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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

MLS All Stars 1-2 Arsenal: Chuba Akpom provides the late winner for the Gunners

MLS All-Stars midfielder Giovani Dos Santos, front, of Los Angeles Galaxy, takes a shot on goal against Arsenal during the first half of the MLS All-Star soccer game Thursday, July 28, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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It’s a pre-season friendly for the Premier League side, but it never ends up playing out that way. This Thursday night in San Jose turned out to be an entertaining meeting between Arsenal and the MLS All-Star bunch that saw Arsenal youngster Chuba Akpom tap in the winner in the 87th minute after goals from Didier Drogba and Joel Campbell had evened out for much of the match.

The game was wide open early, as Theo Walcott had the game’s first chance, and Giovanni dos Santos had a good look down the other end in the ninth minute, saved by Petr Cech.

Minutes later, the opener came for the Gunners as a lovely touch from Joel Campbell chipped over MLS goalkeeper. Laurent Ciman attempted to box out Campbell as the ball trickled towards the net, but instead brought down the Arsenal striker. The foul by Ciman usually would have drawn a straight red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, but not looking to ruin the event in the 10th minute, the referee pointed to the spot but only showed the Montreal defender yellow. Campbell then slotted the penalty home to give Arsenal the lead.

Elneny had a go on 26 minutes looking to double Arsenal’s lead with a vicious strike from outside the box, but Blake produced a stunning save to tip it over the bar.

With a game to play in less than 48 hours, the two NYCFC players David Villa and Andrea Pirlo departed after just a half-hour, with Sascha Kljestan and Nacho Piatti coming in.

The game seemed to settle in after the opener, although the game was not lacking competitiveness, as evident by a number of heavy challenges. Amid plenty of pre-match talk centered around Didier Drogba facing former Chelsea teammate Petr Cech, the All-Star striker leveled the match just before the halftime break. A great ball from Kljestan to Giovanni dos Santos unlocked the young Arsenal defense, and Drogba was there to finish off the chance on his third attempt, seeing the first two saved and blocked.

Arsenal brought on new signing Granit Xhaka after halftime, while USMNT youngster Gedion Zelalem came on with just over 20 minutes to go. Xhaka ripped off a good long-range shot that forced a solid diving save by substitute goalkeeper David Bingham.

The visitors brought on their youngsters as the second half eased along, with Chuba Akpom and Jeff Reine-Adelaide seeing action. Cyle Larin came on late for the MLS All-Stars, and USMNT veterans Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski made appearances as well.

With the clock winding down, Chris Wondolowski brought back shades of 2014, firing over the bar with a glorious chance to win it for the MLS All-Stars after hard work by Larin down the right. Minutes later down the other end, the Gunners took the game in its grasp. An overlap to perfection between Alex Iwobi and Nacho Monreal opened things up at the near post, and the latter placed it on the doorstep for Akpom to tap home the winner.

The loss is the first for MLS All-Stars since 2013, and it’s the first in six games against a London opponent.

Sounders remain busy, bring back Alvaro Fernandez a day after signing Lodeiro

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 04:  Alvaro Fernandez #4 of the Chicago Fire controls the ball against Toronto FC during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 4, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated Toronto FC 2-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Seattle Sounders have had a busy summer, looking to ease supporters angry with the club burrowed in last place in the Western Conference.

Having brought in Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro on a Designated Player contract on Wednesday, the club announced the return of fellow Uruguayan and former Sounders DP Alvaro Fernandez, who comes back to CenturyLink Field four years since his 2012 departure.

Fernandez spent the last three-and-a-half seasons outside MLS after spending just half a year with the Chicago Fire. He spent loan stints in Qatar, Argentina, and his home country of Uruguay before signing for Argentinian side Gimnasia permanently in 2014.

Fernandez and Lodeiro played together with Uruguayan side Nacional in 2009 when the club made a run deep into the Copa Libertadores. They also played together on the Uruguayan national team during the 2010 World Cup, although neither was a consistent starter. Lodeiro said upon Fernandez’s signing, “We are good friends.”

During his first stint with the Sounders, Fernandez made 81 appearances, scoring 17 goals.

Norwich City striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel signs with former club Vitesse Arnhem

NORWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 17:Ricky van Wolfswinkel of Norwich City celebrates after scoring their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Everton at Carrow Road on August 17, 2013 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, Norwich City’s record transfer at the time of his purchase from Sporting CP in 2013, is moving on after a largely unsuccessful four-year stint with the Canaries.

The 27-year-old has returned to his home country, moving to Vitesse Arnhem – the club he went professional with as a 19-year-old. Van Wolfswinkel made his professional debut in April of 2008 with Vitesse, and now returns for an undisclosed fee.

Van Wolfswinkel came to Norwich in 2013 with much fanfare, signing for a reported fee of $11 million – a club record signing at the time.

He proceeded to score just a single goal in 25 appearances during his first season in the Premier League, with Norwich finding itself relegated. He moved to Ligue 1 on loan with Norwich in the Championship, but still managed just five goals in 28 league appearances with St. Etienne. He never made another appearance for the Canaries, instead moving on loan again Real Betis last season, but flopped there too, scoring just once in 16 league appearances.

“I debuted in professional football on behalf of Vitesse and that is something you never forget,” van Wolfswinkel said upon signing. “After several foreign adventures I look forward to returning to the Dutch fields. I hope to find my niche and want to play well and add many goals and assists for Vitesse.”

Report: Arsenal continues to push for Lacazette transfer, readies another bid

LISBON, PORTUGAL - JULY 23:  Lyon's forward Alexandre Lacazette celebrates scoring Lyon«s goal during the Friendly match between Sporting CP and Lyon at Estadio Jose Alvalade on July 23, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
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According to Friday’s edition of French publication L’Equipe, Arsenal is set to table yet another improved bid for Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette should the current one of $44 million be rejected.

The Gunners have spent little this transfer window, with the capture of Granit Xhaka their only incoming purchase thus far, and it has unsettled many supporters. The club has looked to calm those fears, going so far as to claim they are unable to spend big like many others across England, but on the inside they appear ready to spend for the French frontman.

Should Arsenal submit yet another bid for Lacazette, it would be their third. An initial bid for $39 million was rejected earlier this week, the Ligue 1 side announced on Wednesday.

“The reality is that the Arsenal made an offer of £30m,” the club confirmed in a statement, “which Olympique Lyonnais did not respond to for one reason only: OL wishes to keep Alexandre Lacazette because he is irreplaceable and one of the major leaders of Bruno Genesio’s group.”

The Frenchman scored 21 goals last season in Ligue 1 play, including 11 goals in the season’s final 10 games. His total haul was second in the league behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s whopping 38.

It seems that, with this report out in public, Lyon would be silly to accept the new bid, given that Arsenal is likely to have another improved one soon to follow.