MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s visit to Los Angeles

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Ahead of Sunday’s first-leg of this Western Conference semifinal, here are the must-knows about Real Salt Lake ahead of tonight’s match in Carson:

  • Same look, different parts

Since claiming MLS Cup in 2009, Real Salt Lake has been the most consistent team in Major League Soccer. They’ve never finished lower than third in the West; they’ve never finished better than second. With their habitual use of a diamond midfield and and commitment to playing a possession game, you not only know how they’ll play but where they’ll likely end up.

This year, however, the team made three significant offseason changes. Jamison Olave, the cornerstone to their backline, was traded to the New York Red Bulls, with Argentine attacker Fabian Espindola heading east with him. And in the middle, Will Johnson was sent to Portland, the team forced to offload him as they tried to manage their salary cap commitments.

RSL’s second place finish speaks to the team’s ability to replace those parts, but continuing a theme repeated throughout the postseason’s first matches, will inexperience be an issue? For two teams (Colorado, Montréal), it was. For two others (Saturday’s winners), it was not.

So we don’t know how Chris Schuler will do in central defense, though he’s been with RSL long enough for something to have rubbed off. Luis Gil in midfield? Talented as any non-Javi Morales player on the team, but intensity and consistency have been minor qualms.

And what of Joao Plata, the likely partner for Álvaro Saborio up top (if his hamstring allows it)? This is the first time the Ecuadorian has sniffed the postseason, something you can say for most Toronto FC alums.

  • Great goalkeeper, but questions in defense?

Nick Rimando’s winning Goalkeeper of the Year. Cruise around the internet and check out the public ballots, and there’s very little difference of opinion. The man who asserted himself for the national team this summer did the same in MLS. He’ll be part of the Best XI.

So why did RSL allowed 41 goals this season, third-most amongst teams that qualified for the playoffs? Looking across their six deepest players, it’s hard to say. Rimando and defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman are all-league caliber players. Nat Borchers has been a Best XI selection. The fullbacks (Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert) have been solid for years, while a healthy Chris Schuler is an above average defender.

The reason for the goals is probably stylistic. Whereas in years past RSL were experts at controlling games featuring a modest number of goals, this year things have opened up -perhaps  a product of their roster cahnges. In addition to Saborio, Plata, Morales and Gil, Jason Kreis has players like Olmes Garcia, Robbie Findley, and Devon Sandoval who can stress an opposition defense. Scoring 11 more goals while conceding an additional six, RSL opened things up in 2013.

So the defense isn’t great, but it’s the product of a tradeoff. With 57 goals this season (most in the West), RSL is also more potent than in years’ past.

  • But how good are they, really?

With their retooling, RSL wasn’t expected to be one of the West’s leaders, but by mid-season all worries were gone. Three trophies (U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup) were in sight for the “rebuilding” club, with Garth Lagerwey’s ability to meet the challenges of MLS’s salary cap keeping the general manager’s team near the top of the West.

But as the season went on, RSL came back to earth. They lost the U.S. Open Cup final and were eventually passed by Portland in the West, forcing us to wonder: Is the real RSL the one we saw mid-season? Or the one that fell into a semifinal with LA?

It’s probably the latter – still a very good team, but not one where players like Plata, Garcia, Sandoval, and home grown defender Carlos Salcedo are seeing as much success as did early in the season. All of those players had very productive starts to their 2013 campaigns, allowing RSL to transcend expectations. Once they regressed a little, the team regressed a little, too.

As in years’ past, RSL will have to rely on their core: Rimando; Borchers; Beckerman; Morales; Saborio. Players like Beltran, Wingert, and Ned Grabavoy? They’ll play important parts, too. But the team may not be able to count on mid-season from the likes of Olmes Garcia. It’s too much to expect everything to go right.

  • The power of the diamond’s in its tips.

Kyle Beckerman’s as good a holder as you’ll find in Major League Soccer. His ability to protect his backline is not too bad, either. There’s a reason why he’ll be on a lot of Best XI ballots, his role at the base of RSL’s midfield providing a focal point at one end of the formation.

At the other end is Javier Morales, one of the most talented playmakers in Major League Soccer. If it wasn’t for such a crammed field of Best XI candidates, the attacking midfielder would be in line for that postseason honor, too (he’s had that caliber of season). But end-of-season awards are meaningless between the lines. Everybody knows, Best XI honor or not, Javier Morales has the ability to define a match.

  • Jason Kreis’s last hurrah?

The rumors just won’t stop. Is Jason Kreis, in his seventh year as boss in Salt Lake, going to be with the team next season? His contract is up, and with RSL having undergone a change at the top (Dave Checketts selling the club), now might be a nice, relatively easy time to move on. Seven years is a long time.

Perhaps that’s the reason why the link between NYCFC and Kreis won’t go away,  and even though the 20th team-to-be won’t play until 2015, rumors persist. Kreis may be in the last chapter of his RSL career.

Will that have an effect on this matchup? Probably not. But it does provide some interesting subtext to RSL’s battle with LA.

“I’m here, I’m the manager” – Moyes will not quit Sunderland

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This has been one horrible stretch for David Moyes.

The Sunderland manager probably thought he’d been through the worst once he left Real Sociedad, where he went 12-15-15.

But he’s managed just seven wins and seven draws in 38 matches in charge of the Black Cats — an 18 percent win mark. He’s also been charged for threatening to slap a female journalist.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

And after Wednesday, Moyes has lost both of his derby matches against Middlesbrough.

Sunderland is 12 points back of safety with five matches left. The odds the Black Cats are headed for the Championship are somewhere north of 99 percent, and fans are calling for his job.

Well, he isn’t quitting. From the BBC:

“No, I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose.

“There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Premier League Preview: The Manchester Derby

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  • City won 2-1 in PL on Sept. 10
  • United won 1-0 in EFL Cup on Oct. 26
  • First Mourinho-Pep match at the Etihad
  • United leads all-time 71W-51D-50L

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola get a tactical rubber match with plenty on the line when Manchester United and Manchester City meet at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

There will be no Paul Pogba nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic for United, while Gabriel Jesus is set to return for City.

Fourth-place City enters the day one point ahead of United, and both trail Liverpool but have played two less matches.

In case you’ve forgotten, here are the other two meetings between Guardiola and Mourinho this season:

  • Iheanacho, De Bruyne lead City’s 2-1 win in September. Zlatan Ibrahimovic made it interesting by pulling back a goal, but Pep Guardiola’s bunch fired the first shots of the season’s derbies with a win at Old Trafford.
  • It was the same venue six weeks later, when Juan Mata‘s 54th minute goal was the only marker as United knocked Manchester City out en route to its EFL Cup title.

Ander Herrera calls Thursday’s battle the “game of the season.” Here’s what other participants have on their minds.

What they’re saying

United boss Mourinho on finishing above City“If we finish fifth and they finish sixth, we are above them, and it means nothing. But if they finish third and we finish fourth, they are above us but it means a lot.”

City keeper Claudio Bravo on Guardiola’s City: “Our team plays differently to the rest of the teams, but at the same time it’s not easy. We are still in a stage of construction, keep improving and keep growing day by day. I think all the experiences we have got this season are going to help us a lot to grow in the future and get closer to trophies”

Prediction

United is without two of the most influential players in the world, and on the road. Those obstacles are a lot to overcome, and United will have to overload the midfield — maybe with both Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick — and use a classic Mourinho parking of the bus to get a result. But Marcus Rashford can be a menace on the counter, and just may find his way past Bravo. City 2-1.

Allardyce: Referee Moss “wasn’t brave enough” to send off Wanyama

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Sam Allardyce is feeling strong these days (and every day).

The Crystal Palace manager is disappointed in referee Jon Moss after the head official failed to give Victor Wanyama a second yellow card following a tackle on Andros Townsend in the first half of Spurs’ 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

Sitting on yellow for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, Wanyama slid late on Townsend. The midfielder certainly made sure it looked worse than it was, but even without the tomfoolery it could’ve been a yellow.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs | Pochettino reacts ]

Moss instead gave Wanyama a talking-to, and Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino subbed the fiery midfielder at halftime. Allardyce isn’t too happy, as a dismissal may have given his side a chance at adding Spurs to its list of defeated Top Four candidates.

From the BBC:

“The second challenge was the worst. Mauricio was very clever to sub him at half time. I think the referee made the wrong decision, I don’t think he was brave enough.”

Woah. That merits a punishment for someone like Jose Mourinho, so let’s see if the FA sends a fine Allardyce’s way. To be fair to Big Sam, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see that second yellow.

Yet it wouldn’t take that much “bravery” to send Wanyama off at Selhurst Park as opposed to, say, White Hart Lane. For what it’s worth, Moss has sent off three players this season and one of them was Granit Xhaka at home for Arsenal against Swansea.

La Liga wrap: Real, Barca boast blowouts

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La Liga isn’t exactly competitive from top to bottom, and both Real Madrid and chasing Barcelona took advantage of weaker competition on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs ]


Deportivo de la Coruna 2-6 Real Madrid

When your “B Team” includes James Rodriguez and a certain Alvaro Morata, life is pretty good.

Zinedine Zidane watched as Real took another step toward a first La Liga title since 2011-12 behind a James brace and markers from Morata (below, with style), Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro, and Isco.

Barcelona 7-1 Osasuna

Barca effectively relegated Osasuna. Despite braces from Lionel Messi, Paco Alcacer, and Andre Gomes, the headlines were stolen by Javier Mascherano.

The Argentine scored his first ever Barca goal in just his 318th appearance for the club.

Elsewhere

Leganes 3-0 Las Palmas – Luciano Neves bags brace.
Valencia 2-3 Real Sociedad – Visitors build 3-0 lead.

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 34 24 6 4 101 33 68 13-3-1 11-3-3 78
 Real Madrid 33 24 6 3 90 38 52 12-4-1 12-2-2 78
 Atlético Madrid 34 20 8 6 60 25 35 12-2-3 8-6-3 68
 Sevilla 33 19 8 6 58 39 19 12-3-1 7-5-5 65
 Villarreal 34 17 9 8 49 27 22 10-3-4 7-6-4 60
 Real Sociedad 34 18 4 12 52 47 5 9-4-4 9-0-8 58
 Athletic 33 17 5 11 46 37 9 12-3-2 5-2-9 56
 Eibar 33 14 8 11 52 45 7 9-3-5 5-5-6 50
 Espanyol 34 13 11 10 45 44 1 8-5-4 5-6-6 50
 Celta Vigo 32 13 5 14 48 52 -4 9-1-6 4-4-8 44
 Alavés 33 11 11 11 32 40 -8 5-7-4 6-4-7 44
 Valencia 34 11 7 16 49 59 -10 7-4-6 4-3-10 40
 Las Palmas 34 10 9 15 52 61 -9 9-6-2 1-3-13 39
 Málaga 34 10 9 15 40 49 -9 8-2-6 2-7-9 39
 Betis 33 10 7 16 36 51 -15 6-6-5 4-1-11 37
 Deportivo 34 7 10 17 37 57 -20 6-5-6 1-5-11 31
 Leganes 34 7 9 18 30 51 -21 4-5-8 3-4-10 30
 Sporting de Gijón 34 5 9 20 37 67 -30 4-3-10 1-6-10 24
 Granada 34 4 8 22 27 72 -45 4-4-9 0-4-13 20
 Osasuna 34 3 9 22 35 82 -47 1-6-10 2-3-12 18