Real Salt Lake players celebrated after Sunday's 1-0 victory at JELD-WENField, sending the team into the 2013 MLS Cup final. (Photo: Getty Images.)

What we learned from Real Salt Lake’s Sunday win in Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Four years later, Real Salt Lake is back in MLS Cup, their 1-0 win Sunday  in Portland completing their 5-2 aggregate dissection of the West’s top seed. His team having claimed the title on penalty kicks in 2009, Jason Kreis has a chance to become the fifth Major League Soccer head coach to win multiple league titles.

Here are four things we learned (or, where reminded of) from Sunday’s clincher at JELD-WEN.

  • Real Salt Lake owned Portland in 2013

You’ve read it in almost every piece we’re posted this week, but after Real Salt Lake recorded their first victory this year in Portland, it’s worth noting: Real Salt Lake were undefeated in six games against the Timbers. They saw Portland out of the U.S. Open Cup, and they ended Portland’s Major League Soccer season. Of the eight games the Timbers lost this year, four were to Real Salt Lake, Kreis’s team going 4-0-2 in 2013 against the West’s top seed.

“I can’t really explain it – I honestly can’t,” Kreis said after the game about his team’s dominance of Portland. “Every game feels to me to be even … I feel like it’s more a being fortunate situation than anything else.”

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Real Salt Lake players celebrating after Sunday’s 1-0 victory at JELD-WENField, sending the team into the 2013 MLS Cup final. (Photo: Getty Images.)

The obvious difference between Real Salt Lake and Portland: The time the teams have been together. Real Salt Lake made major chances this offseason, but the core of their team has been together since their 2009 title. The Timbers rebuilt after an eighth place finish in last year’s Western Conference.

“We have so many players who have played in this system for so long and have played together for so long that I think they just have an innate sense of where they need to be at all times,” Kreis explained.

That familiarity was particularly valuable against the Timbers, a team that (at least stylistically) plays very similar to RSL. We heard about it all season, how much the two teams admired the others’ play, but with the season on the line, RSL’s experience may have been the difference. Whatever Portland could do, RSL could do better.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake earns place in MLS Cup final, downs Portland 1-0 to win Western Conference]

  • Robbie Findley stepped up. Again.

The former U.S. international seems to get a lot of attention from fans for what he can’t do, but come the postseason, bottom lines become more important. In 2009 (the last time RSL was in MLS Cup), Findley scored the second half goal that sent the final to penalties kicks. This year, back with the team after a brief spell in England, the 28-year-old has pocketed two more.

“We brought Robbie Findley back because he’s capable of scoring the goal in the biggest moments,” Kreis said, also reflecting on what the team lacked during Findley’s European sojourn.  “We’ve had forwards over the past couple of years that frankly score the goals in the soft games, but not necessarily when all the chips are done. Robbie’s waited for the exact right time to find his best form.”

It’s nothing special. Findley’s not going to launch bombs from 20-plus yards or amaze anybody with dazzling displays of skill. But what he will do is use his speed to harass (as he did in leg one) or get in the right spot (as he did on Sunday).  When the rest of the team is clicking, that’s often all you need to convert when it matters most.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake Man of the Match: Nat Borchers]

  • 2013 was just too soon for the Timbers

Go player-for-player down Portland’s squad and you see a team which, while both promising and much improved from last year, still needs to improve. That Caleb Porter was able to paper over those cracks for most of the season was a testament to the job he did during this first year; however, the team’s play at the back and up top leave room for improvement.

“We didn’t look out of place. I think that’s remarkable for our team, really 10 months into building this, to be in a position to win,” Porter said post-match. “There are some things that we learned in this series, for sure.”

He harped on the finishing, confessing it wasn’t good enough on Sunday, and in his praise of Real Salt Lake central defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, Porter highlighted a place where his team proved lacking. But only one season into the job, it was easy for Porter to maintain perspective.

“There’s definitely a progression, when you’re knocking on the door. This is our first time knocking on the door, and unfortunately, we didn’t open the door.”

“We’re not going to get worse,” Porter affirmed. “We’re going to get better.”

[MORE: Mark the date: Dec. 7 MLS Cup final will be at Sporting Park in Kansas City]

  • Difference in central defense was huge

If Borchers and Schuler play this way on Dec. 7, it’s hard to see Sporting Kansas City having any more luck than Portland or Los Angeles. Real Salt Lake’s central tandem seem imperious to whatever’s thrown at them, be it LA’s vaunted counterattack or a Portland team that had five players score at least seven goals. In four playoff games, RSL’s only conceded three times.

“Especially their center backs, they were exceptional in the box tonight,” Porter confessed. “We threw everything at them, and I thought they managed the box brilliantly.”

Contrast that with the Timbers, who were playing with their third and fourth choice center halves (Mikael Silvestre and David Horst lost to injury early in the season). A Timbers defense with the second-best goals against rate in the league gave up eight in four playoff games, unable to maintain their regular season performance when the quality of competition increased. Against RSL, Pa Modou Kah (reponsible for the turnover ahead of Sunday’s goal) and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso were exploited.

The deficiency in defense was particularly evident against Real Salt Lake, a team that seems destined to be the measuring stick for Portland’s growth. Throw out the teams’ last meeting of the regular season, a game were Kreis seemed to set up to keep the score down (0-0 final), and RSL scored 15 goals in five games against Portland. If the Timbers really are going to be better in 2013, they need to make that number more respectable.

In the mean time, Real Salt Lake will go into the 2013 final enjoying the same edge they had in 2009: a central tandem that’s become the best in Major League Soccer.

Copa America trip helped convince Lodeiro of Sounders move

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 22: Nicolas Lodeiro #10 of the Seattle Sounders gets control of the ball during a match against the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals at CenturyLink Field on November 22, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders won the match 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Nicolas Loderio is getting set to play in the MLS Cup finals, something that only came to pass with a team visit to the United States, and the assistance of Luis Suarez.

According to Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, he spoke with Lodeiro often in his attempts to bring the 27-year-old from Boca Juniors to Major League Soccer. The moment that swayed him was a trip to the US. A business trip.

With Uruguay competing in the Copa America Centenario, it allowed the two to speak more frequently, but when the Uruguayan became frustrated with his own handle of the native language, a friend stepped in to help. He asked national teammate Suarez to help translate, and thus the transfer came to pass.

“You don’t have body language, it’s harder than it is straight to the face and so he just got frustrated that he couldn’t understand everything that I’m saying,” Lagerwey told MLSSoccer.com’s radio show. “And so he says, ‘Hold on, speak to my friend,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and I have no idea what’s happening. And Luis Suarez gets on and says, ‘Hi, this is Luis Suarez, how are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Morning, Mr. Suarez, how are you?’ And he was our translator.”

Lodiero has been a revelation for the Sounders since joining in the summer. A creative force all season, the Uruguayan has scored four goals in five playoff matches, bursting onto the national scene on the biggest stage.

“It was just funny. Nico and I, we talked fairly regularly during the process, in part because it took four months for the thing to play out,”  “And he was in the US for the Copa America with Uruguay, obviously, and in hindsight that ended up being a big deciding factor for him, because he brought his wife and his little son and they got to see America and I think liked it and developed a comfort level with it. And I think that’s what ultimately pushed them to make the leap, but I was talking and Nico’s English is actually pretty, pretty good, but he isn’t always so comfortable on the phone.”

With over 50 caps for the national team, Lodeiro is a well-known presence with the Barcelona striker and his other national teammates. The two have hooked up on the field as well, with Suarez assisting Lodeiro’s fourth national team goal back in October.

Zidane’s Madrid on cusp of setting new unbeaten record

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid looks on during the La Liga  match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Zinedine Zidane is one match away from coaching Real Madrid to a new unbeaten record.

When Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez midway through last season, the inexperienced former midfield standout got off to an auspicious start with a 5-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

Eleven months and one Champions League title later, Madrid faces Deportivo again at home on Saturday with the chance of surpassing its longest unbeaten run since the club was founded in 1902.

On Wednesday, Madrid equaled a club record of 34 games without a loss set in 1989 under coach Leo Beenhakker when it drew 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund.

“It’s important to continue to make history and continue our good run,” Zidane said after the match. “I don’t think it’s very important for me to leave my mark. What interests me the most is to continue with this great run that we’re on.”

Last season, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez tapped Zidane to take over a struggling team, the decision smelled of desperation.

A fan favorite from his playing days as part of Madrid’s “galaticos” bunch, Zidane was promoted from coaching the reserve team to take over a side that was lurching from one embarrassing episode to the next.

Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign had started with Perez flubbing his play to sign away Manchester United goalie David De Gea. The team was then disqualified from the Copa de Rey for fielding an illegible player, and it endured a 4-0 defeat from Barcelona at home as it failed to click with Benitez.

Perez needed to make an impact move. But instead of searching for a veteran manager, he charged the unproven Zidane with turning around Madrid’s group of talented underachievers.

At first, the team remained erratic, and even looked set to bow out of the Champions League after a shocking 2-0 loss at German side Wolfsburg.

But that defeat on April 6 proved to be a catalyst. The team hasn’t lost since, recovering to claim its 11th European Cup and almost nip Barcelona for the Spanish league crown, before roaring out to lead la Liga this season.

Zidane, whose top-tier coaching experience had been limited to his stint as an assistant under Carlo Ancelotti, has now reached the half-century mark as head manager. During that 50-match period, he has overseen 37 wins, 11 draws and only two losses. That other loss came at Atletico Madrid in February.

“The players have to be congratulated. They’re the ones out on the pitch, it’s them who run, fight and dig in,” Zidane said. “We also have to thank the fans, who always get behind the team and support us. They’ve got to take some credit for what the team is achieving”.

Gifted with world-class stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, Zidane focused on getting more from Madrid’s supporting cast. He put a new emphasis on defense in his midfield by favoring Mateo Kovacic and Casemiro over flashier playmakers James Rodriguez and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, and he has helped the little-known Lucas Vazquez blossom into an important piece of its attack.

“(Zidane) has gotten us to work hard and for things to go well for us, and that is paying off with this run of 34 unbeaten games,” defender Dani Carvajal said. “Everyone on the team has words of praise for him.”

Whereas the draw with Dortmund was disappointing because it cost Madrid a first-place finish in its Champions League group, its 1-1 stalemate earned last weekend at Barcelona tasted of victory. The “clasico” draw kept Madrid six points clear of Barcelona at the top of the Spanish table.

After it plays Deportivo, Madrid heads to Japan for the Club World Cup.

If Zidane sets the new club mark, his next goal would be the milestone held by Barcelona under counterpart Luis Enrique, whose 39-game unbeaten run was ended by Madrid last April.

Top 5 Premier League storylines for Week 15: Chelsea top, Leicester tested

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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This weekend is absolutely critical for the Premier League. Last time out, the top of the table kept pace and little changed. This time around, there is danger lurking for much of the top. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs all have difficult tests, but can Tony Pulis be the one to pin Chelsea back?

Spurs and Manchester United 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com) meet with both teams clawing for scraps from those above them. These two teams very well could be battling it out for a final Champions League place at the end of the season, meaning this matchup could go a long way in building a true gap in the table.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho failing to adapt at Manchester United ]

The bottom of the table is fascinating as well. Bob Bradley has his biggest chance yet to pull the Swans off the bottom against Sunderland amid the noise, while Hull City and Crystal Palace have a key meeting.

1. Moving day for Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Brom — 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

Chelsea is in the best form of any Premier League team in years. Their clean sheet streak predictably ended two games ago, but it hasn’t stopped the Blues’ fine run. They’ve won eight in a row and look impossible to stop. Can Pulis-ball keep the Blues at bay? They’re three points on top of the table, and another win would likely give them even more space considering tough matches for the other top teams.

2. Any magic left in the tank for Leicester City?

Leicester City vs. Manchester City — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

The Foxes topped their Champions League group, but things continue to look more and more bleak in league play. Claudio Raneiri admitted they’re in a relegation battle with the Foxes just two points above the drop. But we’ve learned not to count this team out already, and a win against Pep Guardiola‘s stumbling team could be more than just three points.

Speaking of Manchester City, Pep was pipped by fellow first-time Premier League manager Antonio Conte last weekend, and then held to a 1-1 draw with Celtic in midweek Champions League action. However, City has taken care of business so far this season against weaker opponents, and the Foxes certainly seem to be just that at this point.

Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

3. Will Arsenal stumble against Stoke?

Arsenal vs. Stoke City — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

For all the heat the Gunners have (unfairly?) taken this season, Alexis Sanchez has them just three points off the top. For Arsenal to still be one game off Chelsea despite the Blues’ fabulous run is somewhat remarkable, and for them to have thus far weathered the storm, it would be truly something to see them capitalize on a slip-up from Conte.

[ MORE: Sanchez among Premier League’s best 5 players ]

However, Stoke has been here before. The Potters have conceded just three goals in their last seven matches, including a pair with clean sheets; if anyone can stop Sanchez’s amazing form, it’s the Mark Hughes and the defensively stout Potters. A win for Stoke could potentially see them jump as high as sixth, could they go on the road and halt the Gunners? It’s possible, but a 315-minute shutout streak vs. Stoke for Arsenal puts things squarely in Arsene Wenger‘s favor before kickoff.

4. Bob Bradley’s golden opportunity

Swansea City vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

Bob Bradley has taken plenty of flak at Swansea City, and rightly so. Since his anointment as the first American manager in England’s top flight, the Swans have picked up just five points and still sit bottom of the table, two points back of anyone else. But to be fair, the competition has been tough. The four losses since his appointment have come against Arsenal, Stoke City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, and he picked up a pair of points against 8th placed Everton and 11th placed Watford. Now is his chance to pick the Swans off the bottom with a win against those directly above him.

[ RELATED: Swansea issues vote of confidence for Bob Bradley ]

Sunderland visits Wales sitting in 18th, and should Swansea win, they would jump above the Black Cats. The task is no given, however, with Sunderland owning three wins in its last four, meaning they’ve picked up nine of their 11 total points in the last month. Bradley fended off much criticism the past week, and if he’s going to silence those calls for his job after just two months, this is a must-win.

5. West Ham finishes gauntlet stretch

Liverpool vs. West Ham United — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

The Hammers are in the midst of a brutal run of matches where they have just two points, putting them a single point above the relegation zone. The teams they’ve played? Everton, Stoke City, Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal. Yikes. And yet, if West Ham aspire to the heights they reached last season, Slaven Bilic will expect better. Can the Hammers get a result against the high-flying Reds? Liverpool sits four points off the top, but goalkeeper Loris Karius was exposed last week in the stunning Bournemouth comeback, and it’s possible that disappointment leaves a lasting impact. Who will prevail?

FA bans Leeds owner Massimo Cellino 18 months

LEEDS, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Massimo Cellino President and Director of Leeds United during the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on December 13, 2014 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Leeds United may be making a push to return to the Premier League, but they’ll have to do so without their owner.

Massimo Cellino, who took over Leeds in February of 2014, has been banned for 18 months by the English FA for his involvement in the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham later that summer. He was also fined $315,000 and required to complete a course outlining the duties and restrictions for owners in the English league.

During McCormack’s sale, a significant payment was apparently paid to unlicensed agent Barry Hughes, facilitated by McCormack’s official licensed agent Derek Day, who was also banned for 18 months, although 11 of those are suspended, leaving him sidelined for seven months should no other infractions arise.

This likely will only serve to accelerate the current potential sale of Leeds to Andrea Radrizzani, with both sides having publicly acknowledged discussions are ongoing.

Leeds is currently in fourth in the Championship table, having won five of their last six matches. McCormack, meanwhile, scoring a whopping 42 goals in 100 appearances over two years before making a big-money move to Aston Villa this past summer, where he has slumped at Villa Park, owning just two goals over 13 Championship appearances this season and losing his place in the team. To be fair, he struggled in his early days at Fulham as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 matches before exploding in his second season at Craven Cottage with 21 league goals.