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.

VIDEO: American teen Wright scores first 2.Bundesliga goal

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For all the talk about Schalke’s 18-year-old American wunderkind, Weston McKennie, it’s easy to forget that three young Yanks signed for the Bundesliga side.

One of them, Haji Wright, scored four goals in a preseason match before being loaned out to Sandhausen in 2.Bundesliga.

Ex-New York Cosmos striker Wright, 19, came off the bench for Sandhausen in its league opener Saturday, and didn’t wilt when given a clear scoring chance alone in the 18.

[ MORE: Bundesliga preview with Howedes, Nastasic ]

Wright has scored 31 goals at the U.S. youth national team level, and Bruce Arena will be quite familiar with him given a four-year stint with the LA Galaxy Academy.

Fellow American striker Andrew Wooten is on the books at Sandhausen, but the veteran was not in the 18.

Here’s video, found by American Soccer Now’s Brian Sciaretta:

Watch Live: Swansea host Manchester United

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Swansea City welcome Manchester United to the Liberty Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s side aiming to stay top of the Premier League table.

[ STREAM: Swansea v. Man United ]

Yes, it’s early days, but the Red Devils were imperious in their thumping 4-0 win against West Ham United to open their season. Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic dominated and Mourinho’s men are now a powerful, well-oiled machine.

As for Swansea, they struggled at Southampton but came away with a draw, however the main storyline surrounding the South Wales side this week has been losing Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton for over $60 million. Paul Clement will have to act fast to spend that cash wisely, but there is no doubt the Swans will miss their Icelandic playmaker.

In team news Swansea bring in Kyle Bartley and Roque Mesa as they line up in a 3-5-2 formation with Jordan Ayew and Tammy Abraham up top.

Man United are, unsurprisingly, unchanged.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski; Fernandez, Bartley, Mawson; Naughton, Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Olsson; Ayew, Abraham. Subs: Nordfeldt, Rangel, van der Hoorn, Fulton, Narsingh, Routledge, McBurnie.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Blind; Matic, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Smalling, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Martial

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.