MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders

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Seattle and Real Salt Lake may be playoff fixtures, but each team enters this Major League Soccer postseason with something to prove. Notoriously, Seattle has failed to advance in their three playoff appearances, a record that’s overshadowed the remarkable feat of making the postseason every year of their MLS existence. For RSL, their 2009 title was not only an achievement but a promise. Now, the team is in search of a trophy that will quell the sting of their failed 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League run.

For the second straight season, the teams meet in the Western Conference semifinals, and for the second straight season, a season that began with expectations and promise will end too soon.

Kickoff: 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Friday, CenturyLink Field, NBC Sports Network

Recap of last year’s first leg in Salt Lake | And second in Seattle

On the Seattle Sounders:

  • Memories from last year die hard, which explains why last year’s semifinal has been increasingly pertinent around Seattle. Then, the Sounders opened their postseason with a 3-0 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium, dooming them to another early playoff exit (Real Salt Lake went on to eliminate Seattle, 3-2).
  • Seattle’s made four notable improvements from last year: Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Michael Gspurning is in goal; Swedish international Adam Johannson is at right back; former Bundesliga standout Christian Tiffert augments the midfield; and resurgent U.S. international Eddie Johnson spearheads the attack.
  • Johnson, however, is questionable for Friday’s game, having picked up a hamstring injury Sunday in Los Angeles. If he can’t go, Sammy Ochoa will.

MORE: Still awaiting word on Eddie Johnson

  • With Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales, Seattle’s attack will be potent regardless of Johnson’s health. The defending, however, remains a question. Seattle has the league’s second-best defensive record but is weak defending set pieces, something that will get worse in the absence of Johnson.
  • So if Seattle’s defense is so weak, how are they so good at preventing goals? Much of the credit goes to Gspurning, but don’t under-estimate the contributions of Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans. Whether Evans or Tiffert partner Alonso on Friday, Seattle’s midfield duo to be tested by an RSL diamond that plays notoriously narrow. Whomever gets the call, be prepared for an overload.
  • The bigger concern for Seattle was their inability to win important games. The Sounders went 1-1-1 in their late season Cascadia Cup matches despite the quality of opposition (Vancouver, Portland). A home loss to San Jose knocked them out of the Supporters’ Shield chase, while a defeat in Los Angeles on the season’s last day relegated them to third in the West.

On Real Salt Lake:

  • While Seattle’s made a number of upgrades, Real Salt Lake returns largely the same team that started the first leg of last year’s semifinal. Andy Williams (retirement) and Robbie Russell (D.C. United) have moved on, but with Ned Grabavoy and Tony Beltran, RSL’s no worse off.
  • With Seattle’s trouble on set pieces, Alvaro Saborio could be in for another big series. The Costa Rican international is coming off a 17-goal season and scored the first two against in last year’s semifinal.
  • The key to Real’s attack, however, is Javier Morales. At his best, the Argentine midfielder is the league’s best playmaker. He’ll be Alonso’s number one responsibility.
  • In defense, Real Salt Lake has the league’s best four-some (left-to-right: Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Beltran), but the central pair has been troubled by Seattle’s tendency to play long and directly at them. Although Fredy Montero isn’t the league’s fastest attacker, the timing of his runs creates problems for RSL’s all-star duo.
  • The last time RSL was in Seattle, they played the Sounders to a 0-0 despite playing an hour up a man. That’d take the same result on Friday, even if this month’s draw was another indication of Real Salt Lake’s troubles playing from the favorite’s perch.

Bottom line:

Seattle’s not only failed to advance in the playoffs, they’ve never scored in a first leg. It’s not a long history (three years), but it’s still symptomatic. Too often, Seattle is passive – more reactive than imposing – an attitude that concedes the initiative despite their superior talent. In the regular season, that approach manifests in disappointing results against Cascadia rivals or letting Ricardo Salazar become something that defines a game. In the playoffs, it leads you to be pacified in the first 90 minutes.

That’s why Seattle finishing third may be a blessing. At home, they’ll come out aggressive, confront their demons, and force RSL onto the back foot. While Real often plays their best under such circumstances, Seattle’s a more talented team this year than last. They have the potential to redeem themselves.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

[ MORE: Chicharito talks heating up with LA FC ]

On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.