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.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-1 New England Revolution (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): For nearly 75 minutes, NYCFC couldn’t muster up any chances in the attacking third, but thankfully their captain did what he does best. David Villa scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday night to pull out a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution, but it was rookie Jonathan Lewis that notched the winner. The visitors took the lead 20 minutes prior after Sean Johnson spilled a shot in front of his own goal, allowing Teal Bunbury to pounce on the rebound. NYCFC now moves to within four points of Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC with nine matches remaining in the regular season.

Three four moments that mattered

16′ — Harrison breaks ankles, but Villa can’t finish — This might be the only time all see you’ll see David Villa miss a chance like this…

38′ — Johnson gets a finger tip to Rowe’s blast — Sean Johnson had no work to do in the first half, at least until Kelyn Rowe decided to rip a shot from distance just before halftime.

57′ — Johnson’s error grants Bunbury, Revs the lead — Look away, NYCFC fans.

77′ — Villa find the back of the net — When you need a goal, who you gonna call? That’s right. David Villa. The NYCFC captain is now up to 19 this season.

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Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Teal Bunbury (57′), David Villa (77′), Jonathan Lewis (90+4′)

Honoring victims of attacks, Barcelona wins league opener

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Wearing shirts honoring victims of the recent attacks in Spain, Barcelona opened its Spanish league season with a comfortable 2-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Neymar double helps PSG cruise past Toulouse ]

Players had the word “Barcelona” instead of their names on the back of their shirts, and the Catalan hashtag “TOTSSOMBARCELONA” (We are all Barcelona) was on display around the Camp Nou stadium. The message was also shown on the stadium’s large screens, as well as on many banners carried by fans.

An emotional minute’s silence was held before the game as the music of Catalan cellist Pau Casals played in the background.

Before the minute was up, the more than 55,000 fans at the stadium broke into a round of applause and began chanting “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid), a chant which has become a symbol of people’s reactions to the attacks that killed 14 people and injured more than 120 in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.

Extra security was implemented in and around Camp Nou.

There was a minute’s silence before every Spanish league match this weekend.

Without Neymar and the injured Luis Suarez, Barcelona got off to a winning start in the league after consecutive losses to rival Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

It scored two goals three minutes apart near the end of the first half – an own-goal by Betis defender Alin Tosca and a close-range shot by Sergi Roberto. Both goals came after plays started by Gerard Deulofeu, one of the players expected to try to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

“We lost depth with Neymar’s departure and we have to find a way to overcome that,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Lionel Messi looked lively but wasn’t able to score his 350th goal in La Liga. He came close, though, being denied by the woodwork three different times.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Brighton breaks club record with signing of winger Jose Izquierdo

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Brighton hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start in its debut season in the Premier League, but a key reinforcement is on the way.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Spurs at Wembley behind Alonso’s brace ]

After starting the 2017/18 campaign with back-to-back defeats, the Seagulls announced on Sunday the signing of Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge in Belgium for a record fee.

The 25-year-old spent three seasons in Belgium’s top flight and totaled 38 goals across all competitions for Brugge, prior to making the move to England.

Additionally, Izquierdo has worked his way into the Colombia squad as of late, and scored his first international goal for his country in June 2017 in a friendly against Cameroon.

MLS Follow Live — NYCFC hosts Revs, Minnesota meets Sounders

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Only two matches will feature on the MLS docket Sunday evening, but luckily two of the league’s most exciting teams will take to the pitch.

[ MORE: Toronto tops Fire as East leaders reach 50 points on season ]

First, New York City FC will attempt to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder when they host Kei Kamara and the New England Revolution.

In the night cap, the Seattle Sounders look to extend their unbeaten streak to nine matches when they welcome newcomers Minnesota United to CenturyLink Field.

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Here’s the schedule and kick-off times for Sunday’s two MLS fixtures.

New York City FC vs. New England Revolution — 6 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 10 p.m. ET