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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What we learned as SKC dispatched Houston in the Eastern finals

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

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MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

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MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

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Hoffenheim reaches Champions League qualifiers for 1st time

AP Photo/Michael Probst
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BERLIN (AP) The youngest coach in the Bundesliga, 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, has steered Hoffenheim to a place in the Champions League qualifiers in the club’s best ever season.

Hoffenheim could even secure its first appearance in the Champions League group stage if it holds on to third place – where it now stands after Benjamin Huebner scored in the last minute to snatch a 1-0 home win over Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday. It has three more matches to play this season.

Huebner’s late goal, a powerful header to Sebastian Rudy’s corner, moved the side one point above Borussia Dortmund, which was held to a scoreless draw at home by Cologne on Saturday.

The goal was scored by the son of Frankfurt sporting director Bruno Huebner.

“A lucky win,” acknowledged Hoffenheim backer Dietmar Hopp, the software billionaire whose finances helped his hometown club progress from minor leagues to the Bundesliga.

A co-founder of the SAP software giant, Hopp became the first private owner of a Bundesliga side when he took a majority stake in Hoffenheim in 2015. By then he had already spent an estimated 350 million euros on the team.

However, Hoffenheim’s best appointment to date appears to be that of Nagelsmann, who took over in February 2016 after Huub Stevens stepped down for health reasons.

Then 28, Nagelsmann hadn’t even earned his coaching credentials from the German football federation (DFB). But he saved the side from relegation and Hoffenheim is enjoying its best ever season this year.

The win over Frankfurt extended its unbeaten run at home to 16 games and ensured it beat its previous best-mark of 55 points from the 2008-09 season.

As a player, Nagelsmann lined up for Bavarian sides Augsburg and 1860 Munich before turning his attention to coaching. He spent almost a decade coaching the youth sides of 1860 Munich and then Hoffenheim, for which he was also assistant coach in 2012-13.

Earlier this year, Nagelsmann was named the German football federation’s coach of the year for 2016.

Dortmund hosts Hoffenheim next weekend for a game that is likely to decide which side goes into the qualifiers and which secures automatic qualification for the Champions League.

AUGSBURG 4, HAMBURGER SV 0

Hamburger SV slipped closer to its first ever relegation in a humiliating defeat at fellow struggler Augsburg.

Hamburg, the last founding member of the league to have played every season since its formation in 1963, was left in the relegation playoff place with three games remaining.

“We’re all affected by the performance we showed today,” Hamburg coach Markus Gisdol said. “We were hoping for something different. But we’ve got over other setbacks before and have to deliver the best in the next game.”

Hamburg goalkeeper Tom Mickel and the left post denied Augsburg early on before Halil Altintop fired the home side ahead, midway through the first half.

Altintop scored another before the break, set up by Philipp Max, to give Augsburg some breathing space.

Michael Gregoritsch reacted with a brutal challenge on Dominik Kohr, for which the Hamburg midfielder was fortunate to escape with a yellow card.

Max sealed the result on a counterattack before setting up Raul Bobadilla to complete the scoring late on.

“We could even have scored more goals,” Augsburg coach Manuel Baum said. “But more than three points wouldn’t have been possible.”

Victory lifted Augsburg out of the relegation playoff place and two points above Hamburg, Wolfsburg and Mainz, all level on 33 points. Hamburg, which has conceded a league-worst 59 goals in 31 games, has an inferior goal difference to the other two.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt occupied the automatic relegation spots. Ingolstadt was four points behind Hamburg, while Darmstadt was all but doomed, nine points behind.

Balotelli, Nice may have spoiled PSG’s title chances

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Monaco took care of business at the top of Ligue 1 on Saturday and now the Champions League semifinalists could be closing in on France’s crown.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in ruling North London, but want more ]

Paris Saint-Germain slipped up on Sunday with a 3-1 loss against third-place Nice, and it could spell the end for the Parisians’ hopes of winning Ligue 1 in 2016/17.

Mario Balotelli sprung Nice in front after 26 minutes with a curling left-footed effort from outside the box, before Ricardo Pereira doubled the advantage for the hosts just three minutes into the second stanza with a lovely curler of his own.

PSG managed to pull a goal back in the 64th minute as Marquinhos gave the visitors a glimmer of hope to keep their title hopes alive.

However, the final minutes of the match took a drastic turn for the worse for PSG as Thiago Motta and Angel di Maria were both shown red cards for violent tackles on Nice players.

Nice also found a third finish after PSG was dwindled down to nine men when Anastasios Donis headed home a lofted cross from the left wing.

With three matches remaining for PSG, Unai Emery’s side sits three points behind league leaders Monaco, who also have a match in hand. PSG finishes up their Ligue 1 account with matches against Bastia, St Etienne and Caen.

Video: Camilo Sanvezzo scores wonder goal for Queretaro

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Camilo Sanvezzo scored two goals on Sunday for Queretaro but many won’t even remember the score of the game after his brilliant first effort.

The Queretaro forward scored the first of two finishes in the 66th minute after winning the ball in his own half, carrying it into the Toluca end and unleashing a deadly shot from just inside midfield.

Sanvezzo eventually scored his side’s second goal in the dying minutes of the match, and his 88th minute finish proved to be the winner for Queretaro, who currently sit 13th in Liga MX.

The 28-year-old should be familiar to MLS fans after Sanvezzo’s time with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2011 to 2013. The veteran scored 39 goals in 92 matches with the Canadian side.

MLS Snapshot: Atlanta United 1-3 D.C. United (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): Atlanta has been one of the most exciting teams in MLS over the opening two months of the season, but with a bit of luck and grit D.C. United spoiled the newcomers’ fun on Sunday afternoon. It was all the home side early on in the match, which was spearheaded by Kenwyne Jones‘ emphatic header, but D.C. responded well with some good pressure of their own. The win for D.C. moves Ben Olsen’s club into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, Atlanta still holds the sixth and final playoff position through eight matches as Gerardo Martino’s side sits on 11 points.

[ MORE: MLS roundup from Saturday’s action ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Hosts apply pressure and hit D.C. where it hurts — This is exactly why Atlanta brought in Kenwyne Jones. Big body and deadly heading ability. Can’t stop that.

25′ — D.C. unexpectedly pulls level — It certainly wasn’t how Lamar Neagle drew it up but he and D.C. somehow equalized before the half hour mark after some sloppy Atlanta defending.

36′ — Acosta runs wild — Atlanta will probably want to look back on this moment and make sure they do a better job covering the diminutive attacker next time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Luciano Acosta

Goalscorers: Kenwyne Jones (9′), Michael Parkhurst — OG (25′), Luciano Acosta (36′), Sebastian Le Toux (55′)