MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s visit from Portland

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(Originally posted Saturday night)

Previewing the first left of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final (Sunday, 9 p.m. Eastern), here are the must-knows about Real Salt Lake ahead of their meeting with the visiting Portland Timbers:

  • Diamonds are forever

It’s not that Jason Kreis’s formation change for leg one of the conference semifinals was completely ineffective. After all, the whole point was to slow down Los Angeles’s counterattack, and to RSL’s credit, the Galaxy’s transition was a relative non-factor during their first hour in Carson. Unfortunately, RSL’s unfamiliarity with the night’s 4-2-3-1 formation left them unable to connect passes into attack, something that gave LA more of the ball and, eventually, most of the first hour’s chances.

Back in Salt Lake, despite the loss of midfielder Ned Grabavoy, RSL went back to their usual diamond midfield and eventually won, a 2-0 victory in which LA’s counter was no more effective than in Carson’s opening hour. While two defensive midfielder-formation may have made sense in theory, the players just couldn’t pull it off. Sometimes, it’s best to ignore the chalkboard and  to play your best players where they’re most comfortable. Don’t expect Kreis to do too much experimenting going forward.

  • Expect Ned Grabavoy back; but what of Sebastián Velasquez?

Quietly, Ned Grabavoy has an excellent season, particularly over the first half of the campaign. The 30-year-old’s ability to take his game to a slightly higher level helped offseason the loss of Will Johnson and compensate for the periodic absences of Luis Gil. On Sunday, he’s expected to return to the lineup, a move that will have the unfortunate consequence of relegating Sebastián Velasquez to the bench.

Four days after having a major impact as a substitute in Los Angeles, Velasquez scored his first professional goal, his header pulling opening RSL’s account on Thursday. Though logically you’d think he goes back to the bench with Grabavoy’s health, he’s playing better than Gil. At least, he’s given Real Salt Lake a needed spark going forward.

Odds are Jason Kreis stays with the players who’ve established themselves as starters, meaning Velasquez goes back to the bench. But given what we saw from him in the last round, the second year pro should have an impact on this series; if not in the starting XI, then in a super sub’s role.

source: AP
Chris Schuler (left) was limited to 16 appearances in the regular season. In the conference semifinal, the 26-year-old scored the series-winning goal after playing in the middle of a defense that allowed one goal in 210 minutes. (Photo: AP.)
  • Schuler and Borchers present a new challenge

Portland torched Djimi Traoré on Thursday, with the Seattle left-center half playing a part in all three Timbers goals. Five days earlier, the Malian defender was also at fault for a goal, as was central defense partner Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. The duo’s mistakes were one of the Sounders’ major downfalls.

Portland can’t expect the same leniency from Utah, whose central defenders have been excellent thus far in this postseason. Over two legs against Los Angeles, the only goal RSL conceded was a 24-yard bomb from Sean Franklin, one neither Nat Borchers nor Chris Schuler should have been expected to stop. Constantly stressed over the last 30 minutes in LA, the duo held out, muffling that dangerous Galaxy counter. In Sandy, they kept LA off the board for 120 minutes, with Schuler finding the series-winner in extra time.

Schuler, out for much of the season, is getting some much-deserved attention for his play, but Borchers, a former best XI defender, has been his equal. Together, the duo became MLS’s first to solve the Robbie Keane-Landon Donovan conundrum. They’ll prove much more difficult to beat than Traoré and Hurtado.

  • Who starts at forward?

It won’t be Álvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican has been ruled out of Sunday’s match with a muscle injury, leaving Jason Kreis with four players to choose from for his two forward set:

    • Joao Plata is the incumbent of sorts (Saborio’s normal partner), but the Edcuadorian didn’t play a minute against Los Angeles, hampered by a hamstring injury. He made the bench in game two, but …
    • … with Robbie Findley starting both games against the Galaxy, Kreis may elect to keep the veteran in the starting XI. A member of RSL’s 2009 title-winning team, Findley provides a good bridge to …
    • Olmes Garcia, the young Colombian coming off the bench on Thursday after failing to make the team in Carson. Only 21 years old, he is the least likely to start on Sunday, with Kreis preferring to us him off the bench.
    • The true (or true-ist) like-for-like option for Saborío is rookie Devon Sandoval, who can serve as a target man – somebody to provide an outlet from Portland’s pressure.

Plata’s relationship with Saborío is part of the reason the duo often start together, so with the Costa Rican out, Findley may again be preferred. But while Sandoval seems a logical option to complement the former U.S. international, Kreis could still elect to get creative in the absence of his first choice number nine.

  • The importance of Kyle Beckerman

Beckerman is always important to RSL, but against Portland, his performances could prove vital. As the Timbers seek to press high and create quick turnovers, his ability to retain possession, take advantage of openings, and decide when to do which will play in big part in RSL’s potential success.

Perhaps as important: How Beckerman handles Diego Valeri. Or Darlington Nagbe. Who knows? Depending on Portland’s tactics, either could end up demanding Beckerman’s attention, but with both free to drop deep into midfield to pick up the ball,  there’s also the potential for one to open up space for the other.

Communication will be vital. Nat Borchers will have to be sure to pull Beckerman back when players are moving into his space, and Beckerman will have to make sure Grabavoy and Gil are positioned to pick up Portland’s creators as he lets them go. Beckerman can’t contain both but he will be expected to neutralize whomever tries to get the ball in front of RSL’s line.

Clearly, Real Salt Lake have already has some success defending Portland’s stars (undefeated in four against them this year), but with the Timbers clicking as they never have before, Beckerman will be particularly stressed to maintain his normal standard of play.

MLS Snapshot: FCD lose 2nd in a row; Fire win 4th straight

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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The game in 100 words (or less): After starting the 2017 season nine games without a loss, FC Dallas, the longest-lasting unbeaten team in MLS, has lost two straight. Saturday saw their unbeaten start come to an end, against the San Jose Earthquakes, just as Wednesday’s trip to Toyota Stadium saw Oscar Pareja’s side drop all three points to the Chicago Fire. All three of the game’s goals were scored during the opening nine minutes, as FCD fought back from 1-0, but couldn’t find a second equalizer on the night. Nemanja Nikolic bagged the opener, his 11th goal in 13 games to extend his lead in the Golden Boot race to two, in the 3rd minute. Roland Lamah brought FCD back to level terms three minutes later, but David Accam restored the home side’s advantage after three more minutes. Nikolic had every opportunity in the world to take his goals tally to a dozen during second-half stoppage time, but Chris Seitz denied the Hungarian international from the penalty spot. For the first time since Sept. 2012, Chicago have won four straight league games, and sit just two points back of Eastern Conference-leading Toronto FC (26 points).

[ WATCH: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to $10M contract demands ]

Three moments that mattered

3′ — Nikolic redirects past Seitz for 1-0 — Nikolic ran 15 yards straight ahead without a single FCD player picking him up or impeding his path to the near post, and they paid for it.

6′ — Lamah taps it in to make it 1-1 right away — Lamah has been quite the disappointment since arriving in Dallas this winter, but he happened to eb in the right place at the right time in this one, as a failed clearance fell to the five-times-capped Belgian international for an easy tap-in, and his first MLS goal.

9′ — Accam cuts inside to make it 2-1 just as quickly — At some point, Accam will be properly rated by the wider MLS audience, as he’s been Chicago’s best player for two full seasons, and has only hit a new high with capable attackers all around him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Dax McCarty

Goalscorers: Nikolic (3′), Lamah (6′), Accam (9′)

Report: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to contract demands

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While Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has the feel of the player most clearly destined to play in MLS since Thierry Henry, we might have to wait a little while longer before the 28-year-old Mexican international ditches Europe in favor of a return to North America.

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According to a report from ESPN FC on Thursday, Hernandez is seeking an annual salary “way north of $10 million,” which would shatter the current record contract for an MLS player (Kaka — $7.2 million per year).

Hernandez has one more season left on his contract with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen. During the summer of 2018 he’ll be available for any club in the world to sign on a free transfer. With Los Angeles FC, the team Hernandez has reportedly been negotiating with for months now, set to debut in MLS in March 2018, chances are they’d like the centerpiece of their squad (and the largest annual investment in MLS history) to be involved on opening day, thus a fee will be required, very likely pushing the club’s total investment (salary plus fee) into the neighborhood of $50 million.

[ WATCH: Giovani dos Santos’ jaw-dropping volley vs. MIN ]

You can see pretty quickly why LAFC might balk at such demands.

With that said, 1) LAFC shouldn’t be surprised by this recent development, given Hernandez’s otherworldly allure within the LA market; 2) to piggyback on no. 1, a player should be paid every cent he’s worth to the club, on and off the field, and there might not be a player in the entire world (this side Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) who’d make LAFC a bigger hit in LA from day one.

Enrique “more than satisfied” with Barca tenure, eyes one more trophy

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique is finally saying goodbye to Barcelona, with one last chance at a trophy.

The Luis Enrique era in Barcelona ends after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday, when the coach could cap his three-year stint with a ninth trophy out of a possible 13.

It would be a fitting farewell for him nearly three months after his surprise announcement that he was leaving.

“It would be a special title,” Luis Enrique said.

The former Barcelona midfielder has won nearly everything as the coach, since replacing Gerard Martino in 2014.

He led the team to the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey, and Champions League in 2015. He achieved the league-Copa double in 2016, and began this season with the Spanish Super Cup title, their only trophy so far.

It hasn’t been Luis Enrique’s best season with Barcelona, which was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and lost the Spanish league to Real Madrid last weekend.

“I’m happy and more than satisfied for all the years that I’ve enjoyed with this club,” the 47-year-old Luis Enrique said.

He announced in March he was leaving so he could get some rest.

“I came here to be a leader and I’ve been one. I’m leaving when I think it’s the best time to do it.”

His other titles included the 2015 European Super Cup and the 2015 Club World Cup.

Barcelona has yet to lose a Copa del Rey home-and-away series since he took over, a run of 12 straight triumphs.

“We are all thankful for these three years (with Luis Enrique),” captain Andres Iniesta said. “We have to win one last title to finish the best possible way.”

Barcelona has been in the Copa final in seven of the last nine seasons, including the last four. It has won it a record 28 times, including the last two.

Alaves will be playing in the final of a major tournament for only the second time in its 96-year history. The other was the UEFA Cup 16 years ago, when it lost to Liverpool 5-4 in extra time.

Alaves’ only winner’s trophy is for Spain’s second division. It was a promoted club in Spain’s top division this season after 10 years in the lower divisions, including four in the third tier. It finished ninth in the Liga.

Alaves enters the Copa final boosted from having beaten Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou at the beginning of the season.

The coach touted to replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona is Ernesto Valverde, who left Athletic Bilbao this week. An official announcement is expected next week.

Marco Silva leaves Hull; Premier League clubs lining up

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Marco Silva came to the Premier League, he saw the PL, but he didn’t conquer the PL — at least, not yet.

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It was announced on Thursday that the 39-year-old Portuguese manager, who took over last-place Hull City in January, has left the club after succumbing to relegation from the PL. Silva, whose stock rose quickly during his brief stay in England, signed a contract that ran only through the end of the season should they be relegated, thus he’s not sure on options these days. Hull would have undoubtedly welcomed him back for a run at promotion from the Championship next season.

As recently as Wednesday, Silva was expected to be named the new boss at Porto, though various reports stated that talks between the manager and club had broken down.

[ MORE: Terry “couldn’t care less” about criticism of his farewell ]

Watford and Crystal Palace, both of whom are manager-less after Walter Mazzarri was fired and Sam Allardyce resigned, respectively, are said to be extremely interested in Silva’s services.