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.

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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

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

  • Team versus team

MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

MLS Cup positional edges: Defenses

MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

MLS Cup positional edges: Forwards

  • 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

Mourinho: League Cup “important to” Man Utd, but asks if it’s necessary?

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Marcus Rashford‘s heroics helped Manchester United cruise past visiting Burton Albion, 4-1, in a League Cup third round match at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Mourinho said the League Cup is important to Manchester United because it’s an official tournament, and United wants to win everything it can as a club.

[ WATCH: Rashford’s sensational second ]

Yet he stopped short of endorsing the Cup’s long-term future, a tournament which his side won last season but is perhaps the major obstacle towards the Premier League joining other European leagues with winter breaks. From ManUtd.com:

“If the competition is an official competition then it is important for Manchester United and for me as a manager. If you ask me could the English football survive or even be better without this competition? Maybe, maybe we would be fresher for European competition for example. But we have this competition, we have to respect the sponsors, we have to respect the opponents and a lot of us are trying to do our best.”

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap | La Liga | Serie A ]

United drew a trip to Swansea for the fourth round, and is certainly among the favorites to win the whole thing with their solid depth (See their Starting XI below).

Would you miss the League Cup if it went away?

Serie A: Mertens scores unreal goal; Napoli, Milan, Juve win (video)

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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It’s early but signs of an actual title race in Italy are truly delightful.

Juventus and Napoli remain perfect, with the latter above the former in the Serie A table this early season following Wednesday wins.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap | La Liga | League Cup ]

Roma and Atalanta posted blowout wins, while AC Milan won a day after their Milanese rivals Inter needed a 77th minute penalty to draw at Bologna.

Lazio 1-4 Napoli

There were five goals in this one, but the only one you need to witness comes on this unreal shot from an odd angle by the world’s top under-appreciated scorer: Dries Mertens.

Juventus 1-0 Fiorentina

Mario Mandzukic scored the lone goal as The Old Lady slipped further behind Napoli in goal difference.

AC Milan 2-0 SPAL

I Rossoneri scored on a penalty in each half, with new boys Ricardo Rodriguez and Franck Kessie converting the chances.

Benevento 0-4 Roma

Edin Dzeko buried a pair of goals and the hosts gifted i Lupi a pair of own goals.

Elsewhere
Bologna 1-1 Inter Milan — Tuesday
Cagliari 0-1 Sassuolo
Genoa 1-1 Chievo
Verona 0-0 Sampdoria
Udinese 2-3 Torino

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Napoli 5 5 0 0 19 3 16 2-0-0 3-0-0 15
 Juventus 5 5 0 0 14 3 11 3-0-0 2-0-0 15
 Inter Milan 5 4 1 0 11 2 9 2-0-0 2-1-0 13
 AC Milan 5 4 0 1 10 6 4 3-0-0 1-0-1 12
 Torino 5 3 2 0 10 5 5 1-1-0 2-1-0 11
 Lazio 5 3 1 1 10 8 2 1-1-1 2-0-0 10
 Roma 4 3 0 1 9 3 6 1-0-1 2-0-0 9
 Sampdoria 4 2 2 0 6 4 2 1-0-0 1-2-0 8
 Atalanta 5 2 1 2 9 7 2 2-0-1 0-1-1 7
 Fiorentina 5 2 0 3 8 7 1 1-0-1 1-0-2 6
 Cagliari 5 2 0 3 4 6 -2 1-0-1 1-0-2 6
 Chievo 5 1 2 2 5 8 -3 0-1-1 1-1-1 5
 Bologna 5 1 2 2 4 7 -3 0-2-1 1-0-1 5
 SPAL 5 1 1 3 3 8 -5 1-0-1 0-1-2 4
 Sassuolo 5 1 1 3 3 8 -5 0-1-1 1-0-2 4
 Udinese 5 1 0 4 7 10 -3 1-0-2 0-0-2 3
 Genoa 5 0 2 3 5 9 -4 0-1-2 0-1-1 2
 Verona 5 0 2 3 1 11 -10 0-1-2 0-1-1 2
 Crotone 5 0 1 4 1 11 -10 0-1-2 0-0-2 1
 Benevento 5 0 0 5 1 14 -13 0-0-3 0-0-2 0

History denied! Real Madrid loses, fails in bid to beat Pele-led record (video)

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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Real Madrid did everything but score, and now find themselves denied a chance at unparalleled history and in a relatively deep early hole in La Liga’s table.

A stoppage time loss to visiting Real Betis ended the club’s 73-match run of matches with a goal, and it came on the day it could’ve passed Pele’s Santos for sole possession of the longest scoring streak in history.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

Perhaps more important, Madrid now sits seven points back of first place Barcelona. Their eight points leave them sixth.

Real Madrid 0-1 Real Betis

The hosts looked so good, and so fluid… and provided any number of finishes which would’ve been goals on another day. Unfortunately for them, the only goal came from Paraguay’s Antonio Sanabria in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time.

That’s because Real Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adan was sensational, including a stunning stop on Gareth Bale‘s backheeled volley in the final quarter hour.

It could’ve gone worse for Madrid, as Mexico’s Andres Guardado had an assist called back for offside.

Before that, there was this from one of the best in history:

Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Atletico Madrid

Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco helped the visitors go second in La Liga, as ex-Atleti midfielder Raul Garcia provided Athletic’s only goal deep into stoppage time.

Elsewhere
Leganes 0-0 Girona
Deportivo de la Coruna 1-0 Alaves
Sevilla 1-0 Las Palmas

League Cup draw: Spurs host Hammers; Everton off to Chelsea

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Sixteen teams are five wins from a berth in the Europa League following the fourth round draw for the League Cup.

Eleven of the 16 belong to the Premier League, leaving Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Norwich City, Bristol City, and Middlesbrough to dream of dream runs to Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

There are only a trio of all-Premier League ties in the bunch, including a high-profile London clash between Spurs and West Ham.

Chelsea will host Everton, while Manchester United heads to Wales for a date with Swansea City.

All-in-all, we could have quarterfinals without a single Cinderella story.

Full draw
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Ham United
Bristol City vs. Crystal Palace
Arsenal vs. Norwich City
Chelsea vs. Everton
Swansea City vs. Manchester United
Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough
Leicester City vs. Leeds United