Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake

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.

VIDEO: Premier League Player of the Week – Matchday 9

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There was some eye-popping moments in the Premier League this weekend, yet still very little debate who shone brightest.

Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri scored a pair of Goal of the Month competitors in the same day in the Potters’ 2-0 win at Hull City on Monday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

The first was a curling wonder from distance, while the second came from a bit closer as the big-calfed Swiss attacker bamboozled the Hull wall and goalkeeper.

The Potters are up to 16th in the Premier League table with nine points.

Finnish fans celebrate surprise title for IFK Mariehamn

IFK Mariehamm
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HELSINKI (AP) Fans of IFK Mariehamn have gathered in the main square of the remote Finnish town to celebrate their team’s surprise league title.

“I feel very proud,” the club’s managing director, Peter Mattsson, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Monday, adding that “thousands” were expected to turn up for the party.

Watched by more than 4,000, Mariehamn clinched the Finnish title on Sunday with a 2-1 home victory over Ilves, from the industrial city of Tampere.

[ MORE: Full MLS Cup bracket ]

Mariehamn held off 11 other teams, including the traditionally strong Helsinki club, HJK, and defending champion SJK from western Finland. It ended three points clear of second-placed HJK for its first league title.

Local media dubbed the team “Leicester” after the surprise English Premier League champions last season.

Mariehamn, which has a population of 11,500, is the capital of the Aland islands off the southwestern Finnish coast

Kroenke: “Very high” on Wenger who is “very hard” to replace

Jeff Fisher
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LONDON — Arsenal remains “very high” on Arsene Wenger and it will be “very hard” replacing the manager who is in the final year of his contract, owner Stan Kroenke told The Associated Press on Monday.

Wenger this month celebrated 20 years in charge of Arsenal and has offered no indication whether he wants to sign a new deal into next season.

The 67-year-old Frenchman became the Premier League’s longest serving manager when Alex Ferguson retired from Manchester United in 2013. United is now on its third manager in three years and has not competed for the Premier League title since Ferguson’s departure.

In a rare interview about Arsenal, Kroenke noted the tricky post-Ferguson succession at United while discussing the challenge of eventually replacing Wenger.

“You see it (at United), you bring up a comment like that,” Kroenke told the AP after Arsenal’s annual general meeting. “It’s very hard. He’s a great manager.”

Wenger signed his last three-year contract extension in 2014.

“We will sit down and discuss the future at the appropriate time,” Arsenal chairman Chips Keswick told shareholders at a meeting where Wenger didn’t address his contract situation in his speech.

Although Wenger has won the Premier League three times, the last success came in 2004 – a drought which frustrates fans.

“He’s been a wonderful influence on the club,” Kroenke said. “We are all very high on Arsene. We are (joint) top of the table right now.”

Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are only separated on goal difference at the summit. Despite Wenger only winning the FA Cup twice since 2004, the team is in the lucrative Champions League for the 19th successive year thanks to its runner-up finish last season. Wenger is yet to win European football’s top prize.

“I know a number of (sports team) owners that are very successful that say the same thing – the hardest thing to do is be consistently competitive at the top of the league,” said Kroenke, who also owns the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. “Arsene has always done that and Arsenal has always been in that position. We have always been competitive.

“We may not always win the things we want to win. We are very focused on winning for sure the league. Arsene’s been consistently at the top and I will tell you – it’s very, very hard to do if you look around sports.”


2016 MLS Cup playoffs bracket in full

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Michael Bradley #4 and Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrate a goal by teammate Tsubasa Endoh #9 during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With Major League Soccer’s Decision Day 2016 in the books, we now know who will battle it out for MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Who will win MLS Cup? ]

Up first on Wednesday and Thursday are the four knockout round games, then the Conference semifinal first legs kick off this weekend.

We get into it thick and fast.

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The PST crew already selected their picks for the postseason and filled out their bracket. You can see that by clicking on the link above. FWIW, I have Toronto FC beating the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup…

[ MORE: Ranking MLS playoff teams ]

Below is the MLS playoff bracket in full so you can make your picks and let us know who you went for in the comments section below.


MLS Playoff bracket, 2016

MLS Playoff bracket, 2016
Source: MLSSoccer.com