Looking back on 2013: Talking through Real Salt Lake’s path to MLS Cup

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It’s easy to forget now, after a nine-month season left last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners out of the playoffs, but back in March, the San Jose Earthquakes were still considered one of the Western Conference’s favorites. How much that changed after Real Salt Lake went into Buck Shaw and won on opening day is difficult to remember, but in hindsight, the victory served early notice. RSL were supposed to be rebuilding. Instead, they handed San Jose their only home loss of the season.

Jason Kreis’s team didn’t exactly burst out the gate, though. A loss at D.C. United, draw at Colorado, and loss to FC Dallas followed. Before closing March with a win over Seattle, Real Salt Lake looked very much like a team going through an adjustment period, which they were. In addition to trading Jámison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola in the offseason, RSL were without the injured Javier Morales, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert for the first four games of the season. The spine of Álvaro Saborío, Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Borchers and Nick Rimando didn’t play together until April 13 – the team’s sixth game of the season.

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

Over the next 17 games, between league play and the U.S. Open Cup, Real Salt Lake would go on the run that would establish their contenders’ credentials – a 12-2-3 stretch that pushed the team to the top of the conference and into the Open Cup semifinals. Still, the team wasn’t quote whole. Injuries to Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe had forced young Carlos Salcedo into action in defense. When he wasn’t with Costa Rica, Saborío was having trouble staying healthy, while the callups of Rimando, Beckerman, and Tony Beltran for the Gold Cup were testing the teams depth. When Sporting Kansas City took a contested 2-1 victory out of Rio Tinto in late July (Ike Opara scoring the winner in the 97th minute), RSL was missing five starters for what began of a three-match winless run.

source: AP
Real Salt Lake and Portland finished two-one in the West during MLS’s regular season, but RSL went 4-0-2 against the Timbers in 2013. Two wins came in the Western Conference finals. (Source: AP Photo.)

August’s return to Open Cup play brought the Portland Timbers onto the schedule, a team Real Salt Lake would go on to beat four times in 2013. Over the course of the month, RSL would go 2-0-1 against the West’s eventual one-seed, the team’s 4-2-1 month helping the squad move on to from July’s rocky finish.

Yet come September, the bumps were back, with the team losing back-to-back games to Seattle and San Jose. And on Oct. 1, RSL suffered the biggest setback of their campaign, losing a U.S. Open Cup final at home to D.C. United. Looking back on the stretch, Jason Kreis would later confess to not knowing what he had with his team. Did he have a contender? Or would 2013 really be a step back for Real Salt Lake?

Nobody knew for sure until the playoffs. Closing the regular season with two draws and a win (over Chivas USA) earned RSL the West’s second seed, but they’d also be paried with the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy. Perhaps the uncertainty led Kreis to change his tactics for the postseason opener in LA, a move he would later describe as a mistake, but headed back to Rio Tinto for their conference semifinal’s second leg, RSL were tasked with turning around a 1-0 deficit.

It was only after RSL had done so, winning 2-0 in Sandy, that everything truly came together. Two-plus weeks later, after the team had eliminated Portland 5-2 in the Western Conference final, players and staff talked about the importance of the LA second leg in a way that transcended an elimination game victory. In going back to their tried-and-true system – forgetting the 4-2-3-1 they tried in Carson – Real Salt Lake had affirmed their identity, giving them confidence they’d lacked through most of the fall. It wasn’t just that they’d beat the Galaxy, doing what nobody else had done since 2010. They’d done it by going back to what makes them RSL.

Ultimately, that’s what’s defined their 2013. It’s been RSL’s search for self. Offseason changes and early season injures obscured their identity this spring. After their summer surge, they were back on their heels come fall. Yet come mid-November, all the pieces had fallen into place.

The RSL team we’ll see on Saturday won’t be much different than the teams that have defined the club’s success since 2009, even if that success hasn’t been so straight forward in 2013.

Chinese clubs to pay 100% tax on foreign transfers

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The days of Chinese Super League sides spending eye-popping figures on a handful of international superstars are over — either that, or those figures are about to double — for now, at least.

[ MORE: Oscar given 8-game ban for petulant display in China ]

China’s Football Association announced Thursday that, effective immediately, any foreign player signed for a fee exceeding $6.63 million would be subject to a 100-percent tax on top of the fee paid to acquire the player. The tax will remain in effect until the end of China’s ongoing transfer window, July 14. The tax will also apply to Chinese players signed for a fee exceeding $3 million.

It’s Chinese authorities’ latest attempt to prevent big spending by CSL clubs, which has in every instance been detrimental to the development of young Chinese players making their way through the academy system. The taxed money will then be reinvested in “youth training, construction of public sporting facilities and scientific progress in football development,” according to a statement by the CFA.

Just last week, China was eliminated from contention to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia. The only time China has ever qualified for the World Cup was in 2002.

Young Englishman Oxford goes abroad, to Gladbach, on loan

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MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) Borussia Moenchengladbach has signed English central defender Reece Oxford on loan for the season from Premier League club West Ham.

Gladbach sporting director Max Eberl says “Oxford has gone through all the England youth teams and is one of the biggest defensive talents in Britain.”

The 18-year-old Oxford, who spent the second half of last season on loan at second-division club Reading, is Gladbach’s fifth arrival of the off-season.

Qatar stadium safety concerns again raised by death investigation

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An investigation into why a British man fell to his death on a building site for the 2022 Qatar soccer World Cup has raised concerns about stadium roof safety.

World Cup organizers on Thursday released partial findings of an assessment of the accident at the Khalifa International Stadium, but said the full report cannot be released while local authorities continue their own investigation. It is one of two work-related deaths detailed in Qatar’s latest welfare report on preparations for the 2022 soccer tournament, which currently involves 12,367 workers on eight construction sites.

The 40-year-old British man fell 39 meters in January after one end of the roof catwalk he was installing dropped and a safety rope snapped.

“During the course of the investigation, the team had raised concerns with the method of installation of the raised catwalk system,” the welfare report from Qatar’s World Cup organizers stated. “This required further investigation regarding the method itself and the supervision skills of the specialist contractor staff.”

It has led to “corrective and preventative actions” being implemented by the contractor, a joint venture between Belgian and Qatari firms, along with safety checks across all stadium sites, the report said.

“These included a review of all working-at-height activities across all SC projects, an enhanced process when reviewing specialist activities within construction sites, and a detailed review of all roof and gantry designs,” the Supreme Committee overseeing stadium projects added.

The British man is the only European working on Qatar stadiums to have died in a country relying on a low-paid migrant workforce from south Asia to prepare for the first World Cup in the Middle East. Six non-work related deaths have been announced by organizers, with most suffering from heart or breathing problems.

Hassan Al Thawadi, the supreme committee’s secretary general, said medical staff are trying to raise awareness of the “importance of healthy lifestyles” by evaluating diets and identifying health issues, including hypertension and diabetes. Cooling helmets have also been developed in an attempt to make it safer for workers on outdoor sites during the searing summer heat.

World Cup preparations have been dogged by concerns about the welfare of workers since the natural gas-rich Gulf nation won the FIFA vote in 2010. Mounting international pressure led to Qatar raising living standards and worker rights. Inspections led to three contractors being blacklisted and 14 entities “demobilized” from projects for failing to tackle welfare issues, the World Cup report reveals.

“There is still work to be done to ensure our workers’ welfare standards continue to have a tangible impact on the ground and we are comprehensive in our attempts to tackle the myriad of issues facing migrant workers across the SC program,” Khalid Al-Kubaisi, who oversees worker welfare at the Supreme Committee, said in a statement.

The report has been released as Qatar is gripped by a diplomatic crisis that has seen it isolated in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar earlier this month and blocked air, sea and land traffic over its support for Islamist groups and ties with Iran. Qatar denies the charges and says the allegations are politically motivated.

Official (finally): Salah completes move from Roma to Liverpool

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It was the summer’s first transfer rumor-turned-real-story-turned-never-ending-saga that seemed to refuse to cross the finish line, but it’s finally come to pass: Mohamed Salah is a Liverpool player.

Salah’s move from Roma to Liverpool took so long to complete that the club’s poor social-media manager probably never wants to read the words “Announce Salah” for the rest of his/her life.

The deal will cost Liverpool something in the neighborhood of $50 million — a new Liverpool club record — and completes the utterly terrifying attacking quartet Jurgen Klopp can’t wait to unleash on the Premier League come August — Salah on one side, Sadio Mane opposite, Philippe Coutinho in the middle, and Roberto Firmino at striker. Salah, by the way, will take over Firmino’s no. 11 shirt, with the Brazilian switching to no. 9.