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.

WATCH: Neymar caught a bit offguard in first look at his wax figure

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 22:  Neymar of FC Barcelona celebrates aftr scoring Barcelona's 2nd goal during the Copa del Rey Final between Barcelona and Sevilla at Vicente Calderon Stadium    on May 22, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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I remember the first time I saw the first of many life size wax replications of my body.

That is a sentence I am unlikely to ever utter, but Neymar is a different story.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

The 24-year-old Brazilian superstar was caught on camera witnessing his wax figure for the first time, and we can watch it thanks to FC Barcelona.

Look at this guy, looking at that guy. The most interesting part for me is his fascination with how well they did with his tattoos, which of course are easier to duplicate than, you know, a face:

Morris “completely respects” Klinsmann’s keeping him off USMNT roster

SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 20:  Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris speaks on stage during We Day at KeyArena on April 20, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for We Day)
Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for We Day
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Seattle Sounders striker and USMNT star-in-waiting Jordan Morris struck a mature note when asked about his exclusion from Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for this summer’s Copa America Centenario.

Some will have considered the youngster a lock for the roster, with Morris already boasting rarefied air as a college player to become something close to a national team regular while still in school.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

But Klinsmann opted for in-form San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski, and it has become old hat for MLS players to gripe when their name is not called by the German boss (See: Benny Feilhaber, Brad Evans and Landon Donovan).

Don’t count Morris in that group. Of course the youngster doesn’t have the tenure to rally against the man who gave him his shot in the first place, but that hasn’t stopped others from acting entitled to a roster spot.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“[Klinsmann] told me not take it too hard and that there was a lot of competition,” Morris said. “I completely respect his decision. There were a lot of good forwards playing and they’re all playing really well. I wish those guys all the best. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this summer.”

Morris can still end up on the roster through injury, and it’s easy to see him as the next name up should an attack-minded player take a knock. Stefan Frei told us last week that Morris is remarkably professional, and this is no exception.

The youngster did admit increased motivation from his omission, stating that “it gives you fuel to your fire to try and get back in the mix a little bit”. We have a feeling he won’t be out of that mix for long.

Copa America announces “clear bag policy” for security purposes

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Fans go through security lines outside University of Phoenix Stadium before the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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The European Championship is not the only tournament with heightened security concerns this summer.

[ MORE: Klinsmann eyes Copa America semis ]

The Copa America Centenario will have a “clear bag policy” at the gates of its 10 American stadia, and is recommending that fans don’t bring any bags at all.

From a press release:

Bags that are not in compliance must be returned to the patron’s vehicle or checked at a designated bag check area located outside the stadium perimeter (if available).

The style and size of bags that will be allowed is described below:

  • Bags that are clear plastic, vinyl or PVC and do not exceed 12″ x 6″ x 12.”
  • One-gallon clear plastic freezer bag (Ziploc bag or similar).
  • Small clutch bags, approximately the size of a hand, with or without a handle or strap, may be carried into the stadium along with one of the clear bag options.

USMNT-Ecuador preview: Lineup will give clues to Klinsmann’s intent

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 25:  Clint Dempsey #2 of the United States slides past Segundo Castillo #14 of Ecuador in an international freindly match at the Raymond James Stadium on March 25, 2007 in Tampa, Florida. USA defeated Equador 3-1. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images
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Wednesday’s friendly could be a Copa America quarterfinal preview, as Ecuador and the United States tangle in Texas.

The Yanks’ goal of a deep tournament run could go through La Tricolor if one wins its group while the other finishes second. That would require either the U.S. topping Colombia or Ecuador finding a way over Brazil.

[ MORE: Klinsmann eyes Copa America semis ]

The two sides last met in Oct. 2014, with Mix Diskerud and Enner Valencia trading goals in New Jersey. The U.S. and Ecuador have an even 2-2-2 record all-time.

Ecuador has wins over Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay in the last year, but went winless in a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Espanyol striker Felipe Caicedo has been the side’s most dangerous attacker in recent action, scoring in four of six, while West Ham’s Enner Valencia join Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and Swansea City’s Jefferson Montero as pivotal members of the attack. FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo is also on the roster.

La Tricolor has four defenders in camp with 36 or more caps, including Walter Ayovi (111). The Monterrey back will become the second most capped Ecuadorian with his next appearance for the national team.

[ MORE: Eyeing the USMNT’s friendlies ]

As for the United States, there are a number of directions Klinsmann can go to test his Best XI ahead of June’s tournament. And he’s not exactly tipping his hand, but did mention players in a Q&A with the US Soccer web site:

“We are excited about John Brooks proving now that he matured, that be became stronger. Christian Pulisic is coming through the Dortmund system in a Champions League team and breaking through, so we want him to confirm that and we give him all the help to do that. Darlington Nagbe, who became part of the National Team after waiting so many years for that opportunity. Bobby Wood, who broke out last year. DeAndre Yedlin who became a consistent starter in the Premier League, and so on and so on.”

Many eyes will be on Wood, who showed that rare quality of an American striker in form for both club and country with a strong performance against Puerto Rico. He’s the sort of player who could shake up Klinsmann’s plans in both selection and formation.

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29: Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States Men's National Team celebrates his first half goal against Guatemala with Steve Birnbaum #21 of the United States Men's National Team during the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Will Matt Besler or Steve Birnbaum get a look alongside John Brooks, as Geoff Cameron is widely considered to be the best center back in the bunch? Cameron/Brooks seems predestined given their seasons abroad.

Is Clint Dempsey seen as a difference maker for Klinsmann, especially now that Jozy Altidore is out, or will he truly have to compete for his place? The 33-year-old Texan rang up 9 goals for the U.S. last year, but has just two goals in 10 MLS matches for the struggling Sounders.

And how far advanced with Michael Bradley be? Jermaine Jones? Honestly, we’re nearly as excited for the lineup card as the match itself.

Those are answers we may get in the next two friendlies, before the real arrows start flying in the Copa America opener against Colombia on June 3. All we’ll say for Wednesday is our expectations are not a clean sheet for either side.