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.

Bravo fit again, but will he start Chile’s Confed Cup group finale?

Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
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MOSCOW (AP) Claudio Bravo is fit again and could start in goal against Australia at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said Saturday.

Bravo – who is Chile’s joint most-capped player with Alexis Sanchez – hasn’t played since April 27, when he injured his calf for Manchester City in a derby game with Manchester United.

“Claudio is fit, he’s managed to train the last couple of days just like his other teammates,” Pizzi said. “He’s ready and available to play.”

Pizzi brushed off concerns about a lack of match fitness, saying that “quite obviously we take into account that factor” but players like Bravo are “are of such good quality that it isn’t that important they haven’t played in the last couple of months.”

Stand-in Johnny Herrera played in Chile’s 2-0 group stage win over Cameroon and Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Germany.

Gary Medel was substituted with a minor injury while playing in defense for Chile against Germany. Teammate Francisco Silva said Saturday that Medel had complained of “a very small muscle contraction issue” but was now fit.

Pizzi said he will aim to tire out Australia with Chile’s trademark all-action style, even though his team struggled for energy in the latter stages against Germany.

“This energy drop we had in the second half didn’t damage us too much because the opposing team couldn’t maintain a high pace because of the demands we’d imposed on them,” Pizzi said of the Germany game.

“We’re going to try to get (the Australians) tired as well and use this to beat our opponent, and we hope this is going to translate into goals.”

USMNT’s Wood extends Hamburg contract through 2021

Photo credit: Hamburg / Twitter: @HSV
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HAMBURG, Germany (AP) American forward Bobby Wood extended his contract with Bundesliga side Hamburger SV on Saturday to 2021.

Wood, who joined Hamburg from second-tier Union Berlin, scored five goals and set up two more in 28 Bundesliga games. He had 17 goals in 31 second-division games for Union the season before.

“Not only his goals count for us, but his readiness to run and challenge,” Hamburg sporting director Jens Todt said. “Bobby is a key player for our offense and a real team player.”

Wood has eight goals in 32 appearances for the United States.

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win 2-0

Photo credit: NYCFC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The only thing standing in the way of New York City FC avenging their infamous 7-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a lopsided demolition job of their own, on Saturday, was an otherworldly goalkeeping performance from Luis Robles. It was the Red Bulls shot-stopper, with his four saves on the afternoon (three of them coming in spectacular fashion), who kept Jesse Marsch’s side within touching distance for more than an hour. Jack Harrison was denied early on by Robles, but got the better of him not long later for the game’s opening goal. Heroics from Robles kept the score at 1-0 for another 32 minutes, before Ben Sweat’s (accidental?) header made it 2-0 in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, managed their first shot on target in the 80th minute. That’s three wins in a row for NYCFC, who go seven points clear of their Hudson River rivals and keep Toronto FC in sight at the top of the league table, five points ahead.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

18′ — Robles goes full-stretch to deny Harrison — David Villa’s vision and Rodney Wallace‘s hold-play created the chance for Harrison, but Luis Robles’ acrobatics denied the 20-year-old Englishman in spectacular fashion.

33′ — Harrison not to be denied this time — Sweat delivered the ball to Harrison near the top of the box, and the second-year man did everything right with what’s a really, really difficult chance to take — facing away from goal, first-time, ball traveling across the goalkeeper, upper-90 to the far post.

65′ — Sweat loops a header past Robles for 2-0 — Sweat probably didn’t mean it, but the ball hit the back of the net, and that’s all that matters. Not a bad time to score your first MLS goal, either.

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Man of the match: Luis Robles

Goalscorers: Harrison (33′), Sweat (65′)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.