MLS

MLS Cup play-offs: New York City and Timbers clinch Conference semi-final spots

By Sports Desk November 21, 2021

MLS Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos scored as New York City clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference semi-finals with a 2-0 home win over Atlanta United on Sunday.

Castellanos, who netted 17 regular-season goals, opened the scoring in 49th minute with a miscued volley which bounced in fortunately over Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

Alexander Callens doubled New York City's lead four minutes later, heading in unmarked from close range after Guzan tipped Maxi Moralez's effort on to the frame of the post.

Atlanta defender Alan Franco was sent off late for dissent to rub salt into the wounds, as New York City secured a fifth semi-final berth in the past six seasons.

New York City will next play Eastern Conference top seed and Supporter's Shield winners New England Revolution.

Sebastian Blanco netted a second-half double as Portland Timbers came from behind to beat Minnesota United 3-1, clinching four consecutive wins and a Western Conference semi-final date with Colorado Rapids.

Franco Fragapane gave Minnesota an 11th-minute lead, but Portland rallied with Larrys Mabiala heading in the equaliser before half-time.

Blanco rifled in a low drive early in the second half before opening a two-goal lead with a spectacular 66th-minute long-range strike.

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  • Guardiola hails 'exceptional' Kane after Tottenham striker breaks Greaves record Guardiola hails 'exceptional' Kane after Tottenham striker breaks Greaves record

    Pep Guardiola congratulated the "exceptional" Harry Kane after his record-breaking strike for Tottenham downed Manchester City on Sunday.

    City head coach Guardiola has been a long-time admirer of England star Kane, trying and failing to bring the striker to Manchester ahead of the 2021-22 season.

    The former Bayern Munich and Barcelona boss labelled Spurs as the "Harry Kane team" back in 2017, with his reference to Tottenham's reliance on their talisman irking then-coach Mauricio Pochettino.

    Guardiola opted to not repeat that back-handed compliment this time around at the risk of infuriating Pochettino, but offered his congratulations after Kane surpassed Jimmy Greaves' 266-goal Spurs record.

    "I'm not going to say the Harry Kane team otherwise Poch will be grumpy with me and I don't want that," Guardiola told reporters at his post-match press conference. 

    "On behalf of Man City, I can say congrats on this incredible milestone. He's an exceptional player."

    While Kane broke the all-time scoring record for Tottenham, he also joined Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney in an illustrious club of men to score 200 Premier League goals.

    A memorable outing for Kane was improved by Spurs holding on for a narrow 1-0 win that moved them within one point of fourth-placed Newcastle United and kept City trailing leaders Arsenal by five.

    City overturned a two-goal deficit to secure a 4-2 home victory over Tottenham just last month, but Guardiola acknowledged a "different" challenge at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

    "Two weeks ago we were able to come back from a more difficult result. Just 1-0 this time but different with the stadium and the interruptions," he added.

    "We started really well in the first 15 minutes until the goal we conceded. After that we played a good first half, the second half was not as good.

    "There were too many interruptions and we cannot control. We had our chances against a team that defend very well."

    It marked a fourth straight away league defeat for Guardiola's side at Spurs, with City failing to score in each of those visits for just the third time in the Premier League against a single opponent.

    Guardiola has lost all five games at Spurs' new home ground across all competitions, the most he has managed at one away venue without winning in his career.

    He was unable to explain why, adding: "They defend with nine players really well. The squad is fantastic.

    "I think we always play really well against them but for whatever reason, we cannot seem to win or score goals."

  • Guardiola gamble backfires as Kane hits the jackpot for Spurs... and Arsenal Guardiola gamble backfires as Kane hits the jackpot for Spurs... and Arsenal

    A victory to unite north London. Harry Kane's record 267th goal for Tottenham sank Manchester City and pushed Arsenal a step closer to the Premier League title.

    But if the Arsenal aspect is a bitter pill for Spurs to swallow, then surely everything else about this day would have pepped up the recuperating Antonio Conte, absent after midweek gallbladder surgery.

    As for Pep Guardiola, another big-match masterplan has to be called into question.

    If every match at this stage of the season is a final, as managers are wont to suggest, then how is it justifiable to make Kevin De Bruyne, the Premier League's most creative player, a substitute?

    The Belgian's benching was the pre-match bombshell from the City camp, and by the time he came on, just before the hour mark, City were not only trailing but they were ragged.

    Erling Haaland was seeing nothing of the ball – he did not have a shot all game long, or even a touch in the Spurs penalty area – and City's possessional dominance was getting them nowhere.

    Arsenal, beaten by Everton on Saturday, would have been fearing their lead at the summit being trimmed to two points, but the longer this game went on, the more Mikel Arteta would have been perked up.

    So too Conte, who was said by captain Hugo Lloris to be at home in Turin. It was decided on Saturday that Conte should skip this game, and assistant Cristian Stellini saw Tottenham show battling qualities that have not always shone through this season.

    So what of the De Bruyne gamble? Was it up there with Guardiola's 2021 Champions League final punt on starting without a natural holding midfielder, giddily capitalised on by Chelsea?

    De Bruyne plays the sort of high-tariff passes and crosses that bring chances and goals, but they also often result in a turnover of possession. Guardiola would have looked at the likes of Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski, and decided City did not need that pair sprinting away on the counter-attack.

    Before this game, De Bruyne had lost possession on over 200 more occasions this season than the four players Guardiola selected in Sunday's midfield. De Bruyne had lost possession 469 times, compared with Rodri's 258, Bernardo Silva's 248, Riyad Mahrez's 237 and Jack Grealish's 219.

    On average per 90 minutes, De Bruyne had lost possession 19.91 times, and among Sunday's quartet the worst offender during the season had been Mahrez (13.36 per 90).

    Nobody in City's ranks has come close to De Bruyne's 16 assists, however, with five from Rodri and Bernardo Silva the next most from a City midfielder.

    So this was unmistakably a gamble, Guardiola trusting his midfield to be robust and fend off the risk of Tottenham bursts, but also sufficiently creative to unlock the home defence.

    And when you pick a team to keep the ball, it helps if they avoid doing silly things on the edge of their own penalty area.

    Rodri was back-tracking and almost off-balance in the 15th minute when he looked to play out through the centre of the pitch, spotting team-mate Rico Lewis but not the lurking Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

    Spurs' Danish midfielder stole in to snatch the pass intended for Lewis and burst a telling five yards forward before flicking the ball into Kane's path.

    What followed was not the cleanest strike of Kane's career, but the bobbling shot beat Ederson and found the left corner. The late Jimmy Greaves, Spurs' record scorer for so long, didn't mind how they found the net, and nor does Kane. Elation spread across his face. It was just his second touch of the game.

    City had 78.7 per cent of possession over those opening 15 minutes, but Spurs had the lead and Kane had his 200th goal in the Premier League.

    Later, Kane would tell Sky it was "a moment I'll never forget", but he put it to the back of his mind for the rest of the game.

    Riyad Mahrez rattled the Spurs crossbar just before half-time, and that was as close as City came.

    Ben Davies flashed a header a foot over the City bar from a corner in the 57th minute, just as De Bruyne was stripping for action at pitchside.

    Off went Mahrez. De Bruyne fired wide from a half-chance, and then Spurs went close to a second goal in the 66th minute, Son skipping away on the counter and Ivan Perisic's skidding cross from the left just too heavy for Kane to reach.

    Haaland was bristling at the lack of service, this season's Premier League 25-goal leading scorer shaking his head in frustration, imploring team-mates to do better.

    City were becoming desperate. Julian Alvarez tried his luck from 20 yards and flashed the ball just wide of the top-left corner, then Kane bundled his way through Kyle Walker at the other end and only had Ederson to beat, with the goalkeeper this time winning that duel.

    Tottenham had won five of their previous seven Premier League games when leading at half-time this season, but the exception came only a fortnight ago and it came at City, when a 2-0 interval lead swung around to a 4-2 defeat.

    This time Spurs were sturdy, and they are back to just one point behind fourth-placed Newcastle United now, albeit having played one more game than the Magpies.

    In the end it hardly mattered that World Cup winner Cristian Romero was sent off in the 87th minute.

    The Argentinian's clumsy challenge gave away a free-kick 25 yards from goal in a central spot: De Bruyne territory. Up stepped the Belgian, and his shot smacked into Kane in the wall, ricocheting into Hojbjerg, who went down as though hit by a sniper.

    Hojbjerg was excellent, winning possession a team-high eight times across the piece, and Tottenham have now beaten City four times in a row at home in the Premier League, without conceding in any of those games.

    Only twice before had City lost four in a row to a specific opponent without scoring – against Chelsea between 2006 and 2009, and Sunderland between 2010 and 2013 – so there's another touch of history.

    This is a bogey ground for City and Guardiola, make no mistake. They have lost on all five of their visits without scoring, when you throw in the Champions League quarter-final loss four years ago.

    Kane, the man they wanted 18 months ago, a player praised to the hilt by Guardiola before this game, a man with history in his sights, was the last man they needed to run into.

    The last thing City should have done was sit down their main man for the first hour.

  • Walker calls for Haaland patience after City striker struggles at Tottenham Walker calls for Haaland patience after City striker struggles at Tottenham

    Erling Haaland still needs time to settle into the "unique" Manchester City "process" after suffering an unwanted Premier League first at Tottenham, says team-mate Kyle Walker.

    The Norway international has enjoyed a record-breaking start to life in England, scoring 25 goals in the Premier League for Pep Guardiola's champions.

    But the former Borussia Dortmund striker was largely a passenger in City's 1-0 defeat at Tottenham on Sunday, failing to register a single attempt on goal in a tepid outing.

    Haaland had only 27 touches at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with none of those in the box for the first time in the league this season, but Walker dismissed questions around the 22-year-old's struggles.

    Right-back Walker told Sky Sports: "It's a process – he's come to Manchester City and it's a difficult team to fit into as the manager demands so much, and the way we play, it's unique.

    "Erling has been fantastic. No one says anything when he's scoring goals and winning. All of sudden now when we don't win and he doesn't score, they say, 'is it the problem, do we play better without him?' 

    "I hear it all the time. But no one is complaining when he's scored his 25th goal of the season. This is the team we've got now until the end of the season. We'll fight until the end."

    City will indeed have to "fight until the end" after a missed opportunity at Spurs left them still trailing leaders Arsenal by five points, despite the Gunners falling to a surprise 1-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday.

    It marked a fourth straight away league defeat to Tottenham for Guardiola's side without scoring, as City achieved that unwanted feat against a single opponent for just a third time in the Premier League.

    With City having played a game more than title hopefuls Arsenal, Walker believes his side need to start creating more clear-cut chances to translate their possessional dominance into victories.

    "I'm not being negative with anyone, but there are certain things we can do better around the box," the England full-back added.

    "Making that clear-cut chance, making the goalkeeper make a save, just creating more clear-cut actions, rather than having possession around the box. Sometimes you need to have shots and shots on target."

    City will look to bounce back when they host Unai Emery's Aston Villa on February 12 ahead of visiting Arsenal three days later.

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