MLS Preview: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Real Salt Lake

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• Seattle Sounders FC is on a 12-game unbeaten streak at home, which is the longest in club history. However, Real Salt Lake has been the best road team in the league this season and the only club with a positive goal difference away from home.

• Seattle has a 7-0-2 record in games with attendances of 40,000 or larger — and a 5-0 tally in front of more than 55,000. As of Wednesday, 52,000 tickets had been distributed for the match, one of a small number in which all of CenturyLink Field is opened up.

• Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando could all play part in the game after international duty with the United States, while Alvaro Saborío is out with a calf strain suffered with Costa Rica. Brad Evans is still questionable with his calf injury.

It doesn’t get any better than a game in which the winner takes first place. That’s what Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake will play for on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Salt Lake has been near the top of the table all season, but Seattle has won seven of its last nine games and joined the Utah club at the forefront of both the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings. RSL seems to have bounced back from its most difficult part of the season, winning the last two games after losing three of five.

At one point, the Sounders had four games in hand on RSL, but they were also in eighth place in the nine-team conference at the time. Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid commonly brushes away mentions of games in hand, saying that they’re not guarantees of anything because the team still needs to win them.

But it can only help if Seattle manages to take all three points against RSL — or even if it doesn’t. It should provide a fairly pressure-free atmosphere for the Sounders, knowing that first place is well within reach even if they lose or tie. Of course, that won’t make anything less than a win feel any better, but it should allow the players to play without fear.

What they’re saying

Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid on the occasion: “It’s a massive game next week from that standpoint — from the standpoint of the standings — and hopefully, we can do what we did against Portland and sell this place out again and fill it up because it’s a game you don’t want to miss.”

Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis on the expected crowd: “This is, I think, a little bit special, if there’s going to be 60 [thousand people] rather than the typical 35. Apart from all of that, it’s still first place versus second place in our conference, so it’s a huge match. Even if there was no crowd, I think our guys would be up for it.

Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning on playing Real Salt Lake: “RSL [games] are always good games. We’ve built up a little rivalry, and it’s fun to play against these guys because it’s a very good team, too, and of course, they want to take the Supporters’ Shield, [and] we want to take the Supporters’ Shield.”

Prediction

If the crowd is as massive as expected, it will be difficult to keep the Sounders from winning their fifth game in a row and extending their home run to 13 undefeated. Regardless of how good RSL is on the road, CenturyLink Field is one of the most difficult atmospheres in the league, and its unique mixture of a raucous crowd and a turf surface that Salt Lake is unaccustomed to point to Seattle’s first regular-season win over RSL since May 28, 2011.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.