Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Real Salt Lake

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

What an eventful off-season this has been around Rio Tinto, across all levels of the franchise.

First came the personnel upheaval as one of the league’s more stable clubs turned its roster on its head. GM Garth Lagerwey and manager Jason Kreis, recognizing that things had gone a little stale, dropped some bold moves as quickly as possible into December. Gone were bedrocks Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson.

Later, in moving to recreate some of that bedrock stability, playmaker Javier Morales saw his contract extended.

But as preseason drills began, some “wobbly” returned club with the out-of-nowhere announcement  that ownership was in flux.

Salt Lake City may represent one of the smaller markets and may dwell in a so-called fly-over state, but Rio Tinto Stadium is certainly no boring place at the moment. As far as on-field activity, here’s what Jason Kreis and Co. need to address in preseason:

  • What the 2013 back line looks like, especially early while dealing with injury?

Jamison Olave, a lineup staple at Rio Tinto for the last four seasons, is gone, now in New York. Nat Borchers had recent quadriceps surgery and his return is perhaps the biggest mystery clouding preseason camp. Truly, club officials don’t seem to have a good handle on whether this is a long-term process or something shorter.

Chris Wingert has a broken foot, which might not be as concerning but for the pile-up of injury and roster attrition around it.

Chris Schuler and Tony Beltran will be the stability providers early, with steady veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando providing the calm reassurance and useful information from behind. Still, Kreis will need to sort out the best defensive structure and personnel rotation, probably with Plan A, B and C to account for various scenarios.

  • Where is Robbie Findley’s head?

With Espíndola gone and Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio likely to miss matches here and there for international operations, Findley sets up as a major part of the goal-scoring plan around Sandy this year.

That would be fine if this was the same Findley who left Utah back in January of 2011, having hit for a respectable 29 goals over four seasons. But is he the same guy?

Things did not go well in Findley’s efforts to elevate his career abroad; slowed by injury, the 27-year-old striker never gained a foothold at Nottingham Forest.

There are wincing parallels here to Edson Buddle, who left for Europe about the same time as Findley, experienced a similarly flawed outcome and then returned to MLS a different, lesser figure.

Findley says confidence remains high. We’ll see, and we know that confidence means everything for strikers. So, how is Findley’s? And how can Kreis manage matters in preseason to reinforce it?

  • What, exactly, are the expectations for 2013?

We cannot look at a team with U.S. international Kyle Beckerman (pictured), Morales, Rimando, Borchers, Beltran and Olave as a team in rebuilding mode. But with key components gone and with Borchers’ availability in question, the club does seem to be in some level of transition.

Kreis must decide how much, and how soon, to mash the gas pedal, how much to demand. There’s a sweet spot between aiming too low and setting unrealistic expectations, therefore setting up the side for disappointment.

If things fall right, RSL remains a contender. But if a couple of things go wrong, they may need to downshift and look for smaller victories, at least for the time being.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: San Jose Earthquakes

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday