Major League Soccer team previews: REAL SALT LAKE

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 3 in the West is Real Salt Lake:

Significant additions and subtractions: A major roster shakeup, unfolding in a burst just after 2012 MLS Cup, was strange stuff for one of the most stable MLS clubs in terms of personnel. Fabian Espindola, scorer of a highly respectable 25 goals around Rio Tinto over the last three seasons, is now in New York. So is huge center back Jamison Olave, who spent years commanding RSL’s back line – although he was perhaps a little too brittle for the price. Or so RSL management reckoned.

With all that, it’s hard to say who the men in Utah will miss more, Espindola, Olave or Will Johnson, whose leadership, drive and ability to cover midfield ground will be difficult to replace in Utah. The Canadian international is now in Portland.

Strengths: Start with Kyle Beckerman, possibly behind only Osvaldo Alonso in the league’s ranking of holding midfielders.

Stability goes a long way in MLS. Jason Kreis may be only 40, but he also carries the league’s second-longest running tenure at a club, behind only Dominic “Dean” Kinnear at Houston. Kreis has come a long way from his time (not too awfully long ago) when the high-scoring striker stepped off the field at age 34 and immediately into RSL’s managerial seat. (He’s still the youngest coach to win an MLS Cup, by the way.)

Kreis and other club leaders love Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, but neither one can match Olave at his best. They have wonderful potential and are sure to be even better whenever the injured Nat Borchers gets healthy and can provide direction alongside one of them; that probably won’t happen until April, earliest.

Pressure points: One of the league’s standard bearers in organizational stability is going through its most significant roster shift in years, an overhaul that gets the club younger here and there and deals with the naturally escalating salaries that handcuff any successful club.

Beckerman, for instance, strong shepherd that he is, will have a younger midfield flock around him to guide this year. That will be especially true until injured playmaker Javier Morales gets back on the field.

Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran are fine MLS outside backs. But they no longer have Olave (who was faster than many realized, able to hurry over toward the touchlines in moments of big danger) to go clean up any mistakes. It might even change the way Wingert and Beltran play, perhaps creating a slightly more cautious approach about where to challenge and when to move forward.

source: Getty Images

Difference maker: Nick Rimando was good in 2012, whereas he was great in 2011. It would be a stretch to say he was in decline last year; then again, he needs to arrest any slippage now, before we would recognize something we could more accurately define as “decline.” With Rimando furthest back and Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio (17 goals last year, third best in MLS) occupying the highest spot on the field, the club has experienced, dependable bookends.

Potential breakout player: It’s a big year for Luis Gil, still only 19, but who has already been part of the RSL roster for two-plus years. The U.S. under-20 has 33 starts for RSL and a major role in the midfield this year, more or less replacing Johnson. He’s got tons of skill and he understands exactly how RSL wants to work the diamond midfield and the overall system, back to front. The Californian has “breakout” written all over him.

Bottom line: There’s no question the club will miss Olave, Johnson and Espindola, and no one around Rio Tinto relished seeing them go. The moves were all about salary cap and long-range planning. They’ll suffer a bit in the spring and perhaps into the summer. The question around Rio Tinto is what the team looks like in the fall, and there’s enough reason to believe things will shake out OK.

(MORE: full roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Guardiola “satisfied” with derby draw; “It’s not easy” to play United

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Manchester City control their own destiny in the Premier League’s race to finish inside the top-four this season.

With five games to go, Man City sit fourth in the league table — just a point back of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and a point ahead of fifth-place Manchester United after the two sides drew 0-0 on Thursday — and that fact has had an unbelievable calming effect on first-year City boss Pep Guardiola.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking in his post-game television interview, Guardiola seemed much happier and looser than you might expect a manager to be when he’s only just left the field of a heated rivalry game, against his personal nemesis, and failed to convert in one of 19 shots (6 on target) into the game’s decisive goal.

“We can’t forget against which team we played today — [they’re] 23 games in a row without defeat. We created enough chances to score, we created two [clear-cut chances]. In terms of statistics and the way we played, especially the approach, I am so satisfied.”

“I am satisfied, because I know how difficult it is to play against Manchester United — how aggressive they are. It’s not easy when you face 10 players behind. It’s not easy, and you have to always be in a good position to avoid a counter-attack with (Anthony) Martial and (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan. … We have the talent, but sometimes it’s not easy against so many players there.”

“We all have tough games coming up now and we know it’s not an option to not win these games. Every game is important.”

[ MORE: Mourinho pins blame for Fellaini’s red card on Aguero ]

It’s true that City had the best only real chances throughout the game, but just think of the joy Guardiola might be experiencing right now had Sergio Aguero found pay dirt with just one of his eight shots on the night (two on target) to push his side third in the league table, four points clear of United in fifth.

Mourinho: Fellaini headbutt “a bit of a red card,” a bit of Aguero acting

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Following his side’s 0-0 draw away to Manchester City in the Manchester derby on Thursday, Jose Mourinho has done precisely what we would have expected of him — precisely what he’s done his entire career; precisely what a manager is supposed to do — with regards to Marouane Fellaini‘s red card for a headbutt on Sergio Aguero: he defended him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking in his post-game television interview, Mourinho said he wouldn’t comment on the incident, which left Manchester United with 10 players for the final six minutes of the game, because he hadn’t seen it on television. He then proceeded to comment on the incident, calling it “a bit of a red card and a bit of a very smart, very experienced Argentinian player.” As for the rest of United’s game plan, which left them wholly incapable of attacking throughout the game, well, they tried. They really tried…

“I don’t say, because I didn’t watch it on TV. I spoke with Marouane; he’s very disappointed, he feels it’s a red card because he’s Marouane Fellaini. I spoke with Martin [Atkinson]; Martin told him in his opinion it’s a red card. I didn’t watch, but I can guess it’s a bit of a red card, and a bit of a very smart, experienced Argentinian player” [smile]

“We wanted to do more in terms of attacking, we wanted to exploit more on the count-attack. We did that in the first half, we had very good control of the game in the first half. The second half was more difficult. In the end, we have one player less, [it was] even worse, so we had to make the right decision to fight hard to have a point.”

“They started slow, the pushed us hard, they pressed higher. At the same time, we were not able to have the ball and move the ball well. … I prefer to say that the qualities of the players on the pitch, especially in the midfield, we missed a little bit of that quality, to have the ball, to start moving the ball, to connect with the attacking players.”

[ MORE: Guardiola “satisfied” with draw; “It’s not easy” to play United ]

Aguero’s embellishment is quite clear if you watch the above video, but the fact remains there would have been nothing to embellish if Fellaini hadn’t headbutted him. On second thought, that didn’t stop Alexis Sanchez, so perhaps he still would have wound up on the ground, clutching his face.

Player ratings from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — A tight Manchester Derby saw City and United settle for a 0-0 draw with the home side wasting several glorious chances.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

Both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be relatively pleased with the point which leaves the top four race wide-open with five games to go.

Here’s how each player marked out of 10.


MANCHESTER CITY

Claudio Bravo – 5 – Subbed off late on with a calf injury. Made a mess of a first half cross and didn’t have much else to do.

Pablo Zabaleta – 6 – Did okay defensively but a few loose balls in attack stopped City building up attacks.

Vincent Kompany – 8 – Superb display as he came through three games in 10 days. Held City’s backline together, once again.

Nicolas Otamendi – 6 – Struggled to cope with Rashford’s pace initially but recovered well. Gave away plenty of fouls.

Aleksandar Kolarov – 5 – Like Otamendi, struggled with pace of Rashford and was loose with the ball at his feet.

Fernandinho – 6 – Typically combative display in the heart of midfield from the Brazilian.

Raheem Sterling – 6 – Drifted in and out of the game and couldn’t get the better of Darmian.

Yaya Toure – 6 – Had little time on the ball in a congested midfield. Showed plenty of fighting spirit against Herrera.

Kevin De Bruyne – 7 – Always had that extra bit of quality to frighten United. Great ball in but Aguero hit the post and hit another just wide.

Leroy Sane – 6 – A rare off night for Sane as he was subbed out in the second half. The German winger never quite got going

Sergio Aguero – 6 – Had so many chances to score and wasn’t clinical. Drilled so many efforts over the bar and should’ve scored early.

Subs
Willy Caballero on for Claudio Bravo – 6 – Had little to do.
Jesus Navas on for Leroy Sane – 6 – Some good deliveries from wide areas late on.
Gabriel Jesus on for Raheem Sterling – 7 – Looked lively in his late cameo and thought he’d scored a late winner with a fine finish.


MANCHESTER UNITED

David De Gea – 6 – Made one good stop from Aguero early on but wasn’t troubled apart from that.

Antonio Valencia – 6 – Fine in defense but offered little in attack.

Eric Bailly – 7 – Stood up to the task of marking Aguero and made a fine sliding tackle in the first half. Held things together. Just.

Daley Blind – 6 – Didn’t have much to do but defended well when he had to.

Matteo Darmian – 5 – Was given a tough time by Sterling, De Bruyne and Navas.

Michael Carrick – 6 – Solid in midfield as he tried to get attacks going but space was clogged up.

Anthony Martial – 6 – Worked hard out wide but had little chance to spring counters. Steady.

Ander Herrera – 7 – A typical terrier-like display in midfield. Stopped Yaya Toure marauding forward.

Marouane Fellaini – 4 – Couldn’t influence the game other than stupidly hacking down Aguero and then headbutting him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Hardly had a kick and couldn’t troubled City’s defense on the break. Not his type of game.

Marcus Rashford – 8 – Standout player on the pitch in the first half. His raw pace frightened the life out of City.

Subs
Jesse Lingard on for Anthony Martial – 5 – Just sat in and helped out defensively.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah on for Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Helped out defensively when it was needed late on.
Ashley Young on for Marcus Rashford – N/A – Used as a time-wasting tactic.

Three things we learned from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — Manchester City and Manchester United fought out a 0-0 draw in the Manchester Derby on Thursday as two teams battling for the top four canceled each other.

[ MORE: Player ratings from City, United

City had the better chances with Sergio Aguero hitting the post and going close on multiple occasions but Pep Guardiola‘s men couldn’t break through and Jose Mourinho’s United — who finished the game with 10-men after Marouane Fellaini was sent off — remain one point and one place behind them in the table.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Here’s what we learned from a tight, tense derby.


RASHFORD RAMPANT

It seems like each and every week Marcus Rashford is improving drastically. The 19-year-old was the standout player on the pitch in the Manchester Derby at the Etihad, once again.

13 months ago Rashford scored a superb game-winner for United at City but as impressive as he was on that day, his game and body have developed drastically since then.

His sheer pace left City’s defenders for dead on mutliple occasions with Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov often given a 10-yard head start but not able to catch Rashford.

An audacious flick over Otamendi with this back of his heel while he was on the move was the pick of his moment. Rashford is maturing rapidly and after he tore Chelsea apart just 10 days ago, he was United’s biggest attacking threat all evening.

Manchester United will miss Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s penchant for popping up at the right place at the right time — as he’s done on 28 occasions this season before having his season ended through injury — but if Rashford is given enough time on the pitch, his rapidly development will surely see him flourish into one of the finest forwards in the game.


GUARDIOLA, MOURINHO OVERCAUTIOUS

All three games between Man City and Man United this season have been tight, tense encounters. This was no different.

City ripped United apart in the first half of their 2-1 win at Old Trafford back in September and then United edged things in a 1-0 home win in the EFL Cup a month later.

Guardiola’s City once again did all the pressing in this game as Aguero hit the outside of the post from a wonderful ball from the brilliant Kevin De Bruyne and the Argentine ace had an off day in front of goal, blazing off target on multiple occasions as United stayed compact but let him have a glimpse of the goal from distance.

With City just one point ahead of United with five games to go for both teams, Pep will probably still be feeling the more confident of the two managers about finishing in the top four given the respective run-in’s for both clubs. Yes, United have gone 24 games unbeaten in the Premier League but they aren’t exactly impressing.

Mourinho set his team up to counter with Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in attack but United never truly got hold of the ball as City’s high-pressing surprisingly unnerved season campaigners such as Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Fellaini with the latter headbutting Aguero stupidly late on to see red.

Considering all of thier injuries and plenty of games coming up, United will be happy with a point to stay in the top four hunt and so will City. The final encounter between Guardiola and Mourinho this season didn’t live up to the hype and with so much on the line in their debut camapigns in Manchester, just four goals across the three Manchester derbies proves that neither has lost face locally.

Then again, neither have impressed much this season either.


KOMPANY BACK TO HIS BEST

On three occasions in the first half Vincent Kompany stepped in to make superbly timed interceptions.

City’s skipper is well and truly back to his best.

After two injury ravaged campaign the Belgian star, 31, led from the back and was always willing to step high and engage United’s attacks to try and stop them at source.

Question marks will still remain about Kompany’s fitness for the foreseeable future but after playing three games in 10 days he finally seems to have not only regained his fitness but also his form.

It remains to be seen whether Kompany will still be at City next season but you have to think him remaining is essential after the shaky play of both Otamendi and John Stones for much of this season.

Since Kompany returned to fitness in early April, City have conceded just three goals in the four games he’s played with the skipper having two clean sheets.