Saborío, Wingert’s returns a reminder: Real Salt Lake may have another level

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Let me tip my hand here and let Sporting Kansas City’s backers try to level my opinion, because after watching each teams’ first four games of the postseason, Real Salt Lake looks like the slightly better team going into next Saturday’s MLS Cup final. With enough people leaning the other way, saying this may just be Sporting KC’s year, I feel like I may be missing something obvious.

Talent-wise, the teams looks pretty even, but when you look at their postseason performances, you see sides preforming at slightly different levels. RSL beat Portland by three goals in the Western Conference final, whereas Sporting had to come from behind in leg two to eliminate a Houston team playing without Will Bruin and Ricardo Clark. A one-goal win (2-1) saw Sporting past their nemeses.

Whereas Real Salt Lake posted a 3-1-0 record against Portland and the LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City went 2-1-1 against two inferior opponents (Houston and New England). Sporting  has talent and the home field advantage to pull this off, but Real Salt Lake seem like the better team. At least, they’re playing like it.

And when they take the field on Dec. 7, there’s a chance Real Salt Lake could be even stronger than the team that came through the west. Jason Kreis’s team was missing two key players in the conference final, striker Álvaro Saborío (out both games) and left back Chris Wingert (injured in the first) forced to the sidelines against the West’s top seed. By Wednesday, though, both starters had moved back into the picture for next week’s final.

“[W]e think it’s likely [Saborío will] be available for [MLS Cup],” Jason Kreis told reporters at practice on Wednesday. Should Saborío continue to improve, the Costa Rican’s availability stands to be a major boon in KC.

Rarely healthy during the regular season, Saborío averaged a goal every 112 minutes, a rate comparable to Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo’s (109 minutes). The 31-year-old Designated Player is Real Salt Lake’s greatest scoring threat – a versatile target man that rounds out a team that has scored seven goals through four playoff games.

Rather than look at this as a straight addition, though, it’s bigger to consider how Saborío might improve on Devon Sandoval’s performance. The rookie from New Mexico had a great leg one in Sandy, scoring Real Salt Lake’s third goal in a 4-2 win. But the target man was mostly quiet in leg two, missing an early set piece chance that could have iced the match in the fourth minute.

If we’re comparing Saborío’s contribution to what Sandoval gave Sandy, the Costa Rican may not be an improvement at all. But barely done with his rookie season, Sandoval’s not yet a player that can give you that production game-in, game-out.

There’s a better chance Saborío decides Saturday’s game than Sandoval. Regardless, over the course of 90 (or 120) minutes, Real Salt Lake will be better for having both options.

The trade off’s not so murky at left back, though Wingert is more of a question mark than Saborío. Having suffered a broken rib in leg one of the conference final, Wingert may not be ready by next Saturday.

His words, on Wednesday:

“Hopefully I’m healthy enough to at least make it a tough decision on (coach) Jason (Kreis) and the staff and possibly be able to help the team, and if not, of course we’d much rather play someone else,” said Wingert.

“I want to win as much as everybody else, and if that means somebody else should be playing then so be it.”

Wingert is a clear upgrade on Lovel Palmer or Abdoulie Mansally, but as RSL showed in Portland, they’re capable of winning without their veteran left back. Yet Wingert’s ability in the air could be missed, particularly if Peter Vermes deploys C.J. Sapong on the right.

If he and Saborío both return, RSL could actually be stronger than the team that downed Portland 5-2 in the Western Conference final. If they’re clear, we’ll be left asking if Sporting’s home field advantage is enough to slow down a team firing on all cylinders.

Dempsey, Sounders steal a point on wild night in Portland

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The game in 100 words (or less): An entire game can change in the blink of an eye. For the Seattle Sounders, that blink came in the 44th minute of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers. Up 1-0 by way of Joevin Jones’ opener in the 27th minute, the defending MLS Cup champs were poised to head into halftime with a one-goal advantage and every belief imaginable that they’d been the better team for the entire first half. Blink. Brad Evans wrapped his legs around Darlington Nagbe, giving away a penalty and earning himself a red card, just like that, in the blink of an eye. Fanendo Adi stepped up to convert from the spot, but it still was to be a hard-fought 1-1 scoreline from Seattle’s perspective. Then, Dairon Asprilla got loose, completely unmarked atop the six-yard box, on a corner kick, and it was 2-1 after four minutes of first-half stoppage time. 45 more minutes pass, and the Timbers… blink. Clint Dempsey, 34 years old but fresh off the bench 40 minutes earlier, out-leaps everyone in the box and heads past Jake Gleeson to steal a point for Seattle.

[ MORE: San Jose fire Kinnear after 2.5 seasons ]

Three Four moments that mattered

27′ — Jones gets two chances, puts the second away — It’s a classic case of “I dropped my controller” from Alvas Powell, who just stops as Jones cuts across the penalty area. There’s no reason Jones should get a second look on this one.

44′ — Evans brings down Nagbe in the box, sees red — Goodbye, lead. Goodbye 11 versus 11. Things would unravel very quickly for Seattle.

45+4′ — Asprilla rises above to make it 2-1 — Seattle’s marking of Asprilla was nonexistent, and the Colombian showed off some serious hops to get his head to David Guzman’s corner kick.

90+4′ — Dempsey heads home deep in stoppage time — A costly turnover by Asprilla, a hit-it-and-pray cross by Roman Torres, and Dempsey snatches a point at the death.

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Man of the match: Cristian Roldan

Goalscorers: Jones (27′), Adi (45′ – PK), Asprilla (45+4′), Dempsey (90+4′)

Russia has reasons for optimism despite Confed Cup exit

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MOSCOW (AP) When the anger subsides after another group stage exit and another goalkeeping blunder, Russian fans might find they can be proud of their team at the Confederations Cup.

Russia failed to reach the knockout rounds of a fourth major tournament in a row, but there’s no shame in losing by one goal to European champion Portugal and North American champion Mexico.

“We will move on,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico. “We have won (the fans’) hearts and minds to a certain extent in this month that we have been together … I think that we have given some reasons to feel optimistic about us.”

If Russia’s fans agreed with Cherchesov that Russia had done well to limit Portugal to a single Cristiano Ronaldo goal, there was frustration that Russia hadn’t done better against a poor Mexican side.

Russia wasted chances to exploit Mexico’s ragged defending and add to Alexander Samedov’s opener, while goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev performed an inexplicable lunge which allowed Hirving Lozano to head in the winner. Akinfeev was lucky not to be red-carded, too, after his foot caught Lozano in the chest.

Akinfeev was the immediate scapegoat for Russia’s exit, with fans and newspapers calling for his removal.

The most-capped player in the squad – the Mexico game was his 101st international appearance – Akinfeev’s bulletproof consistency in the Russian Premier League has kept him the undisputed national-team No. 1 for years.

When the world is watching, though, he gets flustered and makes mistakes.

Against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, an innocuous long shot slipped from his grasp and went in, paving the way for another early Russian exit from the tournament. There have been more than a few blunders in the 43 games since Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet for CSKA in the Champions League, too.

But it’s hard to see who could replace him. The naturalized Brazilian reserve keeper Guilheme is agile but injury prone, while Vladimir Gabulov is a solid but unspectacular veteran. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin challenged Akinfeev for a while, but was brought low by his own tendency for embarrassing errors.

On the positive side for Russia, defender Georgy Dzhikiya was solid in all three group games after having only made his debut on June 5, and Cherchesov’s three-man back line was mostly reliable.

Less successful was Cherchesov’s attempt to bolster the midfield by starting Roman Shishkin – usually a defender – in a defensive midfield role against Portugal and Mexico, while 33-year-old ex-Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov did his World Cup hopes no favors with a red card Saturday.

Russia’s run of injuries before the tournament weakened the midfield in particular, with Alan Dzagoev and the promising Roman Zobnin both missing out. Forward Artyom Dzyuba’s absence left Cherchesov relying heavily on Fyodor Smolov, who showed touches of class but missed a good chance against Portugal.

Perhaps the biggest damage from Russia’s Confederations Cup exit will be to Russian pride.

Officials have often bragged that the home advantage for next year’s World Cup could drive Russia to new heights, perhaps a repeat of South Korea’s charge to the semifinals in 2002. Those expectations are now being reviewed.

Just one World Cup host in history – South Africa in 2010 – has failed to get out of the group stage. Avoiding a repeat may be the most Russia can hope for.

FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers host Sounders in PNW showdown

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They don’t get much bigger, or more heated, than this one in MLS — it’s Portland versus Seattle, the Timbers versus the Sounders, tonight at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers vs. Sounders ]

To keep up-to-the-second informed on proceedings in Portland this evening, hit the above link, or click right here.

Seattle won the first meeting between these sides, 1-0 back on May 27, on their home turf at CenturyLink Field. Cristian Roldan, who’ll depart for U.S. national team camp following Sunday’s game, scored the only goal that afternoon in Seattle, a 4th-minute header from three yards out.

Mustafi: Arsenal players powerless, hope “brilliant” Sanchez will stay

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Shkodran Mustafi admits that he, along with his Arsenal teammates, feels helpless with over the ongoing transfer saga of Alexis Sanchez.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The Chilean superstar is linked with a move away from Arsenal this summer, as the Gunners fell out of the Premier League’s top-four and the 28-year-old’s contract is set to expire next summer. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez hasn’t so much as publicly stated a desire to remain at the club, which, from the outside, appears to have left his future in even greater doubt.

Mustafi admits he hasn’t a clue how things will shake out in the coming weeks, but he’s quick with a pleading sales pitch for Sanchez to stay — quotes from Goal.com:

“I have no idea. Obviously the other players cannot make that decision, he has to make that decision.

“I’m not too much involved. I hope he stays because he is a really brilliant football player but there’s nothing in my hands that I can do.”

[ MORE: De Boer set to be named new Crystal Palace boss ]

Arsenal would likely have to double (if not more) Sanchez’s current $180,000 weekly wages in order to convince him to forego a season in the UEFA Champions League and commit his long-term future to a club presently trending in the wrong direction.