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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

Southampton 4-2 Manchester City: Southampton carves up City behind Mane hat-trick, Tadic service

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.
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Manchester City clearly had one eye on the Champions League semifinals. It came at the expense of their chances to remain in the competition next year.

The visitors at St. Mary’s had the opportunity to lock up Champions League play next season with all three points, but instead Manuel Pellegrini rested a number of starters including Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, and Southampton ripped them apart in a 4-1 win. Saido Mane grabbed a hat-trick and Dusan Tadic had a trio of assists as their attack swarmed a mistake-prone and clearly distracted Manchester City.

Both sides had spells in the opening 20 minutes, but Southampton appeared more dangerous. Shane Long made multiple appearances in front of the Manchester City goal, picking the pocket of Pablo Zabaleta to earn a corner on 15 minutes and shooting just wide of the near post in the 19th minute.

Frasier Forster was required to keep the game scoreless in the 20th minute as Kelechi Iheanacho stole the ball from Virgil van Djik on the touchline and found Raheem Sterling in space inside the box, but his shot was saved expertly by Forster.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It would be the in-form Long to take the lead in the 25th minute on a beautiful bit of play. A fantastic ball over the top of the City defense fell to a streaking Dusan Tadic, and his flick over the top met a sliding Shane Long, who beat Nicolas Otamendi for the opener.

They’d get a second just four minutes later on yet another sweet-looking goal, with Tadic getting yet another assist with a perfectly weighted ball for Saido Mane, who smacked it by Joe Hart from a tight angle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Southampton continued to press and hold much of the meaningful possession, but Manchester City refused to capitulate, scoring a lifeline before halftime. With the ball in the Southampton penalty area, Cuco Martino saw the ball skip off his thigh and pop into the air, where Iheanacho latched onto it and headed it into the net.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It was a tough way for the hosts to go into halftime, as they had dominated much of the first half, but no matter, as they made amends. Following the break, Southampton restored their two-goal lead off a corner in the 57th minute as Van Djik’s header was tipped by Joe Hart off the crossbar. Jose Fonte whiffed at the rebound but Mane was there from point blank range to give Southampton a 3-1 lead.

Mane would complete his hat-trick in the 68th minute. Van Djik won the ball in the Southampton half to start the break, and Tadic picked up his third assist of the match as he slotted Mane through on goal for yet another clinical finish.

Manchester City got another back as Iheanacho bagged his second in the 79th minute with a wonderful curler from outside the box, but it was too little too late for the visitors.

Both teams fought until the final whistle, and it could have cost Jesus Navas his fitness as the Argentinian seemingly picked up a serious limp in the final few minutes.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri says he might miss Leicester City winning the Premier League

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 01:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City applauds the fans after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on May 1, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Following Leicester City’s gritty draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Foxes missed out on securing the Premier League trophy, but come tomorrow evening, they could still be celebrating.

With the point against United, their magic number is now two, meaning any dropped points by Tottenham wins Leicester City the league title. Tottenham travels to Stamford Bridge tomorrow to take on Chelsea, and should they fail to win, the trophy is Leicester’s.

But manager Claudio Ranieri, the hero in Leicester for guiding their beloved club to the unthinkable, might be the last to find out.

In his post-match comments, Ranieri said he could be on a plane during the Spurs game, therefore unable to find out the result until he lands. The reason? He’s going back to Italy to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother.

“I would like to watch to watch the match,” Ranieri said. “But I think I am on the flight back from Italy, and then it’s difficult for me to watch the match. Maybe when I landed, I will know the result.”

What a family man. No wonder his team plays like a close-knit unit.

AC Milan fights back for draw against Frosinone, but still falls out of European place

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 01:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan reacts during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Frosinone Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 1, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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AC Milan fought back from down 3-1 to earn a point at home against relegation candidate Frosinone, but by dropping points they’ve also dropped out of a European position.

Frosinone got goals from Oliver Kragl and Luca Paganini in the first half, and Federico Dionisi struck in the 54th minute to go 3-1 up. But Luca Antonelli scored in the 74th minute – just a minute after coming on for AC Milan – and Jeremy Menez finished a penalty in added time to pull level.

The draw, coupled with a 1-0 Sassuolo win against Verona, dropped the Rossoneri to 7th in the Serie A table, out of the Europa League places. They sit on 54 points, with Sassuolo on 55.

Contributing heavily to the final result was Frosinone goalkeeper Francesco Bardi, who saved a Mario Balotelli penalty and produced a host of acrobatic first-half saves to keep the Milan attack at bay.

AC Milan hardly has time to lick its wounds, with just three matches remaining, two against Juventus and Roma to close out the year. Meanwhile, the point for Frosinone is important but likely not enough as they fall four points back of Palermo who Sampdoria.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Manchester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Raheem Sterling of Manchester City and Victor Wanyama of Southampton compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at the Etihad Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Manchester City has shuffled the deck, with five changes from last time out as Manuel Pellegrini and company travel to St. Mary’s to take on Southampton, live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Sergio Aguero is on the bench, while Kevin De Bruyne is not selected at all for City as Wilfried Bony is the man up top along with Kelechi Iheanacho in support. Jesus Navas is also among the substitutes, with Samir Nasri and Raheem Sterling among the starters.

WATCH LIVE: Southampton vs. Manchester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

David Silva is not included in the squad having suffered a hamstring injury, and while Yaya Toure has returned to fitness, he is not among those named.

For Southampton, three changes from their 4-2 win over Aston Villa dot the map, with Cuco Martina, Jordy Clasie, and Saido Mane all coming into the side. Charlie Austin is on the bench having returned from a hamstring problem, but Shane Long gets the nod to start, while Graziano Pelle does not appear.

A win for Manchester City would put them firmly in fourth at 67 points, seven clear of Manchester United with two more games to play.

LINEUPS

Southampton: Forster; Martina, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Clasie, Wanyama, S.Davis, Tadic, Manè; Long.
Subs: Stekelenberg, Yoshida, Soares, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Rodriguez, Austin.

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Mangala, Kolarov, Delph, Fernandinho, Nasri, Sterling, Iheanacho, Bony
Subs: 
Caballero, Sagna, Clichy, Demichelis, Fernando, Navas, Aguero