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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.

10 Premier League teams enter Football League trophy

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Sesc Fabregas (L) of Chelsea celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his team mates Gary Cahill (C) and Tammy Abraham (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Leicester City at Stamford Bridge on May 15, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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10 Premier League teams have accepted an invitation to play in a revamped version of the Football League Trophy during the 2016-17 season.

Relaunched as the “EFL Trophy” the competition was previously only open to teams in League One and League Two, the second and third tiers in the English soccer pyramid, but in a one-off trial the Football League has included 16 Category A academy teams from both the Premier League and English Championship to participate.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Chelsea, Leicester City, West Ham United, Everton, Southampton, Stoke City, Swansea City, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough are the 10 PL teams who have decided to enter the competition.

A number of other Premier League clubs declined the invite and some purists in England are concerned that essentially “B teams” from the top two tiers will run away with the competition and easily win it. For example, PL side Southampton won the Football League Trophy in 2010 when they were in the third tier but now their U-21 side will be competing in the competition.

Shaun Harvey, chief executive of the Football League, explained the reason to mix things up as member clubs in the Football League voted in favor of the changes this summer.

“When opting to make these innovative changes to the competition, at the very heart of our thinking was to ensure younger players got an opportunity to test themselves in competitive games against experienced professionals. By involving them much earlier at senior level, we have a real chance of developing more and better home grown players.”

A regional group stage draw took place on Wednesday with eight groups in the south and eight in the north. Each team will play three games and the top two teams from each group will then compete in a knockout tournament with the final at Wembley Stadium in April.

The full schedule for the upcoming tournament can be found in the link below.


Zidane suggests Real Madrid in the hunt to sign Paul Pogba

Real Madrid's headcoach Zinedine Zidane follows a Champions League, round of 16, first-leg soccer match between Roma and Real Madrid, at the Rome Olympic stadium, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
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Zinedine Zidane is a mischievous so and so.

With Juventus sealing a $98.7 million move for Gonzalo Higuain on Tuesday, everybody is expecting the Italian champs to sell Paul Pogba to Manchester United in the next few days for a fee in excess of $130 million.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza ]

Well, hold your horses. Real Madrid could be back in for Pogba.

Speaking to the media ahead of Real’s opening 2016 International Champions Cup game against Paris Saint-Germain in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday, Zidane has

“I do not know if he’ll come. Until August 31 anything can happen,” Zidane said. “Pogba is a great player and when you’re with Madrid you always want the best. But today he is not a Madrid player, he is with Juventus. I cannot say anything else.”

Zinedine, my friend, quickly try and screw the lid back on that can of worms you’ve just opened.

[ MORE: How did Yedlin, CCV do for Spurs? ]

Pogba, 23, is currently on vacation in Florida with his agent Mino Raiola and it has been reported that his potential world-record transfer to Manchester United has hit a snag. Raiola is in line to make over $22 million on the deal but reports suggest Juve and United are at odds over who pays Pogba’s agent that fee.

All of that aside, do Real really need Pogba?

Yes, he’s a fine player but as we’ve already discussed at PST, is he really worth over $130 million? As his up and down form at EURO 2016 proved, he may still not be the complete player but his athletic ability combined with his deft touches and penchant for taking over games with his lung-bursting runs are his biggest assets. The lure of working with Zidane, a French national team legend, could be strong for Pogba and of course Zizou knows all about switching Juve for Real Madrid as he made the same move during his playing days for a then world record fee.

Zidane already has Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic in central midfield but maybe the reigning European champs will look to strengthen further by adding yet another glittering star to their ranks.

If Pogba does head to Real Madrid, then surely the Los Galacticos nickname will be back in full force.

Guardiola responds to banning pizza, overweight Man City players from training

SHENZHEN, CHINA - JULY 27:  Manchester City's manager Pep Guardiola attends a press conference for 2016 International Champions Cup match between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund at Shenzhen Stadium on July 27, 2016 in Shenzhen, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola isn’t too impressed with the fitness levels of Manchester City’s players.

The new manager of City has apparently ordered certain players to train on their own away from the first team.

[ MORE: Winter break for the PL? ]

That’s according to French left back Gael Clichy, who said that “if your weight is too high, you’re not training with the team” and added that “you hear it a lot but, for my part, it’s the first time any manager has really done it. And we have a few players who are not training with the team yet.”

Clichy also revealed that Guardiola has banned “some juice and, of course, pizza and all the heavy food is not allowed” as part of a strict new diet for the Citizens.

Wow.

Speaking in a press conference in China ahead of City’s clash against Borussia Dortmund on Thursday, Guardiola revealed his issues with the current fitness of his squad.

“They are not overweight, but I want my players fit,” Guardiola said. “The weight is so, so important. You need to run, fight, jump, head the ball and then after two days you need to do it again. After three days you have to do it again, then another three days you need to do it again. When you are not fit, danger is coming. You are not fast enough or quick enough in the head. That is why you need to be fit.”

So, Guardiola didn’t deny this is the case but it goes to show just how meticulous and ruthless he is when it comes to getting his players in peak condition.

Now, it’s probably an honest slip of the tongue from Clichy to reveal all of this but will he regret telling the world about Guardiola enforcing a strict diet on the team? Who knows. Probably not.

It’s no secret that Guardiola is a hard taskmaster. Speak to players at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. You’re either with him or against him. There’s no ambiguity.

I’m expecting to see huge cardboard cutouts of pizza slices in the stands at City’s games this season…

Conte not going to sell Matic, enjoys quality midfield headache

VELDEN, AUSTRIA - JULY 20: Nemanja Matic of Chelsea reacts during the friendly match between WAC RZ Pellets and Chelsea F.C. at Worthersee Stadion on July 20, 2016 in Velden, Austria. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte feels he has a bit of an embarrassment of riches in his midfield, not that it’s a problem outside of deciding who hits the pitch.

The Chelsea boss does not plan on selling Nemanja Matic despite the acquisition of N'Golo Kante — in fact Conte thinks Matic can be one of the best in the world.

[ MORE: New club for Pato ]

That’s not surprising, given that Matic was one of the keys to Chelsea’s 2014-15 PL title run.

Conte says he has some tricky selections to make in the coming days, as Chelsea prepares to open its Premier League season Aug. 15 at West Ham United.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“Kante is a good player and he was a target of our market. I am pleased the club took this player, it’s fantastic,” said the 46-year-old. “The players in a great team like Chelsea must know there are many players that can play. It’s important for me to have a good choice to try the best solution game by game. It’s important for me to see always the right attitude and behaviour from the players.

“When I have players like N’Golo, Nemanja, Cesc, Oscar and Chalobah, and Mikel who is in the Olympics, it is not easy to choose. I want to have this problem.”

For a manager who loves to keep it tight in the midfield, it would be far from shocking to see Matic and Kante behind two attacking mids (Willian and Hazard?) or even three.

Regardless, Chelsea’s match day tactics will be one of the more fascinating subplots of 2016, especially when Conte matches up against the Blues’ former boss Jose Mourinho (Oct. 22 at Stamford Bridge and April 15 at Old Trafford).