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

Giovinco strikes twice to lift Toronto FC to Canadian Championship (video)

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Sebastian Giovinco scored twice including in stoppage time as Toronto FC overcame Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla’s fantastic strike to win 2-1 in the second leg of the Canadian Championship at BMO Field on Tuesday.

TFC held the advantage after a 1-1 first leg in Montreal. The Reds advance to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Tabla, who just turned 18 in March, is an Ivorian-born Canadian youth international who now has four senior goals for the Impact.

Montreal veteran Patrice Bernier saw red in the 89th minute, putting the Impact’s chances behind the 8-ball.

[ MORE: USMNT Gold Cup questions ]

Toronto FC entered the match with a road goal advantage, which was undone in the quick flash of a left-foot, as Tabla dug a ball from underneath him and past a flying Clint Irwin to make it 2-1 on aggregate.

The goal was a double whammy for Toronto, which went to the break knowing it would need to score twice (or win in penalty kicks) to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Yet TFC came back after a horrendous pass from Montreal, as Michael Bradley pinged a gorgeous diagonal ball to Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant recovered from a tough opening touch to bury his chance. 1-1.

And, oh yeah, watch this man work for his second…

Who is Kenny Saief, and other USMNT Gold Cup personnel questions

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Kenny Saief is an 23-year-old American left-sided player with UEFA Champions League experience.

So why do we know so little about the Miami-born man?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: Saief’s entire career has been under-the-radar. After coming up through a series of Israeli teams, he moved to KAA Gent in Belgium. None of those matches, even adding in his representing the full Israel national team twice, got a ton of play on American soil.

[ MORE: Saul scores stunner for Spain U-21s ]

So when Saief filed his one-time switch to represent the United States, paving the way for a USMNT call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup, even those of us who’d followed his career from afar had put a limited amount of actual observation on match footage.

So here’s the long-and-short:

  • Saief turns 24 in December.
  • He moved to Gent from Israeli second tier side Ramat haSharon in 2014.
  • Played a total of 35 minutes in friendlies versus Serbia and Croatia.
  • Saief has 20 total appearances between the Europa and Champions Leagues.
  • Posted a UCL assist versus Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 Round of 16.
  • Had goal, 2 assists in UEL this season, played 180 mins vs. Spurs.
  • Has 15 goals, 9 assists in 107 apps for Gent.

Saief should get an opportunity to make an impact for Bruce Arena’s USMNT, perhaps as soon as Saturday’s friendly against Ghana in East Hartford.

Who else stands a chance to gain the most from this tournament?

Joe Corona — The 26-year-old made his thirst-inducing name in American soccer circles by scoring a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, but has just 17 caps to his name. His call-up over veterans like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan either shows how high he’s risen or how far those veterans have fallen.

Cristian Roldan — Seattle’s hard-nosed midfielder was playing college ball at Washington just three years ago, and it’s not crazy to think strong performances could boost him onto the radar of bigger clubs abroad (let alone make him a mainstay along Kellyn Acosta with the USMNT).

Dom Dwyer — If Roldan’s rise is surprising, Dwyer’s really is astounding. It’s easy to forget that the Sporting KC star forward was playing junior college soccer in 2010 before spending one season of Division I soccer with South Florida. Now he has 57 MLS goals and a look at becoming the clinical finisher the American side has wanted for some time.

Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj — The 29- and 28-year-old fullbacks would love to prove their mettle is as good if not better than Jorge Villafana, the current front-runner to start at left back should the Yanks complete their revitalized run to the World Cup. Lichaj, a Nottingham Forest veteran, is also adept at right back.

This isn’t to say that Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe won’t benefit from strong tournaments, but the names above have either been rescued from soccer’s scrap heap or at least Jurgen Klinsmann’s prison.

PODCAST: Bob Bradley talks MLS past, USMNT

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Scott Nicholls and Otis Earle welcomed Bob Bradley to their “Beyond The Pitch” podcast to discuss his time coaching the Chicago Fire, the Fire’s current squad, how MLS has evolved, the new generation of players coming into the USMNT and more.

Perhaps most interesting is Bradley talking about previous losses with stinging emotion that sounds like they happened yesterday, including the 2000 MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Men In Blazers pod ]

Since being fired from Swansea City after less than 100 days, Bradley has been linked with the Norway national team gig as well as a return to Los Angeles. Keep up with the U.S. coach here, and check out the podcast here:

U.S. Open Cup preview: Which underdog has best odds?

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Every dog has its day, and the three lower-tier clubs remaining in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are hoping for a second.

Miami FC, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati enjoyed wins over Major League Soccer sides in the fourth round, and now get further MLS tests in this week’s fifth round.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Once FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids tangle on Tuesday, attention turns to the underdogs on Wednesday. Who has the best chance to advance?

  1. Miami FC vs. Atlanta United — Playing an MLS expansion side at Riccardo Silva Stadium will give Miami a bit of confidence, and this is also a side with some good experience in pressure spots. Whether it’s manager Alessandro Nesta or MLS vets Michel, Gabriel Farfan, and Michael Lahoud, MFC won’t shy away. Upset chance: Solid.
  2. FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire — The visitors are having a heck of a season in MLS and don’t have a group which will be worried by a huge crowd, but there’s no debating that 25,000-plus in Southern Ohio give FCC more than a puncher’s chance. Upset chance: Improbable, but possible
  3. LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic — If LA puts something close to its best side out there, Sacramento will struggle to stop its attack.  Upset chance: Long shot.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, New England hosts DC United, Philadelphia visits the Red Bulls, Seattle is off to San Jose, and Houston hosts Sporting KC.