MLS playoff preview: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake

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Who would have thought the most exciting much of this year’s playoffs would be a 0-0? So far, that’s the case, though it’s not a fair question. Not many postseason predictions posts have a place for Scoreline of the playoffs’ most exciting game. Even if somebody spends time thinking about such things, there aren’t many places to go on record.

But since Seattle and Real Salt Lake opened the semifinal round with a goalless thriller last Friday, the rest of Major League Soccer’s round of eight has been unable to replicate the drama. So between the scoreline, Nick Rimando’s heroics, the teams’ history (they also met in last year’s Western Conference semis), and the pure quality of these two MLS Cup contenders, it would be fair to call Thursday’s second leg at Rio Tinto highly anticipated.

And as with all second legs, there’s always on big, underlying question: What should we expect to change from the first leg.

Kickoff: 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Rio Tinto Stadium, NBC Sports Network

Series is tied, 0-0, after leg one

On Real Salt Lake

  • Mission accomplished? On paper, yes. RSL got out of CenturyLink with a draw. What road team wouldn’t take that?
  • But Friday’s outcome was less of a moral victory than a boxer absorbing a 12-round beating only to be bailed out by the judges. Sure, you take it, but in your heart, you know you got worked.
  • That type of analogy completely ignores the fact that goalkeeper Nick Rimando is an RSL player, the team values counts on his performance, and you can’t just dissociate a goalkeeper’s contributions from the rest of the team’s when assessing the product (a mistake which, admittedly, I’ve done too often). Rimando has given other-worldly performances before. Who’s to say he won’t do so again on Thursday?
  • Ideally, Jason Kreis won’t need any incredible performances to get a result, but that requires solving the midfield problem. RSL’s diamond was exploited down its left, an advantage that led to 30 open play crosses for Seattle.
  • The midfield also failed to connect with Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. Saborio scored twice in last year’s home leg, but on Friday, he didn’t get a good look until very late.
  • Fabian Espindola, who left Friday’s match at halftime with a hamstring injury, is listed as probable. So is Ned Grabavoy (quad) and every RSL central defender: Jamison Olave (hamstring), Nat Borchers (quad), Chris Schuler (quad) and Kwame Watson-Siriboe (ankle). What’s with all the quad strains?

On the Seattle Sounders

  • Seattle has injury concerns of their own, most notably with Mauro Rosales. The man responsible for so much of the work against RSL’s left limped from the field on Friday after tweaking a hamstring. But rest easy, SounderFan. Rosales didn’t even make the injury report.
  • More good news: Eddie Johnson will be back. The U.S. international (and Seattle’s leading goalscorer during the regular season) didn’t even dress on Friday. His presence was sorely missed. It’s hard to believe Seattle doesn’t convert one of their myriad of crosses if one of the league’s greatest aerial threats is in the team. On Friday, Sigi Schmid made sure everybody knew: Eddie will be ready for Utah.
  • Seattle’s only other injury concern is left back Leo Gonzalez, who missed game one with a hamstring strain. Veteran Marc Burch will probably get the call.
  • Though the final score doesn’t show it, Seattle’s coming off one of their best performances of the season (the best game I’ve seen them play all year). One man’s extraordinary performance kept them from a lopsided win, so while a 0-0 result at home would normally lead to some tweaks, Schmid’s task for leg two is to keep his good thing going.
  • That means exploiting the wide areas. Or, area. Seattle’s right side, manned by Rosales, proved a huge advantage on Friday.  If Rosales is less than 100 percent or Kreis finds a solution, it’s not something Seattle’s likely to replicate on their left. There are only so many Mauro Rosaleses in the world.
  • What would Plan B be? Any variety of options centering around Johnson. Or Fredy Montero. Or the play of Christian Tiffert and Osvaldo Alonso. You’d call it am embarrassment of riches, but general manager Adrian Hanauer and staff have no reason to blush about the job they’ve done.
  • One of Hanauer’s more recent acquisitions, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, received a lot of credit for his overshadowed Friday performance, but in a game where the little things could prove decisive, Gspurning will have to avoid replicating the first half giveaway that gifted RSL a chance at goal.
  • Obligatory Seattle history references: They’ve never won a playoff series (0-for-3). In 2009, their first leg with Houston also ended scoreless, with the second leg requiring extra time after another goalless 90 minutes. Brian Ching scored in the 96th minute to end Seattle’s first MLS season.
  • Seattle’s scored only three goals in 660 playoff minutes: 0.41 goals per game. That’s not bad. It’s terrible.

Bottom line:

If Seattle plays like they did on Friday, they win most of the time. “Most” actually understates how good they were. The Sounders win nine out of 10 games playing at that level, which is why their history of playoff frustrations should matter little on Thursday. Keep doing what they’re doing, and Seattle moves on.

The ball is in Kreis’s court. His team is as predictable as they come in terms of set up and tactics. He always uses that narrow, diamond in midfield, and the team likes its short, controlled passing game – a plan that didn’t work on Friday. It failed miserably, but thanks to Nick Rimando, RSL’s was given a lifeline.

The extent to which they take advantage of that lifeline depends on Kreis’s changes.

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

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If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

[ MORE: Totti leaves future uncertain heading into final Roma match ]

That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

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U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.

Alaves eyes upset of Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The final of the Copa del Rey pits Barcelona’s star power against a tiny Basque Country club whose biggest weapons are its grit and gnawing hunger for a taste of glory.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Win or lose, Alaves is savoring the cup final on Saturday as the perfect finish to its first season back in Spain’s topflight in an decade.

[ MORE: Three key battles ahead of Chelsea-Arsenal FA Cup final ]

But to have a chance of winning the first major trophy in its 96-year history, Alaves’ ragtag collection of journeymen has to be squeezed of every ounce of effort by coach Mauricio Pellegrino to upset the cup-holders led by Lionel Messi.

One statistic illustrates how daunting their task will be: Messi, all by himself, has scored exactly as many goals as the entire Alaves squad this season, with 53 across all competitions.

“We will need to play a very complete match to have a chance, but we are a team that always competes to the maximum,” said Pellegrino, who is completing a noteworthy first season with the club.

The final will be the last competitive match at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon Stadium. An exhibition match the next day will be its farewell before demolition.

The final will also be the last match for departing Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who could bow out with a third straight Copa del Rey.

Here are some reasons Alaves can believe in an upset for the ages:

DONE IT BEFORE

Alaves has already toppled Barcelona this season.

A shocking 2-1 victory at Camp Nou on Sept. 10 was Alaves’ first win since its return to the first division following 10 years in the second and third tiers.

That surprise victory set it on its way to overachieving all campaign. It reached the Copa del Rey final by defeating the more talented Celta Vigo in the semifinals, and finished the league in a meritorious ninth place.

The bad news is that Barcelona showed no mercy back in Vitoria, where Luis Suarez scored twice in a 6-0 rout.

NO SUAREZ

But Suarez won’t be available for Barcelona on Saturday, when he serves a one-game suspension after being sent off during the semifinals against Atletico Madrid.

Luis Enrique could start Paco Alcacer in his place up front alongside Messi and Neymar.

OLD AND YOUNG

Alaves is not devoid of talent.

The 19-year-old right back Theo Hernandez, who is playing on loan from Atletico, is drawing rave reviews and interest from European powerhouses, including Real Madrid.

Marcos Llorente, a 22-year-old Madrid reserve player also on loan, has impressed as a defensive midfielder.

Captain Manu Garcia, at 31, is the only player who has been with the team through its rise from the third tier in 2013.

“Our coaches are telling us that by working as a team just like we have all year, we have a chance to win,” Garcia said.

OH SO CLOSE

Alaves came ever so close to winning the 2001 UEFA Cup when it defied expectations in its first European campaign by reaching the final against Liverpool.

Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch great Johann Cruyff, scored late to level the thriller at 4-4 and force extra time, only for Alaves to succumb on an own goal by Delfi Geli.

“I want our fans to enjoy the day,” Garcia said. “I remember (the final in) Dortmund from when I was young. I have many memories of that day and that’s why I ask our fans to be proud of Alaves, and that they make the Calderon into our stadium because that is what we will need it to be.”