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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

Spurs’ Bentaleb off to Schalke on loan, joining PSG’s Stambouli

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 18: Nabil Bentaleb of Spurs U21 looks on during the Barclays U21 Premier League match between Leicester City U21 and Tottenham Hotspurs U21 at The King Power Stadium on March 18, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Schalke’s quest to rejoin Germany’s elite was buttressed by a pair of interesting pickups on Thursday.

The Royal Blues have added Benjamin Stambouli from Paris Saint-Germain and Nabil Bentaleb from Tottenham Hotspur.

The Bentaleb deal is a loan, as the oft-injured attacker looks to shake off his underperforming reputation. The 21-year-old has 19 caps and three goals for Algeria.

[ MORE: Boufal to Saints ]

Stambouli joins on a four-year deal. A defensive midfielder, Stambouli left Spurs for PSG last year and made 27 appearances for the French champions.

The side nabbed high-profile prospect Breel Embolo earlier this offseason, and should be a problem for most opposing sides when the season begins this weekend.

Schalke finished in fifth place last Bundesliga season, and brings back captain Benedikt Howedes and Olympic star Max Meyer.

Ranking toughness of UCL groups for Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City

Kompany and City's defense struggled to contain Messi and Barca in the first half.
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Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all entered the UEFA Champions League at the group stage and they found out their fate on Thursday following the draw in Monaco.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

Right now Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs will be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the UCL’s Round of 16. As for Man City, boy, it will be a tough route through the group stage once again for them.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins top award ]

Below is a look at the toughness of the group stage draw for all four PL teams.


GROUP G: Leicester City, FC Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen

Their first-ever season in the UCL, the draw could not have gone any better for reigning PL champs Leicester in terms of their dreams of advancing. Claudio Ranieri‘s side have FC Porto, who will be a very tough test, but in Club Brugge and Copenhagen they drew two of the easier teams they could have faced. Overall, this is not a tough group especially when you see the full draw. Looks like the fairytale for the Foxes will go deep in the Champions League this season. Toughness ranking: 3/10


GROUP A: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets

Arsenal will fancy their chances against PSG and when it comes to FC Basel and Ludrogorets they will expect to take two wins from each of these teams. But this is Arsenal so they’ll probably need a 3-0 win in their last group game to make the knockout rounds… Seriously, though, Arsene Wenger will be a relieved man to avoid the likes of Bayern Munich and Barelona in the group stage but Arsenal’s games against PSG will be pivotal in their chances of getting a good draw in the last 16. Overall, could’ve been a lot tougher. Toughness ranking: 4/10


GROUP C: FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchendgladbach, Celtic

It just had to happen for Pep Guardiola, didn’t it? He will return to the Nou Camp in his debut season at City to face his beloved Barcelona and Man City’s fans will be sick of the sight of Lionel Messi and Co. after they knocked them out of the competition in two of the last three seasons. That said, there will be two magnificent games between the giants with Barca the favorites to win the UCL this season. As for Monchengladbach, they are quietly a very strong team and even Celtic (who famously beat Barca in the group stage in 2012) will provide a tough challenge for City at Celtic Park in the away game. All in all, couldn’t have been tougher for City but they will likely squeeze through with Barca to the Round of 16.

Toughness ranking: 8/10


GROUP E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco

Maurcio Pochettino’s side will be grinning like a Cheshire cat with this draw. Arguably it is even easier than Leicester’s with CSKA Moscow perennial strugglers in the UCL, plus German side Bayer Leverkusen very beatable and Spurs have done well against Monaco in the Europa League recently. Overall, if Spurs don’t win this group they will be very disappointed. A great draw for the north London club. Toughness ranking: 3/10


Best Player in Europe: Cristiano Ronaldo beats Bale, Griezmann to win award

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal kisses the Henri Delaunay trophy to celebrate after their 1-0 win against France in the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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Cristiano Ronaldo was named the Best Player in Europe by UEFA on Thursday in Monaco, following the group stage draw for the UEFA Champions League.

Ronaldo, 31, beat other finalists teammate and Welsh international Gareth Bale and France and Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann to the award for the 2015-16 season. Barcelona duo Lionel Messi came fourth and Luis Suarez finished in fifth.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

The Portuguese striker scored 51 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid last season and led Portugal to its first-ever major title as a nation, winning the EURO 2016 trophy.

Ronaldo said on stage that he was “living his dream” by playing football as he won the award for a second time in his career, the list title coming in 2014.

Previous winners of this prestigious award, which takes into account the form of the player both for this club team in Europe and also for his national team, include Messi (the only other player to win the award twice), Andres Iniesta and Franck Ribery.

UEFA Champions League group stage: Premier League teams learn their fate

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  The  UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed prior to the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Premier League teams got off very lightly, overall, in the UEFA Champions League group stage draw.

The draw took place in Monaco on Thursday as reigning Leicester City were handed a very comfy group of opponents in Group G with FC Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen, as were Tottenham Hotspur who were placed in Group E with CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco.

Arsenal also got a very decent draw with Paris Saint-Germain, FC Basel and Ludogorets in Group A, but Manchester City once again got a very tough draw at the group stage along with FC Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach and Celtic in Group C.

[ MORE: Full UCL schedule

Reigning champs Real Madrid have been drawn in Group F alongside Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Legia Warsaw, with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid drawn together in Group D.

Below is the group stage draw in full with the opening group games to take place on Sept. 13/14 and a further five group games taking place — each team plays one another home and away — between September and December. The knockout stages then begin in February 2017 ahead of the UCL final in Cardiff, Wales on June 3, 2017.

You can click on the link above for the full schedule for group games.


GROUP A
Paris Saint-Germain
Arsenal
FC Basel
Ludogorets

GROUP B
Benfica
Napoli
Dynamo Kiev
Besiktas

GROUP C
FC Barcelona
Manchester City
Borussia Monchendgladbach
Celtic

GROUP D
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid
PSV Eindhoven
Rostov

GROUP E
CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen
Tottenham Hotspur
Monaco

GROUP F
Real Madrid
Borussia Dortmund
Sporting Lisbon
Legia Warsaw

GROUP G
Leicester City
FC Porto
Club Brugge
Copenhagen

GROUP H
Juventus
Sevilla
Lyon
Dinamo Zagreb