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

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Conventionally we think of Sporting Kansas City having a three-man midfield (4-3-3 formation) and Real Salt Lake with a four (4-4-2), but that’s our lazy numeric notation letting us down. Though they set up differently, each midfield functions as a three-plus-one with some  comparable roles. Vaguely:

  • The Holders: Kyle Beckerman is the most established defensive midfielder in the league, while Spaniard Oriol Rosell is an up-and-coming talent.
  • The Shuttlers: Veterans Paulo Nagamura and Ned Grabavoy provide give each team a box-to-box presence, able to complement the holder with help in front of the defense or get into the box and tip the balance in the attacking third.
  • The Connectors: Both Luis Gil and Benny Feilhaber provide their trio’s skill – players who can serve as outlets and turn on the ball at the edge of their own defensive third.
  • The Plus-Ones: They aren’t outright midfielders, but beyond the defensive third, Javier Morales and Graham Zusi are the team’s focal points, finding space between the forwards and midfielders that allows them to orchestrate their team’s opportunities.

Player for player, Real Salt Lake may have a slight advantage, but when we’re assessing edges for Saturday’s final, the players don’t exist in a vacuum. They match up against each other. Kyle Beckerman, with help from Grabavoy and Gil, will have to contain Zusi and account for Feilhaber and the oncoming Nagamura. Oriol Rosell and Nagamura will be charged with making life difficult for Morales.

We’ve seen RSL enough to know that years of experience in their system leaves Gil and Grabavoy less likely to overlook a runner, forget where they need to be when be as the midfield shifts, or misread an attacking chance that leaves the team light through the middle. But can we say the same for Feilhaber, who – for all as talents going forward, and his huge contribution defensively against Houston – is neither an old hand in this role nor consistent in providing that defensive presence?

It’s not that Feilhaber’s oblivious, loafing around the field, thumbing at his iPhone until you pass him the ball. He’s not. But if you’re looking for potential differences between the two units, this is one.

As with the goalkeepers and defense, this is practically a push, and depending on your point of view, that will either make for a great game or a stalemate. But if you’re asking who you’d rather have right now, in the roles they’ll play on Saturday, and given their current form:

  • Morales or Zusi?
  • Beckerman or Rosell?
  • Grabavoy and Gil or Feilhaber and Nagamura?

It’s a close call, but given one of these teams is defined and prides itself on how they setup and perform through the middle, it’s not surprise the Claret and Cobalt edge this one.

EDGE: Slight Real Salt Lake

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Looking back on RSL’s top moment as a club, the 2009 MLS Cup

Real Salt Lake in 2013: the “not-so-rebuilding” year

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

  • Sporting Kansas City

What we learned as SKC dispatched Houston in the Eastern finals

Sporting KC’s new way; the team is far more versatile today

MLS Cup 2000 flashback: Meola, Molnar and the SKC heroes

The Benny Feilhaber conundrum; has Peter Vermes finally cracked the code?

Notes from Sporting Kansas City’s Thursday press conference

  • Team versus team

MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

MLS Cup positional edges: Defenses

MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

  • MLS Cup general

MLS Cup will close banner 2013 season for Sporting Park

MLS Cup first: manager who are both former players in the league

Debunking the myth of Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake as bitter rivals

MLS Cup history: the three best finals yet

Looking at how the playoff format worked in 2013

Afobe says he scored 15 goals a game with Harry Kane at the Arsenal academy

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Selhurst Park on February 2, 2016 in London, England.
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Benik Afobe and Harry Kane are Premier League foes, but as kids, they were teammates.

Now Afobe is at Bournemouth and Kane at Tottenham, though both strikers played together with the Arsenal U-9 team as children.

[ RECAP: Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal ]

While Kane left Arsenal at 10 and eventually settled at crosstown rivals Tottenham, Afobe stayed under contract with the club until 2015 despite never making an appearance for the Gunners.

Afobe went on six loan spells before moving to Wolverhampton last season, then joining Bournemouth in January.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

With three goals in his first five Premier League matches for the Cherries, Afobe is no stranger to scoring, as he said he would combine with Harry Kane for 15 goals a game back in the day.

I’ve got pictures of us from Arsenal.

He was so small at the time, a bit of a late developer, but he’s always loved scoring. The scores used to be 17-15 and stuff – we just knew we’d score in every game.

But it’s weird because he used to play in goal sometimes, and wasn’t bad actually. You wouldn’t think it – remember that goal he let in for Tottenham a couple of years ago (against Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League) when he had to play in goal.

I think Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs’ supporters are happy Harry Kane chose to play striker over goalkeeper…

[ MORE: Deficiencies visible on both sides as Chelsea draw Manchester United ]

Kane has proven that he is an elite goalscorer in the Premier League, and Afobe is off to a fine start himself. With both players just 22-years-old, we’ll likely be seeing many more goals to come from the duo.

Gary Neville under pressure as Valencia without a win in nine

EIBAR, SPAIN - DECEMBER 13:  Head coach Gary Neville of Valencia CF reacts during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and Valencia CF at Ipurua Municipal Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Eibar, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
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Gary Neville was appointed manager at Valencia on December 2. He is still yet to win a La Liga match.

After falling 1-0 to Real Betis on Sunday, Neville is now winless in nine league matches at Valencia as pressure grows on the new boss.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Some have called for Neville to step down from his position, as the club has fallen from 8th to 13th and now sit just four points clear of the drop.

However, the former Manchester United legend has said he has been judged too quickly and will work hard to turn things around.

I said before I came that I would be judged in five months. I have been judged in six weeks.

There’s no doubt that at times like this everyone needs to stay together.

Everyone suffers. It’s just not going for us at the moment. I continue to work, I continue to have belief.

Conversations with the owners are between me and the owners. We have to turn it round quickly, I understand that. It is hard to explain the defeat. It will turn.

Not only has Neville struggled in La Liga play, but he has also seen Valencia bounced from the Champions League and saw his side smashed 7-0 by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinal.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United ]

Valencia’s next league match is on Saturday against Espanyol, who sit three points below Valencia and haven’t won a match since December. If Neville fails to win again, there could be some real trouble at the Mestalla.

PSG down Marseille 2-1 for ninth-straight Le Classique win

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 21:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic #10 of Paris Saint-Germain is congratulated by teamamte Maxwell #17 after Ibrahimovic scored a goal in the second half against AFC Fiorentina during the International Champions Cup at Red Bull Arena on July 21, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.Paris Saint-Germain defeated ACF Fiorentina 4-2.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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France’s biggest rivalry has been quite one-sided, as Paris Saint-Germain defeated Marseille 2-1 on Sunday to take their ninth-straight Le Classique.

Marseille’s last win over PSG in Ligue 1 play was in November of 2011.

[ MORE: Juve win 14th straight ]

PSG got off to a dream start in Sunday’s Classique as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in the opening two minutes to give the Le Parisiens an early lead. It was Zlatan’s league-leading 21st goal of the season.

On loan from Newcastle, Remy Cabella equalized for Marseille in the 25th minute. Cabella scored on a brilliant individual effort, taking the ball from his own half on a solo run to the PSG box before firing a low shot into the bottom corner.

[ RELATED: Lewandowski’s agent confirms contract talks with Bayern Munich ]

However, PSG pushed on and claimed the win thanks to a 71st minute goal from Angel di Maria, who has been impressing in his first season in Paris. With eight goals and ten assists in Ligue 1 play, only Zlatan has been involved in more goals than di Maria.

Through 25 matches, PSG hold a ridiculous 24-point lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Barca, Juve continue record streaks

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar JR of Barcelona walk on the pitch during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Catch up on all of Sunday’s action from Spain and Italy’s top flights.

Levante 0-2 Barcelona

With a two-goal win over Levante, Barcelona has tied their club-record as the Catalans are now unbeaten in 28 games across all competitions. An own-goal and late tally from Luis Suarez gave Barca the win against Levante, as Barcelona remains three points clear at the top of the La Liga table.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Granada 1-2 Real Madrid

Granada sits second-to-last in La Liga, but the struggling club nearly took points from Real Madrid, who needed a late strike from Luka Modric to leave with a win. Karim Benzema had put Real ahead, but Youssef El Arabi equalized for Granada who looked to be the more dangerous side for spells of the second half. However, Modric scored the winner with a blistering top-corner strike with less than ten minutes to play as Zinedine Zidane remains undefeated in charge.

Real Betis 1-0 Valencia

Gary Neville is still without a win in La Liga play after nine matches in charge as Valencia fell 1-0 to Real Betis on Sunday. Betis has been struggling as well, as the win was the club’s first league success since November. With both teams on 25 points, the two sides sit just four points above the relegation zone.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-1 Sevilla
Espanyol vs. Real Sociedad (Monday, 2:30 p.m. ET)


Frosinone 0-2 Juventus

After beating Frosinone, Juventus has now won a club-record 14 straight Serie A matches. Juventus’ last league defeat came way back on October 28, as The Old Lady has climbed from 12th to second on the table. Paulo Dybala scored again in the win over Frosinone, as the Argentinian striker is now second in the league with 13 goals on the year.

Napoli 1-0 Carpi

While Juventus’ Dybala is second in Serie A with 13 goals, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain scored the game’s only goal against Carpi to bring his league-leading tally up to 24. Higuain buried his penalty shot to lead Napoli to another win on Sunday, as Maurizio Sarri’s side remains two points clear at the top of the table. Higuain has been the main man, scoring eight goals in his last six matches while grabbing 24 in 24 appearances on the year.

[ VIDEO: John Terry says he made it “very clear” he wanted to stay at Chelsea ]

Verona 3-3 Inter Milan

After winning their first match of the season last week, Verona nearly won a second-straight against Inter Milan, although they had to settle for a draw against the Italian giants. Verona led the match 3-1 with 30 minutes to play, but goals from Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic rescued a point for Inter. With the point, Inter remain fourth place on the table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 2-2 Palermo
Torino 1-2 Chievo
AC Milan 1-1 Udinese
Atalanta 0-0 Empoli
Roma 2-1 Sampdoria