MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Thursday’s second leg against the LA Galaxy

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Ahead of Thursday’s second-leg of this Western Conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about Jason Kreis’ Real Salt Lake (Thursday’s match kicks off at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2):

  • Ned Grabavoy out; a big blow for RSL

A hamstring strain will keep veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy out Thursday; RSL manager Jason Kreis confirmed so to media on Wednesday.

He collected the injury during the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 first-leg loss at the StubHub Center outside Los Angeles.

It’s a big loss in that Grabavoy was reborn in 2013. After a few years of “just OK” around Rio Tinto Stadium, Grabavoy was a central element thanks to sharp form from the first 2013 kick. He eventually posted career highs in starts (29), goals (5) and assists (5).

Second-year man Sebastian Velasquez seems the most likely candidate to replace Grabavoy. He is probably more mobile and energetic than Grabavoy (not to mention 8 years younger). But if you don’t think MLS playoff know-how is important, see “Houston Dynamo upset New York.”

Then again, RSL is likely to return to its 4-4-2, which could mean re-introducing Robbie Findley into the starting 11 alongside striker Alvaro Saborio. (Or even Joao Plata if he is healthy enough following a recent injury.)

  • Formation shift for RSL

Remember when Jason Kreis was a 4-4-2 guy through-and-through? That diamond midfield was RSL’s signature.

Kreis, still young at age 40 but with quite a few years at this managerial thing now, having assumed his current post at age 34, has matured. He now has the confidence to put something different on the field tactically.

And he has the confidence the say hold up his hand and say “My bad … that didn’t work.”

The set-up against Los Angeles for last weekend’s first leg was a 4-2-3-1, with   Yordany Alvarez sitting alongside longtime Rio Tinto holding midfield fixture Kyle Beckerman. Alvaro Saborio was the lone striker, supported by Javier Morales centrally, Grabavoy on the right and Luis Gil on the left.

Safe to say, we won’t see that again. Not tonight at least.

It was mostly a way to deal with the Galaxy’s dangerous counter-attack. Only, it didn’t work out at all, confusing Beckerman when in possession and certainly in the defensive assignments, too.

The result was more or less to RSL’s liking. A draw would have been better (or a win, of course). But going back home trailing by one goal isn’t the worst thing ever. Still, the Galaxy created plenty of chances, often moving through RSL’s defensive shape with too much ease.

(MORE: Real Salt Lake-LA Galaxy second leg preview)

  • RSL center backs had better be on it

One of the lesser told narratives this year around MLS has been the rise lately of Chris Schuler as Nat Borchers’ partner in the middle of the defense. He’s certainly big enough (6-4) – they sure needed those long, stretchy legs of his a couple of times on Sunday – and physical enough, but also technical enough.

And he had better be good enough tonight.

The movement of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane troubled RSL’s entire back line Sunday, but the central areas (along with Real Salt Lake’s two holding midfielders) will be particularly vulnerable to their pair’s movement, which is so quick and instinctive at the instant the Galaxy win the ball.

If Schuler and Borchers cannot communicate with each other with midfielders in tracking those feints, curling runs and big sprints from the Galaxy’s pair of star attackers, the one-goal deficit could expand in a hurry.

(MORE: What we learned from LA Galaxy-RSL first leg)

  • In praise of the old faithfuls … like Nick Rimando

We all like to look for the next new thing … the new restaurant or the new show on TV or whatever. But it’s always important to take a step back and appreciate the old stand-byes, too, right?

That’s Nick Rimando. His numbers remain strong, he’s a strong and commanding leader in the back and the 34-year-old can still deliver the big, game-changing save.

Rimando been so good for so long that we probably take the man for granted. Don’t forget, Rimando’s first starting assignment in MLS was 14 years ago with some good Miami Fusion teams. A lot of RSL holdovers have an MLS Cup medal from that 2009 title claimed over the LA Galaxy in Seattle. Rimando also has one from 2004, when he started for DC United.

(FYI, three current MLS managers started on that 2004 D.C. United side: Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke and Ben Olsen.)

  • Yellow card warning

Kyle Beckerman is the only RSL man on yellow card warning. “Only” man is a bit mis-leading. Beyond Rimando and Borchers, Beckerman is probably the most important RSL figure, not just for all the midfield tackling and calm possession, but for the leadership and composure.

The U.S. international will miss the next playoff match if he receives another booking.

(MORE: MLS playoff scheduling, timing and pace make no sense)

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.

Recently retired Ryan Mason receives standing ovation at Hull match

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Midfielder Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after suffering a fractured skull over a year ago, received a warm ovation at KCOM Stadium before Hull City’s match on Friday against Sheffield United.

Mason, just 26 years old, announced his retirement last week on the advice of medical professionals after over a year of rehabilitation from his injury in an attempt to return to playing. The Tottenham youth product was injured in an aerial clash with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill in January of 2017, and did not return to action.

“Ryan has sought the guidance of numerous world-renowned neurologists and neuro surgeons who have all advised that a return to competitive football is not advised,” Hull City said in a release after Mason’s retirement was announced. “Ryan would like to put on record his thanks to all at the club who have aided his recovery to this point and he his is indebted to them for their support and compassion over the past 12 months.”

Before Hull City’s match against Sheffield, an important one with Hull battling relegation, Mason was brought out on the pitch and received a warm reception from the patchy crowd.

As the club did after his injury, they put a message on the screen with the Twitter hashtag #OneRyanMason.

Mason picked up his first job since retirement over the weekend, commentating on Sky Sports in studio for a Championship match between Aston Villa and Preston North End, which ended in a 1-1 draw. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind – it’s been crazy. I’ve had a lot of messages and it’s been a lot to take in,” Mason said on the broadcast. “I’ve been quite positive throughout and I’m looking to the next chapter now.”It’s difficult [to accept]. For the last year I’ve been working as hard as I can to get back on a football pitch. But when you’re long-term health comes into it then it’s a lot easier. There is more to life than football.

Wigan boss defends fans after pitch-storming

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Wigan Athletic boss Paul Cook is defending his supporters following a memorable upset of Manchester City in the FA Cup.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

Latics fans stormed the pitch at the DW Stadium, a celebratory but dangerous scene which included “disturbances” between supporters of both clubs and a confronration between fans and Sergio Aguero.

But it takes just a look at the above photo to see both sides of the issues, as the photographer at right catches fans and players celebrating together… while Aguero rages behind him.

From Sky Sports:

“You’ve got to remember the pure emotions of the night for Wigan fans,” he said.

“They didn’t really turn up to see us win – that’s the truth of it. I’ve got a picture of my son in the directors’ box – he’s only 12 – with his head in his hands looking at the floor because he couldn’t watch.

“We certainly don’t want to see fans engaging with players. The players’ protection is absolutely paramount. But also the supporters enjoying that moment is a good thing for me.”

There is, also, this photo to show the other side of the scenario. Ultimately in our era, this type should sadly be prevented to defy the potential for the latter. That’s sad, but it’s a litigious world.

Dan Burn of Wigan Athletic celebrates. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Premier League Preview: Watford vs. Everton

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  • Watford has two wins in last 14 PL matches
  • Toffees won 3-2 at Goodison on Nov. 5
  • Watford leads all-time 19W-3D-3L

Two top half hopefuls meet at Vicarage Road in a reprise of an early season thriller when Watford hosts Everton on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Everton is in a battle for seventh with Burnley and Leicester City, and could finish the weekend there with a win and help.

Watford has to chance to finish in the top half. It’d be there already had it not coughed up a 2-0 lead to then-caretaker manager David Unsworth‘s Everton in a 3-2 loss on Nov. 5.

What they’re saying

Watford’s Jose Holebas on the match“We have to do something in this game. When we played there, we were 2-0 up and gave the game away in that way – it is unacceptable for me. I was a little bit emotional because I know that this season we have lost some points [from winning positions].”

Everton’s Sam Allardyce on his style critics“The type of football we’ve produced isn’t rubbish, we’ve produced proper football in terms of what we’ve tried to achieve. The past reputation is not the reality if you ask the players, so you look at the football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

Prediction