Major League Soccer team previews: REAL SALT LAKE

2 Comments

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)

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

Twitter/@jonurbana1
Leave a comment

ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

Twitter/@ug_football
1 Comment

CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.