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.

WATCH: USMNT’s Pulisic cues up ex-Man City teen for 1st goal

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Jadon Sancho made history for English players in Germany thanks to a little help from an American teenager.

Christian Pulisic dribbled free from a pack of would-be tacklers to cue up the ex-Manchester City player for a finish against Bayer Leverkusen in the 13th minute of a match at the Westfalenstadion on Saturday.

[ MORE: Klopp rips West Brom ]

Sancho just turned 18 on March 25, and becomes the youngest English goal scorer in Bundesliga history having entered the match with one assist in 415 Bundesliga minutes.

As for 19-year-old Pulisic, the USMNT prodigy has five goals and seven assists in 39 matches across all competitions this season.

Dele, Alexis trade 1st half goals in FA Cup semi (video)

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Paul Pogba made amends for an early marking error that led to a Spurs opener by setting up Alexis Sanchez’s equalizer as Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are tied at 1 after 45 minutes of their FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

Spurs went ahead through Dele, as Pogba lost Christian Eriksen as the Dane raced onto a long ball. Eriksen crossed to the back post for Dele’s sliding finish.

Pogba made amends in his preferred third of the pitch, stealing the ball from a Mousa Dembele and lofting an inch-perfect cross for Alexis to nod home. The headed finish was anything but easy, hit across the goal while falling to the pitch.

Sunderland relegated for second-straight season

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It’s one-and-done for Sunderland in the Championship, though not in the way expected by most  supporters of the Black Cats.

[ RECAP: WBA 2-2 Liverpool ]

Relegated from the Premier League under David Moyes‘ guidance last season, Sunderland lost Saturday to leave them six points back of safety with two to play.

But either Burton Albion or Bolton will get at least a point from a match against each other, meaning Sunderland would need at least seven when all is said and done.

  • Twenty-one clubs have been relegated since the start of the 2010-11 season.
  • Six have sunk as low as League One (including Sunderland)
  • Seven returned to the Premier League (including Wolves for 18-19)
  • Ten are currently in the Championship

It’s a message to all Premier League sides expecting favorite status in the Championship, including likely relegation side West Bromwich Albion.

Here’s how the most recent sides have fared since dropping out of the top flight.

Relegated sides this decade, and current status
*club still alive for 2018-19 promotion to Premier League
#club could be relegated from current league

Hull City (2016-17) — Championship
Middlesbrough (2016-17) — Championship*
Sunderland (2016-17) — Relegated to League One
Newcastle United (2015-16) — Returned to PL in one season
Norwich City (2015-16) — Championship
Aston Villa (2015-16) — Championship*
Hull City (2014-15) — Promoted at first chance, then relegated last season
Burnley (2014-15) — Promoted at first chance
Queens Park Rangers (2014-15) — Championship
Norwich City (2013-14) — Has since been promoted, relegated back to Championship
Fulham (2013-14) — Championship*
Cardiff City (2013-14) — Championship*
Wigan Athletic (2012-13) — promoted to Championship for 2018-19
Reading (2012-13) — Championship#
Queens Park Rangers (2012-13) — Since promoted, relegated back to Championship
Bolton (2011-12) — Championship#
Blackburn (2011-12) — League One*
Wolves (2011-12) — Promoted to Premier League this season
Birmingham City (2010-11) — Championship#
Blackpool (2010-11) — League One
West Ham United (2010-11) — Promoted at first chance, still PL

LIVE, FA Cup semifinal: Man United v Tottenham

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Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur clash in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday (12:15 p.m. ET kick off) with both Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho aiming to keep alive their only remaining hope of winning a trophy this season.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

For Spurs, they are certainly used to playing at Wembley after calling it home all season long while their new stadium is completed. Yet Harry Kane and Co. know they will keep hearing about how they need to win a trophy to prove themselves as Spurs have gone 10 years without a piece of silverware.

Mourinho is the master of grinding out wins in these kind of situations but United were dominated by Spurs at Wembley back in January in the PL and were lucky to escape with just a 2-0 defeat.

[ MORE: Minute-by-minute on United v Spurs ]

Click on the links above to follow the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis live from Wembley right here on Pro Soccer Talk.