux held on.
With Newcastle United coming from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Club Brugge, Les Girondins can seal their place in the next stage of the competition with a draw away to the Belgians in a fortnight's time.

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