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.
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.
With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.
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After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.
Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”
There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.
They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.
[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.
Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.
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Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.
Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.
City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.
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However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.
We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.
Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.
Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.
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With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.
- CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
- Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
- Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches
Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).
The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.
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Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.
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For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.
What they’re saying
Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”
Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”
Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.
Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.
The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.
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Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.
When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”
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Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.
Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.