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.

Premier League preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester United

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Watford at The King Power Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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  • Leicester sits atop the Premier League table with 28 points
  •  Manchester United has conceded just once in their last 7 league games
  • Leicester’s Premier League games have produced 48 goals, the most in the league

Yes, this is #1 vs #2. No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

And yet somehow, that magnificent lede has been buried thanks to one Jamie Vardy.

The 28-year-old can break Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record of 10 straight games with a goal as Leicester City hosts Van Nistelrooy’s former team Manchester United at King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

The Foxes are firmly atop the Premier League table, but many question whether they can hang onto that, and even others remain skeptical whether they can truly challenge for a top four spot this season. Saturday’s game will be a true test of their ability to remain in the hunt for the long haul, as the Red Devils are just a point off the top and, while it hasn’t been pretty at times this year, van Gaal’s men have done enough to pick up results in key situations.

On the other end, Manchester United has conceded just one goal in its last five league matches, and has not allowed a goal from open play since the Arsenal drubbing in early October. Can Vardy find space in the tight Red Devils’ back line?

Both teams are relatively healthy coming into this matchup. Leicester is only missing long-term absentee Matty Jones, while Manchester United is a little more banged up with Ander Herrera, Phil Jones, and Michael Carrick likely out alongside Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal on Leicester City’s chances at title“Normally these kind of clubs can compete for long time, then at the end it becomes more difficult. But in England because of the quality of the teams, because every team has the money to buy players – and they have bought players – the difference in the Premier League between the clubs is not so high.”

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri on the Foxes’ aim“The league is very strange and open but our goal is 40 points. Our goal at the moment is this but let me see the next two months and then maybe I change the goal. Like everybody else I am also curious in these days to watch my team, and to see how we respond in these big matches.”


Manchester United’s results have been there, and they’ve created a ton of chances. On the flip side, Leicester’s improved defensive organization is solid enough to hold off the Red Devils. This one ends 1-1, and there is no change at the top. Vardy gets the Foxes’ goal, because who doesn’t like fun things?

Jurgen Klopp says Daniel Sturridge must learn how to manage pain

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  The injured  Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool watches from the stands  during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and Rubin Kazan at Anfield on October 22, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool is rising up the table under Jurgen Klopp, and while the squad is getting healthier and healthier as opposed to when Klopp first took over, one man who remains on the sidelines is Daniel Sturridge.

An unused substitute in Liverpool’s last two games after missing a month due to injury, Daniel Sturridge has suffered yet another setback to his foot, Klopp confirmed from Melwood training ground today.

[ RELATED: Klopp confirms Sturridge to remain out with another injury setback ]

But while Klopp is being patient with his oft-injured striker, he believes Sturridge can do better to get himself back on the field.

“Everyone wants him back on the pitch but we all have to learn,” Klopp said. “The situation is Daniel was very often injured in the last few months, and maybe years, so it is normal when you get back in training usually it is not the quality, but you need training. Your body has to learn to adapt to new intensities of training and in this time you have to learn what is serious pain and what is only pain.”

[ MORE: Liverpool moving up Premier League power rankings ]

Due to the heavy amount of injuries, Sturridge has made just three appearances this season, and 15 total in the 2015 calendar year.

It’s clear the impact Sturridge can have for this Liverpool squad, as despite just his three appearances, he has two goals, both coming in the 3-2 win over Aston Villa. The 26-year-old is an electric player, but the club needs to get him back on the field to reap the benefits. Sturridge would complete the striker comeback for Klopp, who arrived to helm the Reds with Sturridge, Christian Benteke, and Danny Ings all sidelined with injuries. Ings is out for the season with an ACL injury and will not return, but Benteke is back alongside Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino who are in good form.

2015-16 Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. IV: Foxes on top of the world

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City gestures to the fans during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle and Leicester City at St James Park on November 21, 2015 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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The last time we visited the world of Power Rankings, the two North London rivals held the top two slots.

A month later, with the North London derby having ended in a 1-1 draw, it seems there are plenty of good teams in the Premier League, but are there any great ones? We have to give the #1 spot to someone, but it doesn’t feel like any of the regulars want it. The top five teams are all within four points. In the last month, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Southampton all lost, and Manchester United barely squeaked by Watford.

[ Archive: Premier League Power Rankings ]

So where does that leave us? You bet. Soak it in Foxes, the Premier League table isn’t all you’re on top of. Are they strong enough to remain there? Well, that’s not what we’re here to debate. With Spurs refusing to lose as well, the Premier League giants are looking up at two unusual clubs in front.

source: 1 UP 4 Leicester City: Jamie Vardy can do no wrong. He has a chance to insert himself into Premier League lore, and the Foxes are forcing people to consider them as shocking Champions League contenders. With 4 in a row and 5 wins in 6, their body of work, right now, is the best in the League.
source: 2 Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs look a much improved team at the back, which was their weakness last year. They haven’t lost in Premier League play since opening day, and with three wins in their last four, they look to be turning one point into three points, an important key to challenging for the title.
source: 3 DOWN 2 Arsenal: Every time it appears the Gunners have it figured out, they go and lose to someone like West Brom. It’s a small blow, but it seems that’s all – even with all the injuries – as they dominated that game and appeared slightly unlucky. They’re still a title contender, which is a testament to Arsene Wenger.
source: 4 UP 2 Manchester United: It hasn’t always been pretty for the Red Devils, such as their late win over Watford, but they’re just a point off the top and have a relatively healthy squad, which is a huge advantage given where some of the other teams stand.
source: 5 UP 3 Liverpool: They have work to do, but the Reds appear to be getting much healthier, and Jurgen Klopp has added a fire to this team not seen in a while. 8 points back from the top, but a soft schedule could set up a massive showdown with Leicester on Boxing Day.
source: 6 DOWN 3 Manchester City: As opposed to Arsenal, who is still producing results, Manuel Pellegrini seems to be struggling to cope with the injuries. One point in their last two, they can’t let the demolition by Liverpool become something larger.
source: 7 DOWN 2 Southampton: A loss at home to Stoke City last time out is a huge blow. With Liverpool and Everton charging, and stuck in a logjam in the table (2 points separate places 6-11), they need to reassert themselves to remain challengers for a Europa League place.
source: 8 UP 1 Everton: The Toffees have rebounded nicely since a pair of losses to top teams, putting up 11 goals in their last three. Can they take advantage of a soft schedule through into the New Year, and put themselves in a position to challenge at the top? Questions of their earlier struggles remain.
source: 9 UP 6 Stoke City: The Potters are sneakily returning to the top half of the table. A 2-0 loss to Watford the only blemish of the last 6 weeks, and a 1-0 win over Chelsea has positioned them well.
source: 10 UP 3 Crystal Palace: Still have no idea what this team is. Just look at their last two results: a win over Liverpool, followed by a loss to Sunderland. Huh?
source: 11 DOWN 4 West Ham: We knew the Dimitri Payet signing was huge, but it’s never more evident than now. They have to prove they can play without him, as he’ll be out for three months, but at the moment things look dire.
source: 12 UP 2 Chelsea: This still isn’t where the Blues want to be, and they probably won’t get there this season with the hole too big, but things appear to be steadying, albeit slowly. Still, there’s a long way to go to eliminate the embarrassing results, and they remain in the Champions League hunt.
source: 13 West Bromwich Albion: Another team that’s hard to figure out, and that’s probably going to be the case all year. Nevertheless, they’ve won a few games they shouldn’t, and have taken care of the teams they should. The Baggies look to be strong enough to avoid the relegation conversation.
source: 14 DOWN 4 Watford: This is the Watford we all expect. They put up a fight against both Manchester United and Leicester, but a tough November turns a bit nicer until a holiday season gauntlet. Can they pick up vital points the next few weeks?
source: 15 DOWN 4 Swansea City: The true relegation battle seems to be forming here. The Swans have just one win since Aug 30, over lowly Aston Villa. With Liverpool, Leicester, and Man City all up next, alarm bells are starting to go off in Wales.

16 Newcastle United: They needed a win over Bournemouth and they got it, but much more is required to keep them up.
17 UP 1 Norwich City: October hit the Canaries hard, but a win over Swansea got them some space above the relegation zone. The schedule looks tough in December. If they can steal one or two, they would do themselves a world of good.
source: 18 Bournemouth: You have to feel for the Cherries, who’ve been battered by injuries to key players like Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel and Callum WilsonThat’s what we wrote last time. Nothing much has change. Tough season is ahead.
source: 19 UP 1 Sunderland: They’re not out of the relegation zone yet, but a win over Crystal Palace was huge.
source: 20 DOWN 1 Aston Villa: Remi Garde knew this would be a tough job. Yea, it is.

MLS preview: MLS Cup places to be booked on Sunday

Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers FC
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The last team to overcome a two-goal deficit in the second leg of a two-leg MLS Cup Playoffs tie was the 2004 Kansas City Wizards. On Sunday, two conference finals favorites — higher seeds, at least — will take their shot at rewriting the above piece of history in their bids to qualify for MLS Cup 2015.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, each the top seed in their respective conference and one-two finishers, respectively, for the Supporters’ Shield, have 90 minutes to overcome two very difference two-goal deficits against the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC.

Note: A player who accumulates his second yellow card (of the MLS Cup Playoffs) in the second leg of the Conference Championship series IS ELIGIBLE to play in MLS Cup, as playoff yellow card accumulation resets following the Conference Championships. (A red card, whether a straight red or two yellows, in the second leg still equals a suspension for MLS Cup.)

FC Dallas 1-3 Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

While history isn’t on the side of teams attempting to come back from two goals down in the second leg, FCD have one thing going for them: an away from the first leg — of course, they would have been better served to have not given away a third goal in the game’s dying minutes and headed home slight favorites with an away goal and a one-goal deficit. As things stand, though, 2-0 puts FCD through to MLS Cup — which they would host against Columbus Crew SC and play away to New York Red Bulls.

A big problem for FCD in the first leg was how much time Portland’s full backs, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana, spent overlapping into FCD’s defensive half. Because of this, FCD’s rabid wingers, most notably Fabian Castillo, were limited in their effect on the counter after being forced to drop so deep to defend. With Portland defending a two-goal lead on Sunday, look for Powell and Villafana to sit back quite a bit more, thus putting the keys to FCD’s season into the hands of Castillo and Mauro Diaz. The great thing about Diaz, if you’re an FCD supporter, is that he’s brilliant enough to singlehandedly pick teams apart whether they’re stretched all over the field or bunkered deep.

Regular season: POR 3-1 FCD (4/4); FCD 4-1 POR (7/25)
Injuries: FCD — OUT: Rolando Escobar (facial fracture) | POR — OUT: Ben Zemanski (knee)

New York Red Bulls 0-2 Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

If FCD are standing on tenuous ground, the New York Red Bulls are running on quicksand. No away goal in the first leg, coupled with Kei Kamara‘s late goal to make it 2-0, means anything but a perfect performance on Sunday, and they’re out. 2-0 send the series to extra time, but here’s where it gets supremely tricky for the Red Bulls: a single Crew SC goal in the second leg means RBNY need four goals to advance. That would seem quite unlikely.

For the entirety of the 2015 season, RBNY’s greatest strength was their spine: Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle at center back, and Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan in midfield. In the first leg, the midfield trio had its worst game of the season — completely overwhelmed with pressure and unable to press high themselves — which put the center of defense — already down Perrinelle to a season-ending knee injury — under tons of pressure. From the moment Justin Meram hit the back of the net, eight seconds into the game, RBNY’s entire gameplan was out the window — they were forced to chase a goal they didn’t really want, and in turn gave up a second late on. They’ll need to start better in the second leg, set their high line of pressing much more quickly when turning the ball over, and attack the wings to limit the attacking impact of full backs Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, who absolutely destroyed them in the first leg.

Regular season: CLB 1-2 RBNY (3/28); CLB 2-1 RBNY (7/4); RBNY 2-1 CLB (10/3)
Injuries: RBNY — OUT: Damien Perrinelle (knee), Chris Duval (broken leg) | CLB — OUT: Kristinn Steindorsson (knee)