Major League Soccer's all-time leading playoff scorer Landon Donovan.

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.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.