What we learned as Real Salt Lake eliminated two-time MLS defending champion LA Galaxy

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  • A night where wind-swept restarts told the story

Sometimes it is just about adjusting to the night. We can talk about tactics and combinations and strategic matchups all we want, but sometimes it’s just about drawing up plays in the dirt, figuring things out on the fly, sorting out what may work on that given occasion.

To wit: So much of Thursday’s night at Rio Tinto Stadium was about wind-swept restarts, about exploiting a weird weather night.

The swirling wind inside Real Salt Lake’s high-altitude ground was turning every restart into an adventure. So many of LA’s corner kicks were dropping dangerously, and then Real Salt Lake gave their fans so very much to talk about with two dead eye deliveries.

Both came off the right foot of Javier Morales, the first leading to that curiously nullified goal. The second decided this series when Chris Schuler made a looping run to the far past and stuck out that long right leg.

(MORE: RSL Man of the Match, Javier Morales)

  • RSL’s diamond is the way to go. Clearly

RSL manager Jason Kreis issued his mea culpas and put his team back into a comfortable shape.

Kreis had dumped his team’s trademark diamond midfield for the first leg in Los Angeles, favoring a 4-2-3-1 instead. It didn’t work. He said so. And RSL was the better for it Thursday.

Kyle Beckerman was the best man on the field over the first 45 minutes. His influence waned slightly in the second half, but he and Morales were still the far better central midfield pairing. Even without the injured Ned Grabavoy, RSL’s entire midfield was head-and-shoulders better than Los Angeles’ foursome.

What Beckerman, Morales, Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez did particularly well out of their familiar shape was shut down the passing lanes into Robbie Keane. Landon Donovan found the ball in space here and there, as did Robbie Rogers on the flank. And the Galaxy did manage to look semi-dangerous on the counter … but clearly not quite enough.

  • Robbie Rogers was a bust

Robbie Rogers probably had one of his better matches in a Galaxy shirt – and yet we have to say it: the big June talker of a trade, in the end, was a bust for Los Angeles.

There’s still time for some of that “upside” that LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena has talked about. Indeed, Rogers could once again return to the speedy influence along the flanks that he was a few years ago in Columbus. But the chances of that guy returning seem to dim with every average performance. And if it does happen, it will be 2014, we know now.

Thursday, Rogers did give the Galaxy a little something, first from the right and then from the left after intermission. With RSL so dedicated to shutting off the passing lanes into Keane, Rogers did find some room to exploit on the wings.

(So did Gyasi Zardes on the opposite side, but the Galaxy rookie looked a little too much like an overwhelmed rookie in this one, rarely finding ways to influence.)

But his crosses were somewhat aimless or ill considered, so Rogers finishes his first season as a Galaxy man without ever really having made a mark.

  • Alvaro Saborio injury concern

RSL’s Costa Rican striker didn’t score in the series, but he certainly came close Thursday, and he always demands a bunch of attention.

Saborio put one sharp header off the cross bar, and not long after banged a fierce shot off the far post from 20 yards.

Not long after that, however, RSL’s leading scorer limped off, having apparently aggravated a problematic hip flexor. It left his team a man short over the final 10 minutes, which the Utah side obviously survived. But it could mean Saborio missing this weekend’s opening leg of the conference final against Portland. And that will hurt.

Defensive mistake make the difference – even the little ones

There were no huge blunders like we saw Wednesday in New York, but defensive mistakes were telling Thursday. Even a smaller one, the kind we saw on Real Salt Lake’s first goal.

Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant was close to RSL midfielder Sebastian Velasquez at the far post as a ball swung out left. But the slippery little midfielder looped inside, closer to Galaxy center back Kofi Opare, who was already marking an RSL forward. When Dunivant and Opare didn’t clearly communicate a switch (or when Dunivant didn’t track Velasquez going into the middle), the RSL man was free to head home 10 minute before intermission.

  • RSL center backs stand tall once again

LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez gets the ink, but RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler are as big a reason as any that the Utah club is going through while Los Angeles regroups for 2014.

When the Galaxy did find its way through RSL’s well-organized midfield, the defensive commitment in snuffing out shots was ferocious, and so much of that was Borchers and Schuler.

Borchers won a game-high 85.7 percent of his duals, according to Opta, and his smart positioning kept the faster Landon Donovan and Keane from every getting in behind the back line.

And Schuler got the series-winning goal at the other end, committing himself to a far-post run rewarded in a massive way for finishing the run.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).