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)

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s win over Costa Rica

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For the first time since 2013, the USMNT will have the opportunity to lay it all on the line in an attempt to hoist the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

[ MORE: Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica in Gold Cup semis ]

This summer’s competition has been a unique one for manager Bruce Arena and his side, with a large host of players seeing time in the tournament as the second-term boss looks to establish his roster heading into next summer’s World Cup.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s semifinal victory ]

Arena and Co. made its move into the Gold Cup final on Saturday night after disposing of Costa Rica behind a pair of second-half finishes from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey.

The U.S. will now move on to face either Mexico or Jamaica in Wednesday night’s finale, but first, here’s a look at three takeaways from the Stars and Stripes’ victory on Saturday.

Dempsey continues as lead contributor in U.S. attack

Outside of Christian Pulisic, who wasn’t selected for this month’s Gold Cup, there isn’t a more consistent and threatening goalscorer than Clint Dempsey for the USMNT.

The Seattle Sounders veteran was directly involved in both goals last night, with the second — a finish of his own — putting Dempsey on level terms as U.S. Soccer’s all-time leading scorer with Landon Donovan.

Albeit at 34 years of age and likely on the back nine of his career, Dempsey has proven time and time again just how critical his usage and production can be for the Stars and Stripes. Even if Dempsey doesn’t see as much time moving forward with the likes of Pulisic earning starting minutes, the Texas-native is more than deserving of a rotational role within the squad.

Altidore still proving his worth up front

Jozy Altidore opened the scoring for the U.S. on Saturday night, and it was his brilliant, probing run through the Costa Rica backline that freed himself up for Dempsey to pick out his long-time compatriot inside the Ticos area.

The Toronto FC striker has always been scrutinizes on the international level, despite being one of the national team’s go-to threats in the attacking third.

Although Jordan Morris and Dom Dwyer each displayed well during the group stage of the competition, Altidore is the veteran of the group. He’s played at two World Cups and is currently the team’s second active leading scorer all-time, only trailing Dempsey.

Mexico may be only true threat to USMNT

Assuming Mexico is able to dispatch of Jamaica on Sunday and reach another Gold Cup final, it’s difficult to imagine a situation more perfect than a USA-Mexico conclusion. Forget the storied rivalry for a second and consider what this tournament means to both sides.

Yes, there’s a trophy on the line. However, this edition of the Gold Cup is way more important to both programs’ long-term growth, most notably next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

Mexico didn’t bring any of its regulars to this tournament, after many had played the month prior at the FIFA Confederations Cup, but even El Tri’s backups have held up well against their CONCACAF competition.

El Tri has allowed just one goal in four matches thus far, and Jamaica’s attack hasn’t exactly proven to be an offensive juggernaut, so it shouldn’t come as a shock if Mexico does set up a date with the U.S.

Saturday MLS roundup: Revs outlast Galaxy in wild affair and more

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While the U.S. Men’s National Team took center stage in their CONCACAF Gold Cup win on Saturday night, there was still a full MLS docket as well.

[ MORE: Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica, into Gold Cup final ]

David Villa and NYCFC kicked off a busy day of MLS action with a vital 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire, closing the gap between the two sides near the top of the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, East leaders Toronto FC earned a 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids at BMO Field.

Minnesota United’s first-year struggles continued on the afternoon after suffering a 3-0 defeat at home against the New York Red Bulls, who have now scored eight goals in their last two outings.

The day’s most exciting match came at Gillette Stadium though, as the New England Revolution narrowly defeated the LA Galaxy, 4-3, behind a pair of second-half finishes from Teal Bunbury.

Here’s a full look back at Saturday’s MLS scoreboard.

New York City FC 2-1 Chicago Fire (RECAP)
Minnesota United 0-3 New York Red Bulls
D.C. United 1-3 Houston Dynamo
Toronto FC 1-1 Colorado Rapids
Columbus Crew 1-0 Philadelphia Union
Montreal Impact 1-2 FC Dallas
New England Revolution 4-3 LA Galaxy
Real Salt Lake 1-1 Sporting KC

Player ratings from USMNT’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica

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The U.S. national team is headed to the final of the 2017 Gold Cup after knocking off Costa Rica 2-0 on Saturday.

Who stood out for all the right — and wrong — reasons, as Bruce Arena’s side prepares to face either Mexico or Jamaica in Wednesday’s final?

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

GK — Tim Howard: 7 — Forced to make two saves, the first of which was a hero’s intervention with Marco Ureña racing in one on one. The second came not long before the opening goal, and he did well to spill it no more than a foot or two in front of him. Howard looks at the top of his game, again.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 6.5 — For the first time all tournament, he got forward with regularity and served the ball into the box. With the entire flank open ahead of him, Villafaña had to fill the void of width. Still, not a ton of quality. Fortunately, he was tested very little in open space.

CB — Matt Besler: 7.5 — Best of the defensive unit, perhaps so much so he’s vaulted himself back into the four-man rotation for the World Cup.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 6 — Besler stood out as the star, hardly putting a foot wrong all night, thus overshadowing Gonzalez for the most part. Costa Rica opted to build with the ball on the ground, thus negating Gonzalez’s greatest strength, his aerial presence. That said, he wasn’t remotely exposed in the weakest facet of his game, either.

RB — Graham Zusi: 6 — Paul Arriola’s presence ahead of him was immeasurably important. I’m still bullish on Zusi as a right back, with the necessary shading of defensive help. Before you lose your mind, consider the italicized part.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 7 — Not his most influential game, but it didn’t need to be. With Kellyn Acosta doing much of the heavy lifting, in terms of covering acreage, Bradley played the part of disciplined organizer slightly deeper in midfield than we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s a role that suits him well, with the right partner ahead of him. His influence on Acosta will also benefit the USMNT for years to come.

CM — Kellyn Acosta: 7 — The kid is (still) alright, even after a couple subpar games during the group stage. As stated above, the partnership matters. Afforded a bit more time and space by the Ticos, Acosta pushed into the final third all night long and provided the extra man to play with possession high up the field.

LM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — He’ll always shade more toward the center of the field, even when played as an out-and-out wide midfielder, and that’s what he did against Costa Rica. It’s nice having that extra man in the middle, but it turns the left wing into a barren wasteland. Take the good with the bad.

RM — Paul Arriola: 6.5 — You may not get a ton of final product from Arriola, but with Zusi playing an out-of-role right back behind him, it’s vitally important that the wide player on that side of the field offers defensive cover from the front. Arriola does so, and gets into (and wins) more than a winger’s fair share of 50-50 challenges. He’s a net positive in a lot of things that don’t show up in boxscores. There’s always a place for a player like that.

[ MORE: Mexico beat Honduras, book their place in semifinals ]

FW — Jozy Altidore: 6.5 — We’ve known this for a while, but Altidore is far more effective playing with a partner up top. His tendency to drop into midfield helps to link play with someone ahead of him. When he’s all by his lonesome, who/what’s he to link?

FW — Jordan Morris: 7 — Piggybacking on the above point about Altidore, Morris is the perfect complement — quick in short bursts, a burner in the open field, and a smart runner of channels on occasion. He was the best player on the field the opening 30 minutes or so. Faded down the stretch, but the strong first half earns him positive marks.

Sub — Clint Dempsey: 9 — An assist and a goal, all in 24 minutes’ work. More on the hero of the day in a bit.

Sub — Gyasi Zardes: N/A — 7 minutes on the field, with little to no real impact on the game.

Sub — Dax McCarty: N/A — 5 minutes off the bench, but he served his purpose in helping to keep possession and put the game to bed.

Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica, into Gold Cup final

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It took considerably longer than Bruce Arena would have hoped, but the U.S. national team edged its way past Costa Rica, courtesy of Jozy Altidore‘s 72nd-minute goal, in the two sides’ 2017 Gold Cup semifinal in Arlington, Tex., on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

It was Arena’s injection of Clint Dempsey just six minutes earlier which would prove to be the game-changing moment. The soon-to-be all-time leading scorer in USMNT history created Altidore’s goal, the 38th tally of his international career, with a silky smooth turn and through ball that unlocked an otherwise formidable, frustrating Ticos defense. The Nacogdoches, Tex., native pulled level with Landon Donovan on the USMNT’s scoring charts 10 minutes later as he sealed the Yanks’ passage into the final.

The clock read 11 seconds when the USMNT’s first scoring chance arrived. Straight from the kickoff, they worked the ball to a streaking Jordan Morris, who in full stride unleashed a hard, right-footed strike from 10 yards out. Post.

For all the early excitement, and the massive possession advantage (61-39), it was the closest the USMNT would come to beating Patrick Pemberton, as the Yanks failed to put a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes.

Tim Howard was called into heroic action in the 37th minute, when Bryan Ruiz dribbled through the heart of midfield and played Marco Ureña into the penalty area. The San Jose Earthquakes striker went low and far post with his effort from 12 yards out, but Howard was quick to get down and make the one-on-one save.

[ MORE: Mexico beat Honduras, book their place in semifinals ]

The Americans’ first chance of the second half didn’t come until the 70th minute. Clint Dempsey played a simple square ball to Kellyn Acosta, whose first-time shot forced Pemberton into a tough save to push the ball high into the air.

Two minutes later, the breakthrough. Dempsey slipped Jozy Altidore through with a delicate through ball into space, and the Toronto FC man latched onto it quickly and slotted it past Pemberton despite the ‘keeper getting a hand on it.

Dempsey’s history-making moment seemed innocuous enough from the start — a free kick from all of 25 yards out, at a difficult angle. Whatever, said Dempsey, who went for goal anyway. His bouncing ball evade Pemberton at the near post and gave him 57 international goals.

The winner of Mexico versus Jamaica, the second semifinal which will take place on Sunday, awaits the USMNT in the final on Wednesday.