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.

De Rossi’s fire keeps Roma burning toward elusive scudetto

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When Mexican star Hector Moreno arrived at AS Roma this month, he brought a hyper-competitive drive and the desire to inspire his new club toward a long-desired scudetto.

What he found was a club that top-to-bottom was already driving toward that same goal.

“I’ve been here two days and the guys have the same hunger and desire as me,” Moreno told ProSoccerTalk.

To those who’ve played for AS Roma, bled the crimson in and out for i Lupi, the pursuit of a first scudetto in a decade and a half dances through their heads.

“Totti told us that when he won the scudetto in 2001, there were parties for three months. We all have the ambition to win something here, and to celebrate with the fans,” said Kevin Strootman.

[ MORE ROMA: PST talks with Strootman ]

“It would be amazing for all the players. They will love us and never forget. The people in Rome, they live for football. They live for us,” said star striker Edin Dzeko, the ex-Man City forward who potted 29 goals last season.

Juventus has won the last six Serie A titles, but Roma has steadily narrowed the gap in finishing second three of the past four seasons. Roma finished four points back of Juve last season, and my did they entertain, scoring 90 goals en route to second.

Strootman has been in Rome since 2013, Dzeko since 2015, and we’ve already covered Moreno’s nascent period with the club.

So imagine the scudetto fire that burns within captain Daniele De Rossi, who turned 34 on Monday and made his Roma debut the year after the club’s last scudetto. He’s made 561 appearances since that October night in Belgium against Anderlecht in the UEFA Champions League when he made his first senior appearance.

His teammates will know what it means to him.

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“It’s my biggest target,” De Rossi told PST. “It’s what I’m following with my career. I know the other guys know what that means for the people here in Rome and I would like to explain it a little bit deeply what it can mean to win a scudetto right here in Roma. It’s part of our job to know what can happen if we win, and to our culture it can be something that we never forget.”

AS Roma played Paris Saint-Germain level through 90 minutes in Detroit, its first International Champions Cup appearance of the summer. Now i Lupi prepares for another UEFA Champions League opponent in Tottenham Hotspur, up next Tuesday at Red Bull Arena.

Clubs have had to be nearly flawless to make a run at Juve in recent seasons, and looking at Roma’s schedule doesn’t mean finding a load of could’ves and should’ves; Yes there was an early draw at Empoli and a regrettable home defeat in the Derby della Capitale, but Roma wasn’t tossing aside points in poor situations.

[ MORE: Pallotta’s Roman vision ]

So even with a bunch of new faces and several key departures, De Rossi and Roma need to come out of the gates with vigor. And the captain admits he sees the fire mentioned by Moreno, but cautions that it needs to be carefully built by i Lupi’s leadership.

“It’s clearly very early but you can see that there’s a group, with a lot of people who are 27, 28, 24, who are not so much young players and that’s important because at 27 you already know almost everything you need to be a professional player,” De Rossi said.

“Hunger is something that comes probably later when the matches are more important, but also during training you can find people used to spend time with the team when they are free. The atmosphere is very good for now. I hope it will follow later.”

De Rossi’s words carry weight even in a short conversation. He doesn’t throw away words, and takes his time to convey the proper meaning.

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Asked about leadership and whether he considers his guidance more by words or his example, De Rossi doesn’t turn to platitudes or fire and brimstone. The latter might be expected, given his demeanor and — to an American audience — memory as the man who used his elbow to examine what lies underneath Brian McBride’s face at the 2006 World Cup (and, it should be noted, helped the Yanks to their only point of the tournament, later won by the Italians).

“It’s something you have inside, your character, but also something you build during your career and your life,” De Rossi said. “It’s not something you have to show every second in soccer or a work place. You have to be nice with your teammates, you have to be available if they need something, and that’s it. If you have to raise your voice, you do it, but it’s nothing special. The same things the other guys do.”

Sure, but the *other guys* don’t sit in the Top 5 for caps in the celebrated Italy national team set-up. They haven’t all won World Cups, or been knighted, or been named Serie A Footballer of the Year.

[ MORE: Dos Santos brothers reuniting in LA? ]

So what are De Rossi’s leadership guideposts? Sorry to disappoint, but there’s no magic to it.

“First of all, inside the pitch you are respected by your teammates,” he said. “Also outside the pitch, you know that your job is going good when you see things going in the right way, the normal way, nothing weird, nothing special, nothing perfect, the right way! Normal people who love their work and love their job will respect each other.”

Okay, fair enough. De Rossi is no doubt respected, but as he edges further into his career, does he think about how he’ll be remembered? Scudetto or not, what’s his legacy?

Easy, it seems; De Rossi wants to be known as a centurion and custodian of his club.

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“As a professional player, a nice guy, but most of all a player crazy in love with his team,” De Rossi said. “And also as a good player, because I think I am. Nothing more. What happened to Francesco (Totti) is something unbelievable and unrepeatable. I’m happy. I will be happy if a lot of people remember me as a nice guy, as a huge person who loves Roma as much as he can.

Well, he’ll be happy then, as a classic Wolf in yellow and red: a man who was born in the Eternal City and grew to become a symbol of it.

“There’s something inside of us, Roman citizens. Rome is a city for of stories, full of history, full of old things. There are monuments, what you can read in books, but also people connected to art like Ennio Morricone or Sergio Leone. It’s a mix of new things that we have to do, and also remain connected with our past history. It’s something you have to remember, not forget, and can affect our way to lead and live outside of soccer and the way I play.”

And given his legendary status, it’s little surprise that De Rossi has the admiration of the players in the room, social media fans or not.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up in Gold Cup Final? ]

“He’s our captain,” Strootman said. “He was already the captain when I came here four years ago and he was one of the only players who spoke English. He helped me with a lot of things on and off the pitch. He’s a role model for everybody. It’s a pleasure to train with him, stay with him, and be on the pitch with him.”

Strootman agreed with De Rossi that the side has to be nurtured into the season.

“We still need some time, that’s normal, but we need to show on the pitch that we are hungry,” he said. “It’s a good mix. We have to show it from the first competition and game by game.”

Roma’s ICC finishes up at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on July 30, where they’ll hope to make an early statement of intent against serial scudetto winners Juventus.

 

Reports: Jonathan Dos Santos set to join Giovani on Galaxy

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Double Dos Santos DPs in Tinseltown?

That’s again the rumor out of Spain, where Jonathan Dos Santos has reportedly left Villarreal camp with permission to negotiate with the LA Galaxy.

Dos Santos would join his brother Giovani in a move which would not only increase the Galaxy’s attacking portfolio but give the club another feather in the cap as it attempts to ward off incoming Los Angeles FC in the race for the hearts of L.A. soccer supporters.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up in Gold Cup Final? ]

It would be the second time Jonathan joined his brother on a squad, and the third time the two were professional teammates. Both joined Barcelona’s academy in 2002.

Jonathan posted two goals and three assists in La Liga last season, leading the team in key passes per game with 1.3. He added a goal and an assist in UEFA Europa League play, where he also registered a hemorrhagic 2.6 giveaways per contest.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt the younger Dos Santos brother would shine in MLS, where he could set up his brother and Romain Alessandrini to feast on defenses, and maybe even help Gyasi Zardes find his form.

How might the USMNT line up in the Gold Cup Final?

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The United States men’s national team became the favorite to win the Gold Cup when Bruce Arena called up more than 500 caps worth of experience after the group stage, but there’s one group that wasn’t improved at all by the legendary MLS coach, and that’s defense.

So while Michael Bradley and Tim Howard certainly help the unit take shape and Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore all improve the side’s speed, passing, and creativity, no move was made to help a back line that’s done anything but thrive in this tournament.

Most of this is not Arena’s fault. John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, and Geoff Cameron were given time to focus on their European careers, and “next batch” backs Tim Ream and Timothy Chandler fit into that overseas bunch as well.

[ MORE: Palace signs Ajax CB/DCM/LB ]

That doesn’t change the fact that the easy weakness for the USMNT right now has a big chance to be exposed by opponents Jamaica, who — as funny as this sounds — are possibly a worse match-up for the Yanks than the side it upset in Mexico’s ‘B Teamers’.

While player ratings are far from the be-all, end-all, we’ve had two writers handle the Americans’ five matches of Gold Cup. Here are the ratings for the eight backs on the roster by appearance.

Jorge Villafana — 6.5, 5, 6; Omar Gonzalez — 6, 5, 7, 5; Matt Miazga — 7; Matt Besler — 7.5, 6, 8; Eric Lichaj — 5, 7; Justin Morrow — 6, 5; Graham Zusi — 6, 5.5, 4; Matt Hedges — 5, 5.

Only Besler has avoided a dud so far, and keep in mind that Arena has not subbed a back in the tournament and also loves Gonzalez.

[ WAYBACK: How U.S. lost to Jamaica in 2015 Gold Cup semi ]

Dealing with speedy Jamaica is a challenge for a group that’s looked pretty mixed up when it comes to dealing with counter attacks. This is especially challenging for one player, Matt Hedges, who is better suited for teams that want to attack through the air.

As for the midfielders and forwards, remember that Arena pulled Paul Arriola after 66 minutes in the semifinal and let Darlington Nagbe and Jordan Morris go all 90.

Considering all that, here’s how Arena may try to win the Gold Cup and put one American foot in Qatar for the 2021 Confederations Cup (That’s still happening, by the way).

Howard

Lichaj — Gonzalez — Besler — Villafana

Bradley — McCarty

Arriola — Corona — Zardes

Altidore

As a bonus, here’s how we think the subs may play out given player use in the run-up to the final. Call this between the 65-80 minute marks, and it can work with the lead or pushing for an equalizer or winner:

Howard

Lichaj — Gonzalez — Besler — Villafana

 Acosta/Pontius — Bradley — McCarty — Nagbe

Altidore — Morris

Ajax reunion at Palace as De Boer signs center back

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Crystal Palace has added much needed depth and youth to its corps of center backs with 20-year-old Ajax man Jairo Riedewald.

The left back in Ajax’s UEFA Europa League loss to Manchester United, Riedewald completed better than 92 percent of his passes in Eredivisie play. He also nabbed 2.2 interceptions per match.

[ MORE: Russia’s straw stadium ]

Fellow Palace center backs James Tompkins, Scott Dann, and Damien Delaney average age is 31.3.

Riedewald played for Palace boss Frank De Boer at Ajax. From Palace’s official site:

“He will be an excellent addition to our squad, Jairo is a young player but already has a lot of experience. I know he is looking forward to playing in the Premier League.”

Riedewald played the majority of his Eredivisie matches at center back, but has 18 appearances as a defensive midfielder and another 12 at left back.

He’s Palace’s second addition of this summer, the other being a loan of Ruben Loftus-Cheek from Chelsea.