Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake - Western Conference Championship - Leg 1

Real Salt Lake’s 2013: The not-so-rebuilding year that could end in an MLS title

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“What are you doing this offseason” is the question you hear most this time of year around Major League Soccer, but it has less and less significance. With seasons starting sooner and ending later, there’s barely enough time to fit in drafts, re-entry drafts, ang preseasons before we’re kicking off again in March. The games may stop on this Saturday, but come Monday morning, teams will start overhauling their rosters. With player movement often grabbing headlines as big as the matches themselves, there is no offseason for an MLS diehard.

Take last year. Coming out of Los Angeles, you’d think there would have been a period of reflection on the year that was, particularly since neither David Beckham nor Landon Donovan seemed ready to give us quick answers to their career quandaries. Instead, Garth Lagerwey was putting us to work. As planes were lifting off from LAX, the Real Salt Lake general manager was shipping Jaimson Olave and Fabian Espindola to New York. Around the same time, news broke that Will Johnson was going to Portland. While the rest of the league was resetting, an Real Salt Lake team that have been to five straight post seasons was rebuilding.

At least, we called it rebuilding, though now that Jason Kreis’s team is back in their first title game since 2009, we might want to reconsider the label, one which became a bit of a cliché throughout the regular season. Espindola, Johnson, and especially Olave were valuable pieces for RSL, but when you look at the core Lagerwey maintained, the offseason looks like more of a small shuffle than major remodeling. The core of the team was still in place.

That core starts at the back with U.S. international Nick Rimando and continues through a back line that returned three quality veterans: fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert and former Best XI central defender Nat Borchers. In the middle, Real Salt Lake still had their linchpins: Kyle Beckerman at the base of their diamond; Javier Morales at the tip. And although he wasn’t there when the team raised the cup in 2009, Costa Rican international Álvaro Saborío has been an integral part of the team’s continued success. He was coming back, too.

Add in Ned Grabavoy, key in a season where RSL were occasionally without Kyle Beckerman, and the team had eight starters returning from a squad that finished second in the West. Among the replacements they had in house, Jason Kreis could call on Luis Gil in midfield and Chris Schuler at the back. The only real question was whether they’d have somebody to fill Espindola’s shoes. By the time March came around, they’d have more than enough options: Robbie Findley; João Plata; Devon Sandoval; and Olmes Garcia.

source: Getty Images
Jámison Olave, seen here playing with RSL, was the best defender on a team which reached a CONCACAF Champions League final. This offseason he was sent to New York, with RSL trusting Chris Schuler, Kwame Waston-Siriboe, and Carlos Salcedo to take up the spot next to Nat Borchers (Photo: Getty Images.)

How did this come to be thought of as rebuild? It was probably that Olave trade that got the ball rolling. That it came so quickly, involved such a good player, packaged him with another starter, and didn’t land Real Salt Lake a significant player in return hinted Lagerwey was being forced to hit the reset button. To a limited extent, that was true, but whereas many saw those early December trades as auguring a complete rebuild, the next dominos never fell, even if the narrative had already been set in motion.

If we’re forcing ourselves to call 2013 a rebuild, then it started all the way back in 2010 when they drafted Chris Schuler. It continued when they traded for a 17-year-old Luis Gil a month later then took a three-year break. That’s when (this offseason) the team drafted Sandoval, traded for Findley and Plata, and signed Garcia. In between, players like Sebastian Velazquez (draft) and Lovel Palmer (re-entry) were added, but they aren’t a big part of the rebuild narrative. If we’re looking at how RSL were able to like Olave, Johnson, and Espindola go without regressing, the answers lie in a series of moves that don’t look much different than the drafting of Sebastian Velazquez or the reclamation of Lovel Palmer.

Except for those high profile departures, 2013 has been business as usual for an organization that continues to uncover talent. Sometimes that involves getting the most out of recycled talents like Rimando, Grabavoy, and Wingert. Other times it’s late draft steals like Schuler and Velasquez. There’s the occasional Garcia-esque signing from abroad, and when they need to, they can go out and get a Morales or Saborío. This isn’t rebuilding. This is roster management done within the thin margin allowed a small market team competing against the likes of Los Angeles and Seattle.

It’s natural to think of the emptied lockers of Olave, Johnson, and Espindola and assume big changes were in store, but the fire sale never came. If Real Salt Lake’s brains continue running their organization the way they have, that fire sale will never has come. When the day comes that Rimando, Beckerman, and Morales have to go, the transitions may prove just as smooth, provided the same philosophies are underpinning them.

If changes stay limited and can be planned for in advance, there’s no reason why RSL can’t continue to succeed. Last year, they finished second in the West and made the conference semifinals. This year, they finished second and are playing for an MLS title.

Too early for Guardiola to concede Premier League title?

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Pep Guardiola suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager on Sunday as Manchester City were hammered 4-0 at Everton in the Premier League.

Post-game he was understandably glum.

[ MORE: Klopp slams United ]

Guardiola even appeared to concede the Premier League title, as the preseason favorites for the crown have now fallen 10 points behind leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go.

When asked if City’s title hopes were over after a fifth defeat of the season, the Spaniard’s answer was emphatic.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

It seems like Guardiola has already decided that the title race is over for City, but has he thrown in the towel too early?

With just five points separating second-place Tottenham with sixth-place Manchester United, it appears City’s primary focus will now be to finish in the top four as a mammoth battle ensues in the final third of the season.

Yet, we have seen some miraculous comebacks from teams in the past to win the title. These stats could give Pep hope.

In the 1997-98 season, Arsenal were 12 points behind United after 21 games of the season (United had played a game more) but roared back to win the PL by one point. And of course, City’s two PL crowns came courtesy of stunning late surges in the season with thanks to Sergio Aguero’s magic on the final day in 2011-12 and then Liverpool’s collapse in the closing weeks of 2013-14.

Pep, don’t lost the faith. It can be done.

However, if City lose to Tottenham next weekend and Chelsea extend their lead over Pep’s boys to 13 points by beating Hull City, it is curtains.

Such is the dominance of the big boys this season, City pretty much have to go unbeaten for the rest of the season to have a shot at winning the PL. Given their recent defensive displays that seems unlikely.

We all know Pep is an idealist when it comes to how he wants his team to play but now we are seeing he is a realist too.

Conte urges players “money is not everything” amid Costa rumors

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 04: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on January 4, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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While new reports are suggesting that China will have to curb its massive spending, Antonio Conte has urged his players that they don’t have to be tempted by the Chinese Super League.

[ MORE: United, Liverpool finish level after late Ibrahimovic equalizer ]

Chelsea currently sits atop the Premier League — seven points clear of Tottenham and Liverpool — but the club has recently been at the center of controversy as star striker Diego Costa has been linked with a move away from the club.

[ MORE: CSL set to limit number of foreign players per team ]

Costa missed his side’s 3-0 win over Leicester City on Saturday after several outlets reported a rift between the Spaniard and Conte.

The Chelsea manager told reporters following the match that Costa wasn’t available due to a back injury he suffered in training, but there has been continued speculation that the 28-year-old could head to China.

Conte has made it clear to his squad though that the quality of competition in England supersedes the money offered abroad.

“The money is not everything,” Conte told reporters. “When you play for a great team like Chelsea, you must be pleased.

“I think we are a great club and it is a great honour to play for Chelsea. For this reason I don’t see [China] as a threat for my players.

The Blues have lost a number of high-profile players over recent seasons to the high spending of Chinese football, including Brazilian duo Oscar and Ramires, as well as John Obi Mikel.

Oscar departed Chelsea this month to join Shanghai SIPG for a reported $72 million.

“I have to look at the past,” Conte said. “Oscar played with us, had a good offer from China and he went.

“But this league is really competitive and every player wants to come and play in this league.

“This league is the first in the world because of a lot of positive things, so I don’t think these offers from China are a threat for our league.”

Report: Ian Harkes expected to sign with DC United

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D.C. United didn’t have a top 10 selection in the MLS SuperDraft, but the club is likely to end up with one of the most talented collegiate players in the game.

[ MORE: Robinson, Ebobisse headline latest U.S. U-20 roster ]

According to the Washington Post, D.C. United is expected to sign Wake Forest attacker Ian Harkes to a multi-year contract.

[ MORE: Galaxy keeper Rowe replaces Frei with USMNT ]

Harkes, 21, came up through D.C.’s academy system before playing all four years for the Demon Deacons. The midfielder has gained significant notoriety over his college career, which concluded with Hermann Trophy honors following his senior senior.

As a former member of the D.C. academy, Harkes didn’t have to declare for the SuperDraft and is expected to sign a Homegrown contract with D.C. United in the coming days.

Harkes has also been considering his options abroad, which included second-division sides in England, where he was born. Ian is the son of former U.S. Men’s National Team star John Harkes, who played both in the United States and England over his professional career.

Bayern Munich signs Suele and Rudy from Hoffenheim

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 15:  Sebastian Rudy of Germany controls the ball during the International Friendly Match between Italy and Germany at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on November 15, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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MUNICH (AP) German champion Bayern Munich has signed center half Niklas Suele and central midfielder Sebastian Rudy from Hoffenheim, with both players due to complete the season with their current club before joining on July 1.

[ MORE: Ibrahimovic rescues draw for United against Liverpool ]

Bayern said Sunday on its website that Rudy – who is out of contract in the summer – has signed a three-year deal until 2020 while Suele has agreed a five-year deal until June 2022.

[ MORE: Morata to Chelsea? Dybala staying put? ]

“Signing two Germany internationals is an investment in FC Bayern’s future,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. “Sebastian Rudy joins us on a free transfer. In the case of Niklas Suele we have reached a fair and serious agreement with Hoffenheim.”

The 26-year-old Rudy has played 177 league games for Hoffenheim since joining from Stuttgart in 2010, while the 21-year-old Suele is a homegrown talent and has made 90 league appearances with the club.

“In terms of it being a farewell I feel a little wistful,” Suele said on Bayern’s website, adding that the move gives him the chance of “maturing further with one of the best teams in the world.”

Suele’s signing appears to be linked to the form of long-serving Bayern defender Holger Badstuber, who has been sent on loan to Schalke to get more game time.

The long-serving center-back has struggled with injuries in recent years and is not in Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti’s plans, having played only three games this season, starting just once.