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.

Championship playoff contenders all but confirmed

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It was a pivotal day in England’s second-tier as the four playoff teams set to battle it out for a place in the Premier League have all but been confirmed.

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After the results in the penultimate weekend Huddersfield Town, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday are definitely in the playoffs (where they will finish in the standings is still up in the air) and Fulham have all but joined them after they drew 1-1 with Brentford at Craven Cottage.

That means they’re three points clear of Leeds United who are seventh and they also have a goal differential of +27 to Leeds’ +14. So, there needs to be a 13 goal swing on the final day of the Championship season for Leeds to finish above Fulham and nick the final playoff spot.

Yup. Not going to happen…

For fans of U.S. Soccer there will be plenty of intrigued in these playoffs as USMNT players Danny Williams (Reading) and Tim Ream (Fulham) will feature, plus German-American manager David Wagner has guided Huddersfield to the top six in his first full season in charge of the Terriers.

The two-legged playoff semifinals will take place after the regular season ends on May 5 and then the winners of those semifinals will compete in the Championship playoff final, known as the richest game in soccer, at Wembley on May 26 for a place in the Premier League.

Below is a look at the Championship table with one round of games to go as Brighton (already promoted automatically to the PL along with Newcastle) can seal the title with a win against Bristol City late on Saturday.


Relegated Sunderland “obviously distraught”; Moyes wants to stay

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Neither John O'Shea nor David Moyes had been relegated during their long careers in football.

That changed Saturday.

The former Manchester United defender and Everton manager saw Sunderland drop into the second tier after a bevy of wasted chances and a lapse at the back perfectly summed up their season in England.

[ RECAP: Sunderland 0-1 Bournemouth ]

Moyes wants to stick around and help Sunderland back to the Premier League the way Rafa Benitez did this season in the Championship. Here’s what he said on NBCSN after the match:

“I feel for the supporters. They put their hard-earned cash out there to support the team, and my thoughts are really with them today.

“Yeah, the job’s to make sure that we get ourselves prepared and ready but we’re in this position, to talk about it now is just too quick.”

As for O’Shea, he’s clearly gutted and exasperated. The veteran Irish back did not have a strong season along with the majority of his teammates, and is left grasping for answers.

“Look, we’re obviously distraught. We all wanted the support that we got today. It’s not a nice feeling.

“Performances, results, are the obvious things at the end of the season. The detail never lies. We haven’t kept enough clean sheets, we haven’t taken enough chances. We needed a miracle run to save us, and we couldn’t produce it.”

The Black Cats were kept alive by Jermain Defoe‘s heroics for most of the season, but the striker went ice cold with finishing from February onward. The club rarely looked the part this season, and this might not be a short spell away from the top flight.

Stoke City 0-0 West Ham: Stalemate in the Potteries

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  • Stoke, West Ham waste chances
  • Potters move on to 40 points
  • West Ham have 39 points

Stoke and West Ham played out a tense 0-0 draw at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday.

Marko Arnautovic went close for Stoke and so did Andre Ayew for the Hammers but both Adrian and Jack Butland were in fine form in goal.

The draw means Stoke reach the 40-point marker but they drop 12th place in the table, while West Ham remain in 14th and have 39 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first big chance of the game fell to Stoke as Marko Arnautovic cut the ball back from the left side of the box to find Saido Berahino and his powerful effort was well blocked by Winston Reid.

Stoke continued to do most of the pressing early on and West Ham’s best chance came from a free kick as Jose Fonte’s header was deflected over the bar.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

West Ham then had a great chance to go ahead as Fernandes’ cross found Jonathan Calleri but he blazed over the bar. Moments later Andre Ayew’s overhead kick was then denied brilliantly by Jack Butland who made a phenomenal stop on his first appearance back at the bet365 Stadium.

Stoke finished the half well as Glen Johnson brilliantly burst into the box and his ball to the near post was poked wide by Fonte just as Arnautovic was ready to tap home and moments late Fonte blocked by Berahino as Joe Allen cut the ball back.

Right on half time Calleri then made a terrible mess of a great chance as he tried a rabona instead of slotting home. 0-0.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The second half started brightly as Allen had a volley just wide and Cheikhou Kouyate saw his effort go wide of Butland’s far post.

Good work from Arnautovic then led to a chance to Xherdan Shaqiri but he fired just wide under pressure. Allen’s shot from distance caused Adrian some problems and West Ham’s goalkeeper also pushed away an effort from Berahino.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ayew then forced Butland into a save from a shot and a header as the Hammers pushed hard for a winner late on.

Stoke went close to snatching all three points as a fine ball into the box found Arnautovic but Adrian denied his volley superbly and scrambled clear at the second attempt.

Southampton 0-0 Hull: Jakupovic the hero in late PK drama

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  • Jakupovic saves Tadic’s late PK
  • Hull three points clear of bottom three
  • Saints move on to 41 points

Hull City held on at Southampton on Saturday to grab a vital point in their battle against relegation.

In a game which saw few goalscoring chances created, Edlin Jakupovic emerged as Hull’s hero as he saved Dusan Tadic‘s poor penalty kick in second half stoppage time.

With the point Hull move three clear of the relegation zone and have 34 points, while Southampton move on to 41 points and remain in ninth place in the table.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Hull looked lively early on as Kamil Grosicki broke on the counter and his low shot hit the side-netting.

The Polish winger went even closer moments later as he curled a free kick up and over the wall but the ball clipped the outside of the post and went wide.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Hull continued to launch long balls forward and one of those caught out Maya Yoshida as Oumar Niasse raced free but Jack Stephens deflected his effort wide.

The visitors looked the more likely to open the scoring in an even first half.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Saints started the second half brightly with Sofiane Boufal working some space on the edge of the box but Harry Maguire blocked well at the crucial moment and moments later Dusan Tadic had an effort deflected wide.

Puel then brought on Shane Long and Josh Sims for Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini as he tried to spark fresh impetus into Saints’ attack.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Late on Saints pushed hard to find a winner as Tadic saw his shot saved by Jakupovic after Hull’s goalkeeper had initially punched a clearance down into the box. Niasse then had a good chance but got it all wrong and belted the ball over from the edge of the box.

Southampton then had a glorious chance to win the game in stoppage time as Yoshida was hauled down in the box by Alfred N'Diaye but Tadic’s penalty kick was superbly saved by Jakupovic who was once again the hero for Hull.

The Tigers almost snatched all three points late on as Niasse’s scrambled effort was cleared off the line by Cedric Soares.