MLS Playoff Preview: Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy

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At some point during the regular season — as Portland drew their way through the season’s first months, LA tried to convince us they were more vulnerable this year, and Seattle malingered outside the playoff picture — Real Salt Lake asserted themselves as one of the favorites in the Western Conference – which was funny. This winter, salary cap considerations forced RSL to make tough choices that cost them Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espinola.

All three were starters on a team that finished second in the West. All three were gone before the next season’s kickoff. In February, RSL seemed to be rebuilding.

“If at the beginning of the season you told me we would barely slip into the playoffs I would have said I’ll take it,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis reminded us mid-week. “Give it to me and I’ll take it, we’ll have a chance in the playoffs.”

Instead, Real Salt Lake competed for the Supporters’ Shield through the season’s last round, made the U.S. Open Cup final (though let’s not remind them of that), and finished second in the Western Conference, an achievement that won them the honor of facing the two-tme defending champion LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals. The teams’ two-legged match kicks off Sunday at StubHub Center (9 p.m. ET kickoff).

In three regular season meetings, LA won twice and lose once, but it’s been over two months since the teams met. In Carson on August 17, Robbie Keane recorded a hat trick in LA’s 4-2 victory, the final score made closer by Robbie Findley’s 95th minute consolation. Over the course of the season, the Galaxy outscored RSL 7-5.

Don’t expect RSL’s defense to be so generous on Sunday. Real Salt Lake hasn’t allowed more than one goal in a game since Sept 21st’s visit from San Jose, during which time Chris Schuler has returned to partner Nat Borchers in central defense. As they showed two weeks ago in Portland, RSL is perfectly capable of going on the road against high-level competition and holding out for a 0-0 result. As Jason Kreis noted after the Oct. 19 match, that was the type of performance RSL may need to replicate in the playoffs.

As with all Galaxy opponents, RSL’s ability to do so will depend on how they can matchup with Keane and Landon Donovan. Dangerous under normal circumstances, LA’s forward tandem becomes more so in the playoffs, where their work in transition during last year’s playoffs spurred the Galaxy to the club’s fourth MLS Cup. While Real Salt Lake are hard to catch on the counter, their inability to contain Keane in the teams’ last meeting speaks to their difficulty with LA’s captain.

It’s not an uncommon problem. Portland, Seattle, or whomever comes out of the Eastern Conference will face the same dilemma opponents have encountered throughout the last two postseasons. Beyond matchups, form, regular season results, or any kind of expectations a team carried into a season, when you have to contain them for 180 minutes, how do you stop Keane and Donovan?

Or better put: Can you stop Keane and Donovan? Real Salt Lake has a chance to be the first.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).

After the swap: Alexis, Mkhi-infused XIs for Man Utd, Arsenal

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The deal is done: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has moved to Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez going the other way in a monumental January move.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

How will it look for each side once the shape’s settled?

Arsenal

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at his very best — for Borussia Dortmund in 2014-15 — he was deployed as a left or right wing. He contributed 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 matches during his final season at the Westfalenstadion, and predictably saw those numbers drop as Jose Mourinho consistently moved him toward an attacking center midfield role.

He’ll get the chance to go out wide again at the Emirates Stadium, though perhaps not always to the extreme flanks. Expect Alexandre Lacazette‘s numbers to explode with this move.

Arsene Wenger used a 4-3-3 to batter Crystal Palace 4-1 at the weekend, with Ozil on the right wing and Alex Iwobi on the left. The club still needs better at center defensive mid while Aaron Ramsey is out, so that will likely keep the lineup similar until he returns (at a minimum):

Cech

Bellerin — Mustafi — Koscielny — Montreal

Elneny (Ramsey, eventually)

Xhaka — Wilshere

Ozil — Lacazette — Mkhitaryan

By the way, a lot of Arsenal supporters aren’t feeling great about this (understatement alert):

Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez prefers left wing, too, and Mourinho has a trio of in-form players who like that side of the field. Anthony Martial is red hot but plays wider than Jesse Lingard, and it seems one of them will take the slot of Juan Mata to the right of Paul Pogba in a 4-1-4-1. Marcus Rashford could also see the far right positioning.

But against top competition — continued apologies to Burnley — it’s usually a 4-2-3-1 for Mourinho with Pogba dropping next to Nemanja Matic a little deeper in the formation. Lingard has been getting the run as CAM here, usually to the detriment of Juan Mata. With Alexis as the clear-cut left wing in this formation, it causes real combat for the two other slots between Mata, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial.

So while it’s likely we’d see something like this in a big game for Manchester United…

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Pogba

Martial — Lingard —  Sanchez

Lukaku

… We’d love to see something more like this:

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Herrera

Pogba

Martial — Lukaku — Sanchez

How do you think Wenger and Mou will run ’em out?

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…