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.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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