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)

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.