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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)

State of the League: Garber addresses expansion, Beckham Miami and more

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09:  Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber talks during day four of the Soccerex - Manchester Convention at Manchester Central on September 9, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)
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As Major League Soccer gears up for Saturday night’s massive final in Toronto, league commissioner Don Garber addressed the media in the buildup with his annual State of the League address on Friday.

[ MORE: 3 key battles to watch in Saturday’s MLS Cup final ]

Among the topics discussed were expansion, the demise of NASL and what MLS is doing to attract younger players to United States.

[ MORE: Copa America trip helped convince Lodeiro to make MLS move ]

As it has been in the past, expansion was the biggest discussion on the docket, with Garber stating that next week will likely determine a timeline for the league’s next entries.

“As you probably know it is strategic expansion,” Garber said during Friday’s MLS State of the League address. “Following our board meeting on Thursday in New York, we will announce a process and a timeline for our next round of expansion, which will add clubs 25, 26, 27 and 28 to Major League Soccer.”

David Beckham’s Miami franchise is currently tabbed as the league’s 24th entry, following Minnesota and Atlanta in 2017 and Los Angeles FC in 2018, however, the future of Beckham’s project remains very much up in the air.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

In the event that Miami is passed over, there are plenty of teams waiting in the wings to claim its spot. Sacramento, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit and San Diego are among the many destinations currently vying for entry into MLS, however, Sacramento and Cincinnati remain very high on the list after seeing recent success and growth in USL.

“There is a deadline on the Miami deal. I am not going to share that deadline, it is an agreement we have with David and (his business partner) Simon Fuller,” Garber said in regards to the Miami plans.

“But … we need to resolve the Miami situation so that we can go forward with our expansion plans for (expansion) teams 25-28 because they are team 24 and if they are not going to be 24 there are going to be a lot of things that need to move around and it is something we will discuss at our board meeting.”

When Garber was asked about the decline of NASL and particularly the status of the New York Cosmos and whether MLS would ever consider allowing the franchise to join, he stated that the league has no intentions of adding a third New York/New Jersey team.

“As it relates to the Cosmos, it’s a great brand,” said Garber. “We have two teams in MLS in New York. We are not going to have a third team.”

Additionally, Garber also noted that the league has no intentions of changing the MLS playoff format or adding an additional Designated Player spot for each club’s disposal. However, the commissioner did confirm that teams will see an increase of $400,000 each in target allocation money (TAM) in 2017, bringing the total per club up to $1.2 million.

Former Real midfielder Ze Roberto signs new contract at 42

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 12:  Ze Roberto (R) of Palmeiras fights for the ball with Giovanni Augusto (L) of Corinthians during the match between Palmeiras and Corinthians for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on June 12, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
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Apparently 42 is the new 22. At least that is one Brazilian’s point of view.

[ MORE: Man City without Aguero, Fernandinho vs. Leicester ]

Former Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder Ze Roberto has signed a new contract with Brazilian club Palmeiras at the age of 42.

[ MORE: Everton, Watford meet with both clubs struggling of late ]

In his time in Europe, Ze Roberto won a UEFA Champions League title with Real Madrid, while also capturing various championships with Bayern, including four Bundesliga titles in his time in Germany.

Ze Roberto played a key role in Palmeiras’ Campeonato Brasileiro title in 2016 and has appeared in 53 matches for the club since joining in 2015.

“My biggest motivation has always been the project. The goals have been achieved – winning the Copa do Brasil title last year and now the Brasileirao,” Ze Roberto said in a statement.

“When I arrived, I said that I would not be coming to pass the time, but to become part of the history of this club, to see my picture in the dressing room. This has been accomplished and I am very happy.

The 42-year-old had a successful 12-year international career with his native Brazil from 1995 to 2006, which included six goals in 84 caps for the five-time World Cup champions. With the national team, Ze Roberto hoisted two Copa America titles for Brazil in 1997 and 2005.

Report: Atlanta United to sign Jamaican attacker Romario Williams

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 28:  Romario Williams #17 of the Montreal Impact walks towards the play during the MLS game against the Orlando City SC at the Olympic Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The game between Orlando City SC and the Montreal Impact ended in a 2-2 draw.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Atlanta has already made some big splashes this offseason as the club prepares to join MLS in 2017, but the Eastern Conference side could be adding another attacker to its already deep bunch.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to Metro New York, Atlanta is poised to sign Jamaican international Romario Williams, who was originally drafted to MLS in 2015 by the Montreal Impact.

Williams will reportedly be exchanged for allocation money after having made just two senior appearances for the Impact since joining the club two seasons ago. The 22-year-old has spent two separate loan spells in USL with FC Montreal and more recently with the Charleston Battery.

In 2016, Williams netted 10 goals in 27 appearances for the Battery.

In addition to his club duties, Williams has represented Jamaica at the Under-17 and U-23 teams before reaching senior team in 2016.

3 key battles to watch in MLS Cup final

(Photo credit: Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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One club will make history on Saturday night north of the border as Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders vie for their first MLS Cup title.

[ MORE: PST roundtable discusses key topics ahead of MLS Cup ]

While both teams enter the final in fine form, PST takes a look at which players and matchups will influence the game’s outcome the most.

Osvaldo Alonso vs. Michael Bradley

It may not be the sexiest matchup in terms of watching but these two midfielders have a lot in common other than their lack of hair. In addition to his three goals and four assists during the regular season, Alonso has been the heart and soul of the Sounders midfield for several years, particularly in 2016. Meanwhile, Bradley has had a similarly strong season for TFC as he anchors the midfield.

Both teams feature strong backlines and some of the league’s top attackers, but these two players certainly provide stability in the midfield, which will be vital in the frigid conditions at BMO Field on Saturday night.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Jordan Morris vs. TFC backline

The story of the Sounders in 2016 is that of a fairytale, but the one of Jordan Morris might be even more intriguing if he and his side goes on to win MLS Cup. All in one calendar year, Morris can potentially be an NCAA champion, MLS Rookie of the Year and MLS Cup champion, a feat that seems pretty incredible when considering what the Sounders have endured in 2016.

Morris will likely have his chances against the TFC, which gave away several clear-cut opportunities to the Impact in the East final, but he’ll have to capitalize for the Sounders in order for them to win it all.

Sebastian Giovinco vs. Sounders backline

It’s easier said than done to try and contain the Italian striker but that’s what the Sounders will have to do in order to hoist the title. Although the emergence of Jozy Altidore has greatly helped the TFC attack and Giovinco, in particular, so that opposition can’t solely zone in on him, Giovinco remains the top threat for the hosts. Giovinco notched 17 goals and added 15 assists in 2016, meaning he’s not only a danger in front of goal but also a worry for the Sounders when it comes to playing the role of provider.

With Altidore’s emergence as of late it makes the challenge of stopping Giovinco all the more difficult, but the Sounders will likely have to keep at least two bodies around the Italian at times in order to throw him off of his game. Otherwise it could be a very long night for the Cascadia side, who likely watched as TFC put up five goals at home against the Montreal Impact in their Eastern Conference final second leg.