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.

VIDEO: Sporting KC’s Medranda scores wonder goal in win over Vancouver

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Sporting KC showed again on Friday night why they’re the rightful leaders at the top of the Western Conference, pulling four points ahead of the LA Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps with a dominating 6-0 win over the Whitecaps at home.

Scottish forward Johnny Russell bagged a hat-trick in the game, all by the 48th minute, but the highlight of the night came off the foot of 24-year-old Jimmy Medranda. The Colombian scored an absolute worldie from a ridiculous angle, taking the space given to him outside the top-left corner of the box and sailing it over the head of Vancouver goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic and into the back of the net.

It was, of course, massively beneficial to Sporting KC that Vancouver went two men down in the 40th minute after a huge skirmish that saw Yordy Reyna and Efrain Juarez both sent off. Reyna earned his marching orders for throwing Russell to the ground, while Juarez reportedly used unacceptable language.

Still, KC was already up 3-0 when the incident occurred, and credit must go to teams that take advantage of what has been handed to them. Sporting KC certainly did that as Russell becomes the first Scotsman to score an MLS hat-trick since Colorado’s John Spencer in 2001, and Medranda’s wonder goal sealed the deal past the half-hour mark.

Jurgen Klopp already wants a piece of Man City next season

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Manchester City may have run away with the Premier League title this year, but Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can’t wait for a clean slate to try and challenge City’s title defense next season.

The Reds are into the Champions League semifinals and also looking to finish the Premier League season strong in a battle for positioning in the top four, but when asked about next year, Klopp was giddy.

“Of course I don’t fear the challenge,” Klopp said in his prematch press conference ahead of Liverpool’s Premier League visit to West Brom on Saturday morning.

The German made it clear he wants a piece of Manchester City next season. “This year, if City plays a normal season – which they didn’t do – then it would have been really close until the end because we are now all close together.”

“United is four points ahead [of Liverpool], Tottenham is two points behind. It’s a real fight for these positions. All big six pretty much delivered this year but City delivered the best. We will see. It’s difficult to deal with success as it is difficult to deal with other things in football but I’m pretty sure they will be strong again.”

Liverpool is one of only two teams to beat City in league play this year, with Manchester United being the other. Klopp and company torched the City back line in a wild 4-3 victory that ended City’s 22-match unbeaten run. Ultimately, though, Klopp knows they have to look at the entire season as a whole to best the defending champs next year, not just their matches against each other.

“It’s not important how good City will be, it’s about how we can get all the other points, plus the points we got so far again,” he said. “That’s the job to do. That is why it is always possible that it is closer. But are they able to dominate? They don’t have a limit to spending and all that stuff so I don’t know.”

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.