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MLS Cup positional edges: Looks at the defenses for Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City

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Early this year, when assessing and comparing the Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake defenses, any analyst worth his or her weight in Brazuca match balls would have handed the check mark to SKC and happily moved on.

Not that Real Salt Lake’s back line wasn’t worthy; Sporting KC’s tough and talented bunch was just that good. Sporting led the league in fewest goals allowed in 2013, a fact that surprised absolutely no one.

But after watching the playoff performance of RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, absolutely dominant in series wins over Los Angeles and (especially) Portland, this should now be considered about as close as it can be. Both of the back lines to be showcased Saturday at ridiculously cold Sporting Park are MLS Cup worthy units, and then some.

It’s not just the center backs, either. For Kansas City, fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are tough, talented and always happy to scoot forward in support of the attack. Witness Sinovic’s big run up the left side and mighty finish that supplied his team the conference semifinal series game-winner against New England.

But those two have nothing on Tony Beltran (right) or Chris Wingert (left). Neither is quite national team material, but like Myers and Sinovic, they are just a small notch below international status, certainly blessed sufficiently in all the areas that make an upper echelon MLS outside back: one-on-one defending, passing out of the back, crossing and speed to move up and down the flank (in systems that demand it).

source:  But both defenses revolve around those imposing center backs. (Well, and goalkeepers that provide good information to keep the elements linked.) Aurelien Colilin is something close to unbeatable at times, setting his team’s physical tone with an edge that frequently walks the line. Central partner Matt Besler (pictured above) provides the balance, accomplishing his defensive mention with a sharp read and a savvy ability to slip into the right spots, and then distribute sensibly out of them. His gradual rise to U.S. national team starter has been inspirational.

Speaking of rises: Schuler’s terrific work on the back half of RSL’s surprisingly bright 2013 campaign has made the Rio Tinto faithful more or less forget how much they miss Jamison Olave, who was traded to New York a year back. Alongside Borchers (pictured above and to the left) the pair helped limit Portland to just two shots on goal in the second leg in Oregon, in a match where the Timbers were determined to attack with abandon. It was truly one of the best paired performances of the 2013 MLS post-season.

Weaknesses along the back lines? Not many. If we are picking nits, perhaps Collin’s volatile nature could get him in early yellow card trouble, forcing him to drag around the booking and recalibrate accordingly. Or perhaps the collective SKC desire to press high and get the outside backs forward when playing at home could leave the flanks vulnerable to a sharp-eyed playmaker and a fast forward. (Javier Morales and Robbie Findley, anyone?)

EDGE: dead even

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Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. West Ham

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LONDON — Arsenal beat West Ham United 5-1 at the London Stadium on Saturday as the Gunners remained unbeaten since the opening day of the Premier League season.

Mesut Ozil’s first half goal was added to by three from Alexis Sanchez and a stunner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second half as the Gunners ran riot.

Here’s what we learned from a one-sided London derby.


SANCHEZ THE DIFFERENCE

There was word going around the press room deep in the London Stadium that Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez had tweaked his groin muscle in the warmup and was struggling.

Arsenal fans everywhere panicked. They were right to do that.

Luckily, Sanchez shook it off  (he was stretching out his left groin readily early on in the game) and was ready to torment West Ham’s defense. He set up Mesut Ozil for Arsenal’s first and then scored three goals himself in the space of 14 second half minutes, with the first a thing of beauty.

Once again deployed in a central striking role, Sanchez showed exactly why he’s so important to Arsenal and why him signing a new contract must be a priority for Arsene Wenger.

With him they have a real chance of challenging for the title and they’re only three points off first-place Chelsea. Without him, they don’t. Alongside Ozil, they are the two world class talents Arsenal possess and the board must break the bank to keep the star attacking duo on board.


NO PAYET? MORE PROBLEMS

For most of the first half you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Dimitri Payet was on the pitch. The French international playmaker strolled around and barely broke into a sweat as he completely failed to control the ball on one occassion and gave it away readily.

He ballooned a shot 20-yards over the bar and din’t do much else. In the second half he drifted in and out of the game, whipping in a few good set pieces and setting up Manuel Lanzini in the box, plus he also casually walked the ball out of play from a goo crossing position in the box.

With a report circulating on Saturday that Arsenal were lining up a bid for Payet, 29, in January, some could argue that he has mentally checked out at West Ham. The Hammers look set to be embroiled in a relegation battle and Payet just isn’t up for that. His midweek performance in the EFL Cup at Manchester United suggested as much and this display reinforced those notions.

He only committed his future to the Hammers in the summer but if Arsenal come calling in January with a big bid, it’s clear that Payet would prefer to move on. West Ham’s owners would loathe selling Payet, an action which would put further presure on themselves given the tumultuous move to the London Stadium. But ask yourself this: is it better to get $45-50 million for Payet now (ballpark figure) and reinvest it in center backs and strikers you badly need? Or keep him around so he can saunter across the pitch so it’s basically like playing with 10 men?

There’s no doubting West Ham would miss Payet’s creativity in the final third but right now he should be the least of their worries.


BILIC ON THE ROPES

There’s no getting around it. The situation is bleak for the Hammers.

Slaven Bilic‘s team performed so well last season, his debut campaign as West Ham manager. They rode nostalgia-driven euphoria in their final season at Upton Park to finish seventh in the Premier League.

With three defeats in their last five and no wins in that stretch, Bilic seems to be on the brink. They are one point out of the relegation zone and three points off the bottom.

Yes, the Hammers have plenty of  issues in defense and that was exasperated by James Collins coming off injured early on, but the entire game was just a case of them hanging in and hoping Payet or Lanzini would bail them out. That was never likely to happen.

The team gave up on Bilic in the end as Arsenal struck three times in the final 10 minutes. Given the stadium issues and fans not being happy with the owners about the move and a multitude of issues, Bilic and his players have been cut plenty of slack so far.

That won’t go on for much longer. With a pivotal two week period from Dec. 14-31 coming up, Bilic will need wins against Burnley, Hull, Swansea and Leicester if he’s not only going to get West Ham out of trouble, but also keep his job.

Make no mistake about, West Ham is in freefall.

West Ham United 1-5 Arsenal: Electric Alexis lights up Olympic Stadium

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Mesut Oezil of Arsenal celebrates with team-mate Alexis Sanchez after scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images
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  • Ozil puts Gunners ahead
  • Hat trick, assist for Alexis
  • Arsenal on 31 points
  • Carroll pulls one back

Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain helped Arsenal to a 5-1 road win at West Ham United on Saturday.

The win boosts Arsenal into second, three points back of Chelsea, though Liverpool can pass the Gunners with a point on Sunday.

Andy Carroll added a goal for the Irons when Dimitri Payet‘s free kick rebounded off the cross bar and directly to the big man’s noggin.

The Irons continue to disappoint, now just a point above the drop zone in 17th. Hull would shove West Ham into 17th with a win over Middlesbrough on Monday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

An early injury to James Collins threatening to plague West Ham’s chances of a win, and the Gunners definitely had the better of the play.

Arsenal’s breakthrough came when West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna made a big mistake, his pass blocked into the path of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean worked Winston Reid quickly before passing across to Ozil for an easy tap-in.

The damage was limited into the break, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit a good chance woefully wide of the goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

West Ham’s second half started well, with both Dimitri Payet and Ashley Fletcher ripping shots toward the Arsenal goal.

The Irons kept up the pressure, with Ogbonna thwarting an Arsenal threat against the run of play by Theo Walcott.

Arsenal was countering for the second half’s first half hour, quite effectively. Darren Randolph was soon called upon to stop a pair of Gunner chances.

Turns out those counters were indicative of a change in control, and Sanchez scored a wonderful goal in the 72nd minute. Randolph was too deep in his goal, and the Chilean beat him far post.

He’d add another across the body of a sliding Randolph with 10 minutes to go, and this one was essentially over. Carroll, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Sanchez scored goals in the final 10 minutes.

Sanchez’s was a cute little dink over Randolph in the 87th minute.

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VIDEO: Alexis Sanchez scores sensational twisting, spinning goal

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Alexis Sanchez is a beast.

On Saturday he scored a stunning solo goal at the London Stadium in Arsenal’s clash against West Ham.

First his first goal the ball was drilled into him by Shkodran Mustafi and in one movement he controlled the ball, spun his marker and was away.

He still had plenty to do but the Chilean striker drilled a perfect effort across goal and into the far corner to put the Gunners 2-0 up. He then added two more goals for a 14 minute hat trick.

What a menace.

Watch his first goal in the video above, as Sanchez shrugged off a groin issue he suffered in the warmup and tormented West Ham.

WATCH: 2 red cards for fight… between Preston teammates

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - APRIL 09:  Gaston Ramirez of Middlesbrough (C) is challenged by Dan Johnson (L) and Eoin Doyle of Preston North End during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Preston North End at the Riverside Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Middlesbrough, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
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Preston North End attacker Eoin Doyle scored a goal and saw a ridiculous red card within an eight-minute span in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Sheffield Wednesday.

It wasn’t ridiculous that he was given the card, rather how he earned the sending off.

[ MORE: El Clasico ends in late draw ]

Doyle and teammate Jermaine Beckford had to broken up by teammates and opponents after the pair failed to team up for a scoring chance.

Beckford thought he was open for a pass that never came from Doyle, and shoves were exchanged before referee Scott Duncan sent both players to the stands in the 90th minute.

Follow @NicholasMendola