MLS Cup: Looking at Real Salt Lake’s tactics, style

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KANSAS CITY – Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis has allowed himself just a little more tactical breathing room in 2013, now more comfortable that his team (and he, himself) know how to manage a slightly different set-up and still fulfill the tenets that have made his bunch so successful.

Still, the only starting point in a discussion of Real Salt Lake tactics and style is that signature diamond midfield, which we are almost sue to see Saturday at Sporting Park.

For Real Salt Lake on the attack, it is all about Javier Morales (pictured), the team’s highly skilled and very wise Argentine playmaker. Morales, who has been in such splendid form in the playoffs, places himself nominally at the top of the midfield diamond — but it is really just a starting point.

Morales can drift around, comfortable that outside midfielders Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy will position themselves accordingly in the event RSL loses the ball. So Morales will drift, frequently all the way to the touchlines to pick up balls from Kyle Beckerman and the RSL defenders.

Drifting into these disparate starting spots serves another purpose: SKC’s penchant for tactical fouling becomes more difficult. Sporting KC is quite wise in its exploitation of some naivete that still prevails in MLS refereeing circles. If Kansas City center back Aurelien Collin or holding midfielder Oriol Rosell adjudge that RSL is about to catch their team in a numerical disadvantage, they will foul quickly so that the team can organize defensively.

They will, that is, if they can find Morales and get to him in time. Morales will be well aware of what’s coming, and he’ll try to find Robbie Findley in advanced spaces, quickly so.

Findley’s speed, his ability to get behind defenses – and therefore to stretch those defenses vertically, adding more space in the midfield – has been a huge difference in RSL from 2012 to this year. Adding space in the midfield allows a bit more operating room for the swell, passing interchange we’ll see from Morales, holding man Kyle Beckerman and the outer midfield edges, occupied by Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil.

Their ability to retain possession in the midfield – when they aren’t looking to use that deadly Morales-to-Findley combo on the counter, that is – will tell much of the story Saturday. It won’t be easy against SKC’s 4-3-3 and high press, but all four RSL midfielders have the technical ability to work out of tight spots.

RSL’s outside backs – it will be Tony Beltran on the right and either Chris Wingert or Lovel Palmer on the left – will get  forward, although surely not as much as their opposite numbers for the home team.

Kreis knows his team must be dialed in early; sucking some life out of the Sporting Park bunch – sure to be “hot” even if the weather is ridiculously frigid – would mean so much. That would force SKC outside backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic to cheat forward even more, to risk those gaps in behind.

Betting men should rush to Vegas with fists full of cash to wager that Aurelien Collin will be the first man booked at Sporting Park. In fact, the visitors should make every effort to provoke it.

An early booking would require Collin to completely alter his game, being less physical and less confrontational. When stripped of his best asset, that ability to create contact and look to win balls with maximum intensity, Collin becomes a very average defender, and one far more vulnerable to Findley’s speed.

Defensively, RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler can probably contain SKC’s crop of workaday forwards. The danger will be in the midfield, where Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber can crush with their creativity.

Under Kreis, RSL is one of the league’s top teams at minding its positioning on the attack, always aware of where the pieces find themselves in case they lose the ball. RSL will lose possession in bad spots here and there; it’s all but inevitable against SKC. If the visitors can maintain that positional discipline, they have a good chance of handling SKC’s attack, leaving the home to create mostly off set pieces.

MORE ProSoccerTalk MLS CUP COVERAGE

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Report says Jason Kreis on sure track to take NYCFC job; the RSL manager just frowns

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

Real Salt Lake’s key men

  • 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

Sporting Kansas City’s key players

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MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

MLS Cup positional edges: Defenses

MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

MLS Cup positional edges: Forwards

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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

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.

Morata signs five-year contract at Chelsea

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Chelsea FC will have another Spanish international leading the front line, with Diego Costa likely on his way out of town.

The club announced that Alvaro Morata has completed a transfer from Real Madrid, signing a five-year contract at Stamford Bridge. The BBC reports the transfer fee at nearly $78 million.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“I am so happy to be here,” Morata said in a statement. “It’s an incredible emotion to be part of this big club. I am looking to work hard, score as many goals as I can and to win as many trophies as possible.”

Morata emerged as an option to replace Costa after Romelu Lukaku decided on joining Manchester United over his former club Chelsea. Morata, who was a Manchester United target at first, then turned his sights on London after becoming disillusioned in Madrid, playing second-fiddle to Karim Benzema.

Despite not being first-choice up top, Morata scored 15 goals in 26 La Liga games and another three in the UEFA Champions League, which Real Madrid went on to win over Morata’s former club Juventus. Morata started for Juventus the last time the club had been in the Champions League final.

Despite being just 24, Morata is emerging as one of the world’s top forwards. He has nine goals in 19 games for the Spanish National Team and now is the right time for him to experience the challenge of the Premier League, where the games come thick and fast and the pace of the game is a step up from what he’s experienced in Spain and Italy.

However, the tactical knowledge he’s learned in both places should help him in England, where he can position himself between the opposing centerbacks.