Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake

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.

Klopp says Sturridge “good” after match return; Happy at ticket resolution

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool signals during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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Fans protested their ticket prices, and Liverpool’s owners listened.

Reds manager Jurgen Klopp isn’t surprised by this, and the German backed his bosses and gave an injury update as part of his prematch press conference on Friday.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play MLS All Stars in San Jose ]

Liverpool heads to Aston Villa on Sunday, and Klopp is cautiously optimistic about his stars after Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Philippe Coutinho played big roles in the Reds’ midweek FA Cup loss to West Ham.

Klopp says Origi and Coutinho need their minutes managed, but said Sturridge feels good after normal recovery from his 70-minute return against the Irons. The English striker was Liverpool’s star in the match, and looked a cut above the Reds’ recent strike options.

As for the ticket price issue, Klopp beamed with pride over the Liverpool decision.

From the BBC:

“I think the world of football it is not easy when you are the owner of a club to prove you are interested in the club,” said Klopp.

“I have been here four-and-a-half months and I know the owners as people. They really care about the club and the interests of supporters. Hopefully it is understood for what it is: proof of their real interest in this club and all the things around this club.”

No surprise that Klopp backed the men who pay his deal, but it’d be easy enough for him to ignore the issue (though that’s hardly in his DNA).

As for Sturridge, Liverpool’s in for some goals if Tuesday is any indication.

VIDEO: T&T women’s team gives away one of the most bizarre PKs

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Play until you hear the referee’s whistle. In theory, so simple. In practice, it only takes a single second of concentration lapse to become an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

Such is life for Karyn Forbes, member of the Trinidad and Tobago women’s national soccer team. In the above video, you’ll observe Forbes, a 24-year-old midfielder, giving away perhaps the most bizarre penalty kick you’ll ever see. You’ll have to watch for yourself to believe it.

[ MORE: USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with 5-0 victory ]

Unfortunately for Forbes, though the whole of the ball might have crossed the whole of the end line, the referee did not blow her whistle… not until Forbes picked the ball up with her hands and carried it to her goalkeeper.

Bundesliga to go ahead with video replay tests over two years

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, file photo, a Hawk-Eye camera is set up at Toyota stadium in Toyota. For the first time at a World Cup, technology will be used to determine whether a ball crosses the goal line during matches at the upcoming tournament in Brazil. With vanishing spray also being used to prevent encroachment by defenders making up a wall during free kicks, officials at the highest level of the world’s most popular sport are finally getting some assistance. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama
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BERLIN (AP) The German Football League (DFL) has given the go-ahead for the possible testing of video replays in the Bundesliga over a two-year pilot phase.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

The DFL says it will be lodging an application with FIFA to take part if the pilot phase is approved by the International Football Association Board at its next annual general meeting on March 5.

The DFL says video replays could be used by a “team of impartial match officials for the purpose of avoiding any evidently incorrect decisions” and that the pilot phase would be preceded by “intensive preparations.”

[ MORE: 17-year-old American MF Pulisic gets Bundesliga debut for Dortmund ]

These would include the settlement of costs among FIFA, the IFAB, the DFL and German football federation, as well as training for the candidates.

West Ham extend Payet’s contract in “enormous show of faith”

West Ham’s Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring while soap bubbles are blown during the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham and Newcastle at Boleyn Ground in London, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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West Ham United hope Dimitri Payet is going absolutely nowhere after the club announced on Thursday the 28-year-old Frenchman has signed a contract extension through the summer of 2021.

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Payet’s current contract was scheduled to keep him at the Premier League club through the summer of 2020, but a series of standout performances (6 goals, 4 assists so far this season, mostly during the season’s opening three months) and rumors of interest from “bigger” clubs meant tacking on another year — and plenty more cash — was the best way to keep Payet in east London for the foreseeable future. The club confirmed earlier this week that negotiations over an extension were underway.

“He’s the best player I’ve signed in 25 years,” said West Ham co-owner David Sullivan. “He’s a [$43 million] player. He’s a supreme footballer. He makes every player in our side play better. On his day, he’s world class, he’s unstoppable.”

Payet, who’s been at West Ham just eight months after signing last summer, could still depart in the summer should he finish the current season strong and/or show up and show out at the European Championship, which kicks off in June. In that event, West Ham would now bag a much heftier transfer fee than they would have done prior to the extension.