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.

Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.

World Cup hopes back on track: What next for USMNT?

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After a four-point haul over the past week in their two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. national team is back on track and heading in the right direction.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

Bruce Arena led the USMNT to a thumping 6-0 win over Honduras last Friday and then a gutsy 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, as the Hexagonal standings will now look a lot better to U.S. fans who saw their team sitting bottom of the pile for the past four months following defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

So, the “Road to Russia” is looking a little less daunting for the U.S. but there are still tough tests ahead in the months to come in World Cup qualifying as well as a Gold Cup campaign on home soil in July.

First let’s look at the standings in the Hex. Ah, that’s better but things are now very tight aside from Mexico running away with things.

With six games to go the U.S. currently occupies the play-off spot as the top three teams in the Hex standings will qualify automatically for the World Cup and the fourth-place team has to play against the fifth-place team from qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation region.


Mexico — 10 points (+4 GD)
Costa Rica — 7 points (+4)
Panama — 5 points (0)
———————
USA — 4 points (+1)
———————
Honduras — 4 points (-5)
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points (-4)


And these are the USA’s six remaining qualifiers as they aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

June 8: vs. Trinidad and Tobago
June 11: at Mexico
September 1: vs. Costa Rica
September 5: at Honduras
October 6: vs. Panama
October 10: at Trinidad and Tobago

The first three games at crucial. If the U.S. manages to get seven points from those three matches, that’s magical. Even six points by beating T&T and Costa Rica on home soil would be superb. Yet, if the U.S. drops points to one or both of T&T and Costa Rica, that puts so much pressure on themselves to pick up wins on the road at Honduras and T&T in two of their final three qualifiers. That would not be an ideal scenario.

Still, heading into the past week the aim for the U.S. was to get back on track in qualifying and give themselves a chance of making the 2018 World Cup. They’ve done that. Now, the hard work begins.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.