Real Salt Lake v Seattle Sounders - Western Conference Semifinals

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)

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.

LIVE – West Ham vs. Liverpool in FA Cup 4th round replay

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30:  Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool is watched by Dimitri Payet of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round match between Liverpool and West Ham United at Anfield on January 30, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Two Premier League teams clash in the FA Cup on Tuesday with a place in the last 16 on the line.

West Ham United welcome Liverpool to Upton Park (Follow live, 2:45 p.m. ET) following the 0-0 draw between the teams at Anfield 10 days ago.

[ LIVE: Follow West Ham-Liverpool here

Slaven Bilic‘s side will fancy their chances of getting past an injury-hit Liverpool squad and creating another famous FA Cup memory in their final season at the Boleyn Ground. With Dimitri Payet in contract negotiations about extending his stay at the Hammers, can the French playmaker lead them to a big win?

After missing Liverpool’s late collapse on Saturday during the 2-2 draw with Sunderland due to a bout of suspected appendicitis, manager Jurgen Klopp will return to the dugout. The German coach has already guided the Reds to one Wembley final during his debut season in charge as they face Manchester City in the League Cup final in less than three weeks time.

The winner of this clash will travel to second-tier Blackburn Rovers and they’ll be heavy favorites to reach the FA Cup quarterfinals.

Click on the link above to follow the game live, plus we will have a recap, reaction and analysis following the encounter in east London.

State of the USMNT: What is Klinsmann’s best XI for World Cup qualifiers?

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With the U.S. men’s national team ending their January camp with two narrow friendly wins over Iceland and Canada, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff will now be sitting back and thinking: “What did we learn? Who impressed? Who struggled?”

Or something like that.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

Each year the January camp provides domestic based players — mostly from Major League Soccer but a sprinkling of other guys too — with the chance to impress Klinsmann and his staff in close quarters for multiple weeks in California. Many current U.S. regulars earned their stripes in January’s gone by and have established themselves ever since.

This January was no different as the experienced core of players — Michael Bradley, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore among them — showed their class and several promising players worked hard to get minutes in the friendlies.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

However, despite some glimmers of hope from youngsters such as Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter, what we learned about the USMNT heading into the two CONCACAF 2018 World Cup qualifiers in March is that the established players remain the best hope for success. Sure, the likes of John Brooks is impressing in the Bundesliga, Matt Miazga sealed a move to Chelsea and Lee Nguyen took his chance in January camp, but the old guard should remain in place through this next batch of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala home and away on Mar. 25 and 29 and the Copa America Centenario this summer.

Question marks remain regarding some veterans, which could keep the situation a little more fluid than it should be.

One of those is Tim Howard with speculation of him moving away from Everton mounting plus a straight-up battle between Howard and Brad Guzan for the starting spot, while Clint Dempsey‘s status with the national team still seems to be somewhat clouded. Overall, though, the settled core of players who played together at the World Cup — plus or minus a few who have performed consistently over the last 18 months — should be kept together by Klinsmann. During last summer’s Gold Cup disappointment there was plenty of experimenting, especially in defense, but now is the time to settle things down and realize the following guys are the players you should count on going forward.

Below is my selection — feel free to select your own in the comments section — for the best XI available to Klinsmann, plus seven subs, assuming everyone is fit and available.

USMNT’s Best XI as of Feb. 9, 2016

—– Howard —–

— F. Johnson — Cameron — Besler — Ream —

—- Bradley —- Williams —-

—- Bedoya —- Dempsey —- Zardes —-

—– Altidore —–

Subs: Guzan, Brooks, Jones, Yedlin, Nagbe, Morris, Johannsson

Ahead of huge title clash, influential Leicester scout transfers to Arsenal

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Ben Wrigglesworth might not be a man you’ve heard a lot about, but he has been influential in helping Leicester City’s unlikely charge to the top of the Premier League.

Now, he’s been poached by Leicester’s main title rivals: Arsenal.

[ MORE: Spurs, Arsenal to battle for title?

Ahead of the monster clash between the Foxes and Gunners at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the man who unearthed the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante has transferred to Arsenal and is now their First Team Video Scout.

Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s former Head of Technical Scouting, announced he would be leaving the Foxes via his Twitter page (see below) and he has now accepted a new role as part of Steve Rowley’s team at Arsenal.

It is believed he will not only help with the scouting of players but will also analyze Arsenal’s first team and the opposition.

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Arsenal will unveil a new player performance center at their training HQ this summer and have recently purchased a soccer data company based in America, statDNA, to help them with scouting and player analysis.

With several Premier League teams now having huge player databases monitored by a team of talented individuals — often, like Wrigglesworth, with no pro playing experience — scouring the globe for the next bargain, the Moneyball vibe is strong.