U.S. Open Cup preview: Real Salt Lake and D.C. United compete for domestic soccer’s oldest crown

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  • This is the first of domestic soccer’s three significant, annual crowns
  • RSL attackers Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales have 18 goals and 12 assists between them this year. D.C. United has just 20 goals total this year in league play.
  • Real Salt Lake is 50-14-14 in all competitions at Rio Tinto over the last four years

Tuesday’s contest at the base of the Wasatch Mountains sets up as such an awful mismatch that it hardly seems worth writing about in some ways.

Real Salt Lake and all its ongoing quality hosts a D.C. United team whose season has gone shockingly sideways. Well, well past its glory days (for now, at least) United’s 2013 season stands to be historically bad.

But seeming competitive imbalances aside, this is, after all, domestic soccer’s first of three big crowns (along with Major League Soccer’s Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup).  And this version of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is extra special, the 100th edition.

Plus, this is a cup competition, where upsets are sometimes they way. And that may be the point, that no matter how horribly things have gone for Ben Olsen’s team, this is United’s one and only chance to put a big blue ribbon around a worthless season otherwise. The teams kick off Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, just after 9 p.m. ET, live on GolTV.

(MORE: What an Open Cup title would mean to RSL, D.C. United)

Both teams rested their starters for MLS matches over the weekend. While that was a 100 percent no-brainer for D.C. United, which tumbled out of the MLS playoff picture weeks ago and tied all of its 2014 fortunes to this competition sometime during the interminable summer, it wasn’t so cut and dried for Real Salt Lake. RSL needed the points in MLS play, but manager Jason Kreis rolled the dice and fielded his reserves for a contest at Vancouver, a clear indication of how seriously the organization takes this competition.

“This is just a tournament that I’ve been pretty clear about with the players and I think I’ve been pretty clear with everybody,” Kreis said. “I want to win this tournament and I want to win it in the worst way.”

It would be Real Salt Lake’s second major trophy following the 2009 MLS Cup (pictured above). Not only is RSL playing at home, the talent edge is tilted heavily its way.

U.S. internationals Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando remain at the top of their games. Beckerman even manned the middle for Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team as the Americans clinched their World Cup 2014 spot three weeks ago in a 2-0 win over Mexico.

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D.C. United forward Dwayne De Rosario has 3 goals and 2 assists in league play this year, his worst output since joining Major League Soccer in 2001.

Costa Rican international striker Alvaro Saborio should return to the field following his recent injury struggles; he has 50 goals in 94 league matches with RSL, a prodigious rate in almost any league. Javier Morales (8 goals and 10 assists) may have wandered over to the wrong side of 30 (he is 33 now), but the Argentine playmaker has looked like his younger self lately.

Consider that Saborio and Morales have combined for 18 goals in league play; United has 20 goals total in league play, still flirting with historic lows in goals over an entire season (not to mention fewest wins over an entire season.)

Speaking of his younger self, midfielder Ned Grabavoy, now in his 10th MLS season, has been nothing short of a revelation for Kreis and Co. this year. His experience – Grabavoy won a U.S. Open Cup title with Los Angeles in 2005 – is a great balance for all the terrific young talent around Rio Tinto, the likes of Luis Gil and Olmes Garcia, just to mention two.

United isn’t completely without talent, starting with holding midfielder Perry Kitchen and U.S. under-23 goalkeeper Bill Hamid, both of whom will need massive matches.

And then there is 35-year-old former MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, who has slowed dramatically this year. His inability to get going in 2013 is a major reason why United is last in the East (a 3-21-6 record) with what it easily the league’s worst offense. United has just 20 goals in 30 MLS matches.

History is on United’s side, at least; the team from RFK Stadium has two Open Cup crowns (1996 and 2008) and been runner-up two other times.

But any edge in history hoodoo is probably mitigated by Real Salt Lake’s well-established authority at home. Kreis’ team is 50-14-14 at Rio Tinto in all competitions over the last four years.

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(MORE: Where would a United win rank among Open Cup upsets?)

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.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

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.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

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.