MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s visit to Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Real Salt Lake carries a 4-2 lead into Sunday’s second leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference finals, the 2009 league champions having taken a huge step toward their second MLS Cup final with their Nov. 9 win over the Portland Timbers in Utah. Here are the must knows about RSL ahead of the teams’ second leg, which kicks off at 9:00 p.m. Eastern at JELD-WEN Field:

[REVIEW: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

  • Replacing Álvaro Saborío’s not a problem

Real Salt Lake’s best goal scorer’s out, the Costa Rican international’s pulled muscle keeping him out of the travel squad for Sunday’s game. But the 31-year-old’s absence is nothing new to a team that only had him for 1346 (out of a possible 3060) minutes this season. Between injuries and international duty, Saborío has been out more often than he’s been in.

Expect rookie Devon Sandoval to get another start on Sunday. The number nine, a second round pick out of New Mexico, picked up the fourth goal of his Major League Soccer career in leg one. Combining good size (6’1″) with the level of effort you’d expect from somebody still establishing themselves as a professional, the 22-year-old is the ideal player from Jason Kreis’s attacking reserves to help protect their lead.

[MORE: MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers, with the Western Conference title on the line]

  • Center backs aren’t just good

With the exception of Frederic Piquionne’s 94th minute goal two weeks ago, Real Salt Lake’s center halves have been great throughout the postseason. Nat Borchers is playing like a recent Best XI player, while the emergence of Chris Schuler has given Kreis the postseason’s best central defense tandem (a high standard, given what Peter Vermes is working with in Kansas City). If Borchers and Schuler continue playing at this level, it’s hard to see anybody beating RSL, let alone overturning a two-goal deficit.

  • The continuing importance of Kyle Beckerman

From our pre-match notes on the first leg:

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.

Beckerman was great in leg one. By the 53-minute mark, Caleb Porter was changing things up, pulling an ineffective (and likely, tiring) Diego Valeri, though to little avail. Over the last 40-plus minutes, Portland’s only goal would come from a cross to Piquionne, not through the middle.

  • Javi Morales: The best player left in the playoffs?

After being a non-factor in game one of the conference semifinals, RSL’s playmaker has put in two dominant performances, being named PST’s Man of the Match for his team’s 2-0, semifinal-clinching win over Los Angeles and the team’s 4-2 win over Portland in leg one. He’s been directly involved in four of RSL’s six postseason scores, recording one goal and three assists since his team was shutout in Carson.

Morales is what Graham Zusi is to Sporting Kansas City or Diego Valeri is to Portland, but he’s been more effective. Even grouped with those talents, Morales’s star has shined brightest this postseason.

  • Kreis’s last game with RSL?

This is another point we’ve covered before, but it’s worth a reminder: Jason Kreis’s time with Real Salt Lake could be coming to an end, with the RSL boss presumably having the option to switch to NYCFC when his contract’s up at the end of the season. If Portland comes back on Sunday, it could be the end of an era.

Conte praises Hazard’s style, wouldn’t want him to be “more selfish”

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Antonio Conte made two bold decisions on Saturday afternoon as his Chelsea side prepared to take on Tottenham in their FA Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu shines with Saints as he prepares for Chelsea return ]

The Italian manager has been known for his innovation and risk-taking in the past, but many were critical of the 47-year-old when his team sheet came out ahead of the match.

Conte left key attacking duo Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench, allowing out-of-favor striker Michy Batshuayi and Pedro to get the starting nod.

Although Hazard nor Costa saw the field for the opening hour, the former made his presence known when he was summoned by Conte in the second half.

Often times Hazard has been known as a facilitator, someone that can pick apart defenses with his tremendous foot skills and clever passing. But the Belgian international has also shown his capabilities of scoring on a regular basis as well, which has prompted great interest from other giant clubs around Europe.

When Conte was asked about Hazard and if his attacker should be more selfish, the Italian gave an emphatic “NO” as his response.

“No, no, no, absolutely not,” Conte said. “I don’t think that a player like Messi is a selfish player. The first target for every great champion is to play for the team and to put your talent into the team. If you do this, the team [increases] your talent.

“The best players in the world don’t exist without a team. For me, it’s sad to listen to this, that a player must ‘be more selfish’ to reach the top level. That’s very sad. It’s not my idea of football and I will never understand this. Never, never. In my team, I don’t want selfish players.

“I prefer to lose a game than to have a selfish player. For me, I don’t want this and I can’t accept this. I don’t want my club to buy me a selfish player one day. Never. No.”

Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League

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Two sides have now booked their trips to England’s top flight after Newcastle United rattled off its 27th win of the season.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu — The perfectly poised destroyer ]

The Magpies earned a decisive 4-1 victory over Preston North End on Monday afternoon at St. James’ Park as the second-place side ensured its finish inside the top two in the English Championship.

Newcastle joins already-promoted club Brighton & Hove Albion, who currently sit atop the Championship on 92 points.

Ayoze Perez paced the hosts with goals on both sides of halftime, while Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie also converted for Newcastle.

U.S. Men’s National Team defender DeAndre Yedlin was on the bench for the Magpies but didn’t feature in Monday’s match.

The third and final team to be promoted from the Championship will be decided by the league’s annual promotion playoff, which is held at the end of the season and contested by four sides that finish third through sixth position.

As it stands, Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Fulham occupy the four playoff positions.

Marseille making Olivier Giroud top transfer target this summer

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Marseille did well to bring in one star this season but could the French side have another trick up its sleeve this summer?

Sky Sports is reporting that the Ligue 1 club is preparing to sign Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud over the summer and the sixth-place side is “willing to pay up to £20m (roughly $25 million).

Marseille made a splash this season when the club re-signed Dimitri Payet, who was playing with Premier League side West Ham at the time.

The team does boast several quality attacking options such as Payet and Bafetimbi Gomis, but Giroud could serve as an ideal target man in the Marseille attack.

Prior to joining the Gunners in 2012, Giroud starred for Montpellier and with a potential link-up in the attack with a creator like Payet, it could present a dangerous attacking threat to the rest of Ligue 1.

Giroud, 30, has scored 95 goals in all competitions since arriving in London with Arsenal.

Report: Chicharito talks heating up with Los Angeles FC

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We’ve seen MLS teams make major splashes in the past, and one of next year’s newcomers could be a really big draw if they can manage to seal the deal on a Mexican international.

[ MORE: Schweinsteiger shares thoughts on MLS and more in interview ]

According to Metro New York, Los Angeles FC is continuing its talks with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez about a potential deal that would prove massive in terms of MLS spending.

While LAFC won’t debut in MLS until 2018, the club could potentially make the Mexico striker the highest-paid player in league history with an average salary of roughly $10 million.

The 28-year-old Hernandez currently plays in Germany with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, where he’s plied his trade since joining the club during the 2015/16 season.

Additionally, the former Manchester United man has dominated the international scene for El Tri, scoring 46 goals in 90 appearances for the CONCACAF nation.