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.

Pressure builds on Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz

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Borussia Dortmund has fallen to fifth in the Bundesliga table thanks to a trio of consecutive losses in league play, and suddenly there is loads of pressure on manager Peter Bosz.

The Dutchman came to Westfalenstadion after upper management pushed Thomas Tuchel out over the summer, and while he won seven of his first eight league matches in charge by a total goal differential of 21-2, things have come crashing down. The black & yellow have lost three in a row Bundesliga matches and four of their last five across all competitions, with their only win in that span coming over third-tier Magdenburg.

With fans feeling helpless over the departure of the wildly successful Tuchel that came as a result of a falling out between the German and his superiors, Bosz would always be on a short leash. He inherited a flawed squad, yet one that had achieved much under his predecessor, and immediate failures would naturally be lumped on the new man.

The most recent defeat, a 2-1 falter at Stuttgart, was a microcosm of Dortmund’s recent failures. The team conceded a comically poor goal five minutes into the match, worked hard to equalize just before the halftime break, and conceded again just after returning to the pitch. They controlled much of the match, but largely failed to capitalize.

The head man summed it up pretty well. “The defeat really hurts,” Bosz proclaimed after the final whistle. “We came here to win, so we’re very disappointed. When you see the goals we conceded, it borders on the ridiculous. It hurts because we actually put in a relatively good performance in the first half. The team performed well after conceding the early goal, only the final ball was lacking. The second half wasn’t as good. We need to keep going, we won’t give up.”

So what do the Dortmund executives do? Does Bosz get the benefit of the doubt based on performances? Or does he get blamed for the sudden dropoff in results? There is plenty of pressure given the team sits not only nine points back of Borussia Dortmund in league play, but is also third in a brutal Champions League group with almost no hope of recovery, and even threatens to miss out on a drop to Europa League play if they slip behind Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia, whom they find themselves level on points with.

Even if the club sticks with the Dutchman for now, his room for error has almost completely evaporated and it’s only mid-November. The next two matches will likely tell the tale, and it’s an uphill battle. Tottenham comes to Westfalenstadion on the backs of a disappointing defeat to North London foes Arsenal, followed by the home end of the Rivierderby against a Schalke side that sits second in the Bundesliga table, three points above Bosz and Dortmund.

Antonio Conte calls Tony Pulis a “really good manager”

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West Brom, after four straight defeats, sits 17th in the Premier League table, most recently suffering a 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Chelsea.

Yet Blues boss Antonio Conte has offered his counterpart an olive branch, supporting his fellow Premier League manager at a time of panic.

With reports that Pulis could be fired this coming week – some say as early as Monday – the Baggies boss is under heaps of pressure, but Conte doesn’t believe he should be. “I must be honest, I think Tony Pulis is a really good manager,” Conte said, hoping those in charge don’t make decisions based on Sunday’s result.

“He has great experience and it’s always very difficult to play against his team. This game became easy because we started very strong, with great concentration and desire to win. We showed from the start our will to win this game. But I repeat: Last season we struggled a lot against them.”

West Brom has lost four in a row in league play, and they haven’t picked up a win since August, and as The Guardian points out, they have the lowest average possession in the Premier League and have the second-lowest shots on target thus far. They registered just two shots on target against Chelsea, and held 39% possession, which is actually slightly above their average for the season.

Sergio Ramos suffers broken nose in Atletico Madrid draw

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Real Madrid trails Barcelona by 10 points in the La Liga title race just 12 matches in, and now they will have to play catch-up without their best defender.

Club captain Sergio Ramos suffered a broken nose after being accidentally kicked in the face by teammate Lucas Hernandez during the first half of Madrid’s 0-0 draw with cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. He received treatment and remained on the field, but he was withdrawn at halftime.

Manager Zinedine Zidane was unable to give a timetable for Ramos’s return.

Ramos said via Twitter, alongside some graphic images of his bloody nose, “I would bleed a thousand times for this badge and this shirt. Thanks for your support. I’ll be back in no time.”

Up next for Madrid is Champions League group match against Cypriot club Apoel midweek before a league game against Malaga at home. Athletic Bilbao and Borussia Dortmund are also on the horizon. A masked Sergio Ramos could be in our midst soon.

Real Madrid has not lost a league match without Ramos since March of 2015, but they drew their only game this season with Ramos suspended, a 2-2 home split with Valencia.

Moyes roasts West Ham players after loss to Watford

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After his first game in charge of West Ham, David Moyes thought he had a better squad. Apparently he was mistaken.

A 2-0 loss to Watford gave Moyes a rude awakening as he looks to replace Slaven Bilic and pull the Hammers out of the relegation zone. He was not pleased with his players.

“Overall, that level of performance will not be good enough,” Moyes told reporters after the match.

He wasn’t done.

“I thought this was a big job, but there were some players with big reputations who disappointed me. There were some who I thought would show me more, and why they play for the team regularly. They need to show me, ‘If that’s your reputation, show me why you’ve got it.'”

He backtracked slightly, agreeing that the players are in a difficult position changing managers, but ultimately that excuse wasn’t enough for him. “It’s tough for the players – I could sense that – but I didn’t enjoy our performance in the end. I didn’t enjoy us giving the ball away too cheaply, too many times and I expected us to do better.”

Moyes even called out striker Andy Carroll, saying he removed the England international because he feared Carroll would pick up a second yellow card. Carroll could have been carded seven seconds into the match, leaving Marvin Zeegelaar with a bloody nose after an elbow to the face, something Carroll has been sent off for earlier this season. He was eventually given one in the 28th minute.

“I thought we defended OK,” Moyes said, “but then we gave away cheap goals by getting bundled off the ball and we didn’t really deal with it. We didn’t do well enough in all departments at different times.”

That’s about as ruthless as you’ll ever hear the mild-mannered David Moyes, and all West Ham players should beware that their places in the team are in jeopardy.