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MLS Cup preview: Real Salt Lake meets Sporting Kansas City to decide Major League Soccer’s 18th championship

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KANSAS CITY – Playing careers will be defined and future coaching careers could be shaped Saturday on a bone-chilling afternoon at Sporting Park, where Major League Soccer’s 18th championship will be decided.

Sporting Kansas City will look for its second MLS Cup title overall, but the first for this current bunch, when the match against Real Salt Lake kicks off on ESPN just after 4 p.m. ET.

RSL, meanwhile, will aim for its second championship in five years, with many of the same central figures still around from the winners who triumphed over David Beckham and Landon Donovan in MLS Cup 2009, that one played in Seattle.

Saturday’s coaches are a big part of the plotlines here. RSL’s Jason Kreis was the youngest MLS manager to claim the title when he won in 2009 as a 36-year-old. He’s still considered one of the bright young minds of the business – so much so that well-heeled New York City FC has targeted Kreis as the choice to build their club. We’ll find out soon after Saturday’s contest if Salt Lake’s intense, introspective leader will remain in Utah or aim for something bigger.

On the other bench, a win Saturday for SKC manager Peter Vermes would tick the one unchecked box on his own promising managerial career. Kansas City has been a solid performer and U.S. Open Cup winner over the last three seasons, but this is his first time in the league’s ultimate match. Win Saturday and, who knows, perhaps we’ll all start mentioning Vermes along with Kreis as a potential, future U.S. national team manager.

The other looming story line: We already know Saturday’s match will set a record for coldest MLS Cup yet, much further on the frigid scale than the other chilly championships, rainy nights in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and in Seattle in 2009, and a wind-swept night in Toronto in 2010. Temperatures were in the low 40s for those; they’ll be down into the low 20s at best, and perhaps into the teens at Sporting Park.

An underground heating system should keep the field from freezing; it looked to be holding up fine as Real Salt Lake trained there Friday afternoon.

This is Major League Soccer’s second year under a format that gives host duties to the finalist with a better record. The net out means unpredictable weather, but the atmosphere inside a packed ground will be worlds beyond all those years of neutral-site deciders witnessed by largely indifferent audiences.

How will the game play out? Defensively, most likely, thanks to the dominant figures involved; A majority of the best players at Sporting Park on Saturday will be goal preventers more than goal producers, the goalkeepers, defenders and defensive-minded midfielders.

This crop of crème starts with Real Salt Lake center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler have found the sweet spot lately, a major reason RSL dispatched the two-time MLS defending champion LA Galaxy and then blew past Portland, which was everyone’s stylish choice to win the West.

source: Getty ImagesBut Sporting KC’s pair of center backs stand every bit as respected: U.S. international Matt Besler is the brains and irascible Frenchman Aurelien Collin is the brawn, if you will. Either way, they are quite effective, guiding the way to the league’s top goals against average over 2013.

There are, of course, goal scorers afoot, too. Robbie Findley, who scored in RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup win, has been huge in this year’s playoffs. Playmaker Javier Morales (left, in the middle) has been exceptional, as well, and the ability to find Findley on the break (probably behind one of the SKC fullbacks if they stray too far into the attack) is RSL’s top scoring ploy.

For the home team, during the Eastern Conference finals win over Houston, former U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was finally the playmaking presence everyone thought he could be upon this year’s arrival into the heartland. On their games, he and fellow pass-master Graham Zusi operating out of the 4-3-3 can create plenty of opportunities for whichever forwards are up in something of a rotation Kansas City.

MORE ProSoccerTalk MLS CUP COVERAGE

  • Real Salt Lake

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

  • 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

Pardew says Crystal Palace need a “big name” signing this summer

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Alan Pardew manager of Crystal Palace gives a thumbs up during The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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After losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup final on Sunday, Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew is already looking ahead to next season.

The Eagles’ boss was happy with his team’s performance against United, but admitted that the club needs to bring in some more talent over the summer transfer window.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

Speaking about his summer plans, Pardew said he wants to bring a “big name” to Selhurst Park to help Palace continue their plan of growth.

We have shown that we have got talent in the group. We need to refine it a little bit, and we are going to try to do that in the transfer market. But we were a force to be reckoned with against Manchester United. We have given a real good, honest account of ourselves.

I think we have got to get players who are better than this. There is no point in getting players who are not potentially better than the ones we have got. Well, then they have got to be good players. So will there be a big name in there? There’s going to need to be.

After a hot start to the 2015-16 Premier League season, many believed Pardew had a Palace side that was able to compete in the top half of the table for a spot in Europe. However, after sitting fifth on Boxing Day, Palace won just two of their final 21 matches and slid all the way down to 15th on the table.

[ MORE: The best moments of LVG’s memorable yet bizzare tenure at Man United ]

Palace has far too much talent to be languishing near the relegation zone, but Pardew is right that work must be done over the summer. If the club’s new American ownership is willing to spend, a quality striker will be Pardew’s first target.

Last summer’s striker signing Connor Wickham finished the season tied for the team lead with five goals, level with Yohan Cabaye and Scott Dann. When considering that four of Cabaye’s five goals came from the penalty spot and that Dann is a center-back, the Eagles’ lack of attacking depth is quite clear.

FIFA fires finance director Kattner over bonus payments

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  FIFA Acting Secretary General Markus Kattner looks on prior to the Extraordinary FIFA Congress at Hallenstadion on February 26, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has fired finance director and interim secretary general Markus Kattner after an internal investigation revealed he got irregular bonus payments worth millions of dollars.

Kattner was due the payments over a six-year period from 2008-14 from additions to his employment contract, a person familiar with the FIFA investigation said Monday.

The extra payments were signed off by then-President Sepp Blatter and then-secretary general Jerome Valcke, Kattner’s immediate boss in that period.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s FIFA coverage ]

“We don’t yet understand why these payments were made,” the person said on condition of anonymity as details of the investigation are confidential. “These contract provisions were not known widely and not to the appropriate officers at FIFA.”

It is unclear if the contracted payments which came to light last week could form part of a wider investigation of criminal mismanagement at FIFA conducted by Swiss federal prosecutors.

“We are not in a position to determine the legality of the contracts,” the person said, adding that “the appropriate authorities are aware of the issue.”

FIFA’s ethics committee is likely to now open an investigation against the 45-year-old German official, with charges of conflict of interest and disloyalty to FIFA among potential outcomes.

[ MORE: Louis van Gaal officially sacked at Manchester United ]

Kattner joined FIFA as director of finance in 2003 and took the deputy secretary general title in 2007, the year Blatter hired Valcke for the top administrative job of world soccer’s governing body. Kattner was promoted in an interim role when Valcke was suspended last September for financial wrongdoing and then fired in January.

“Markus Kattner has been dismissed from his position effective immediately,” FIFA said in a statement Monday. “FIFA’s internal investigation uncovered breaches of his fiduciary responsibilities in connection with his employment contract.”

FIFA has already announced that United Nations official Fatma Samoura is due to start work next month as the new permanent secretary general.

Kattner’s alleged wrongdoing came to light last Friday, the person said, one week after Samoura’s hiring was announced by President Gianni Infantino.

The 45-year-old German official was at FIFA headquarters on Monday before his firing was announced.

His exit is unconnected with the timing of Samoura’s hiring and expected arrival at FIFA in June, the person said.

[ MORE: Frank Lampard responds after being booed by NYCFC supporters ]

“This is based on documentary evidence that is information which emerged in the last three days,” the person said, with no whistleblower involved in revealing the case.

FIFA is being subjected to an internal investigation led by United States-based legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which is working separately from investigations by federal prosecutors in the U.S. and Switzerland.

As a central figure overseeing FIFA finances for more than 12 years of Blatter’s presidency, Kattner’s name has been linked to allegations in the American and Swiss cases, and investigations of other officials by FIFA’s ethics committee.

Michel Platini has said that his invoice requesting a $2 million payment for backdated salary from FIFA was sent to Kattner in 2010. The now-banned UEFA president got the money approved by Blatter in February 2011.

[ MORE: Uruguay sweating Suarez’s fitness ahead of Copa America Centenario ]

In that case, Platini had a four-year ban confirmed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport this month, and Blatter awaits an appeal at CAS to challenge his six-year ban. They deny wrongdoing.

Kattner is also expected to be sought as a witness in German and Swiss investigations of unexplained payments between German organizers of the 2006 World Cup and FIFA.

When questioned at FIFA news conferences since October, Kattner has said he has been advised by FIFA not to comment on ongoing criminal and ethics cases.

Looking ahead for the USMNT: Two key friendlies before Copa 100

PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO - NOVEMBER 17: USA's #3 DeAndre Yedlin brings the ball under control as T&T's # 3 Joevin Jones looks on during a World Cup Qualifier between Trinidad and Tobago and USA as part of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers for Russia 2018 at Hasely Crawford Stadium on November 17, 2015 in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. (Photo by Ashley Allen Getty Images)
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With the Copa America Centenario kicking off next week across the United States, what can we expect from the USMNT in their two upcoming friendlies?

After defeating Puerto Rico in a glorified scrimmage on Sunday, the U.S. has two more matches before the tournament that will pose a much tougher challenge for Klinsmann’s men.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

The USMNT faces Ecuador on Wednesday, May 25 in Texas before traveling to Kansas City to take on Bolivia on Saturday, May 28. Both of those South American sides will be competing in the Copa America.

While Klinsmann may have given some of his younger players minutes against Puerto Rico, you would expect a much stronger lineup to be fielded in the friendlies against Ecuador and Bolivia.

However, as all U.S. Soccer fans know, you can never predict what Jurgen Klinsmann is going to do.

[ MORE: Louis van Gaal sacked after two years at Manchester United ]

Klinsmann confirmed that Brad Guzan will be his number-one goalkeeper at Copa America, which means we will likely see the Aston Villa man in net for both upcoming friendlies.

The USMNT will also get some reinforcements on the back-line with both Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler joining up with the team ahead of the Ecuador match. Cameron and Besler have worked together well as a solid center-back pairing in the past, but Besler will likely find himself behind John Brooks, who is coming off of a great season with Hertha Berlin.

The midfield is probably the biggest question in this team, as Klinsmann has endlessly tinkered with both formation and player selection. Michael Bradley is a surefire pick, but the other spots are much harder to determine. Klinsmann has recalled one of his personal favorites Jermaine Jones to the squad, a veteran who has found some good form in Colorado this season. Jones could slot into the middle alongside Bradley, but at 34-years-old, his lack of pace could cost the U.S. when facing a side like Colombia in the Copa America.

[ MORE: Liverpool set to sign Mainz goalkeeper Loris Karius ]

Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic is the youngest player in the side, with the 17-year-old entering this week with just one cap to his name. While Klinsmann may have brought the teenager just for the learning experience, fans will want to see Pulisic on the pitch and these friendlies could be a time for the midfielder to earn valuable minutes for his progression. However, if Klinsmann has no plans to play Pulisic at the Copa, it would be better for the team’s consistency if he does not feature in the pre-tournament matches.

Up top, Bobby Wood may have finally done enough to lock down a starting position. With Jozy Altidore out injured, this is Wood’s time to shine and prove he should be Klinsmann’s first choice striker every match.

The USMNT kicks off the Copa America Centenario on June 3 in Santa Clara, California, facing Colombia at Levis Stadium.

Arnautovic’s Stoke future up in the air ahead of EURO 2016

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 23:  Marko Arnautovic of Stoke City looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Stoke City at Etihad Stadium on April 23, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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After leading Stoke City in scoring this season, Marko Arnautovic may be on his way out.

Despite being under contract for another year, Arnautovic has yet to sign an extension with the Potters as he takes some time to decide on his future.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

Arnautovic’s current contract contains a release clause of about $18 million, a price many top European clubs would be willing to pay after the winger scored 11 Premier League goals this season.

Speaking with the Stoke Sentinel, Potters’ CEO Tony Scholes said that while they want to sign Arnautovic to a new deal, the player and his agent are holding out.

I would love to appear more knowledgeable than anyone else on this, but the truth is it’s in Marko’s hands. And at the moment, the decision he’s taken is that he doesn’t want to sign yet.

He’s not out of contract for another year, albeit there is a release clause in his contract. We hope he will sign, but as I sit here now I can’t give you a definitive answer on that.

We want him to sign. He knows what we are prepared to pay. We believe this is the best place for him given the season he’s had, but at this moment in time Marko and his agent are biding their time.

Arnautovic is likely waiting to sign a new deal until after the European Championship, which runs from June 10-July 10. A starter for an Austrian team that went undefeated during qualifying, Arnautovic could see his value rise even more if he puts in a good showing in France.

[ MORE: Pirlo, Giovinco left off of Italy’s provisional roster for EURO 2016 ]

Losing Arnautovic would be a huge blow for the Potters, as he was their best player this season and a key piece in the club’s growth moving forward. Stoke is surely a club on the rise, but it’s up to Arnautovic to decide whether his future lies at the Britannia Stadium.