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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

Robben extends contract with Bayern Munich through June 2018

(L-R) Thomas Muller of Bayern Munchen, Philipp Lahm of Bayern Munchen, Arjen Robben of Bayern Munchen during the German Bundesliga match between Borussia Mönchengladbach and FC Bayern München at Borussia Park on January 24, 2014 in Mönchengladbach, Germany.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
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BERLIN (AP) Arjen Robben has extended his contract with Bayern Munich for another year.

Bayern says the Netherlands winger’s contract will run until the end of June 2018.

[ MORE: Names to watch in Tuesday’s SuperDraft ]

Robben has been with the club for almost eight years, joining from Real Madrid in 2009.

He has scored 82 goals in 152 Bundesliga matches, 14 goals in 23 German Cup games and 21 goals in 53 Champions League matches, including the winning goal against Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final.

Antonio Valencia extends Manchester United deal

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18:  Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea marshalls Luis Antonio Valencia of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Antonio Valencia has a fan in Jose Mourinho.

The Manchester United fullback, 31, has added a year to his contract. Scheduled to become a free agent after this season, his contract now runs through 2018.

[ MORE: Chinese club claims big bids ]

Ecuador’s captain, Valencia arrived at United from Wigan in 2009 after spending time with El Nacional and Villarreal.

He has 21 goals in 270 appearances, and has played 2,042 minutes under Mourinho. This season, Valencia is averaging 2.4 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per match.

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Ten names to watch as the MLS SuperDraft concludes

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After three days of celebrating its first two rounds, Major League Soccer will complete its surprise-ridden 2017 SuperDraft on Tuesday with a 2 p.m. EDT conference call.

Friday’s first round featured fewer trades than many expected, and a bit of a stunner in its first overall pick: Minnesota United tabbed UCLA attacker Abu Danladi.

[ MORE: Chinese club claims big bids ]

Danladi would’ve gone soon after, however, with most of the surprises coming outside of the Top Six. Vancouver’s opted for outside back Jakob Nerwinski (UConn) at 7, Houston tabbed Hofstra’s Joe Holland at 10, and Colorado looked to its backyard for Denver’s Sam Hamilton.

That helped Brandon Aubrey slide to 21st, while Canada’s two Generation Adidas players, Adonijah Reid and Shamit Shome, dipped deep into the second round.

It also means some very productive college players, and supposed first round prospects, could be hungry steals when the draft returns today. Here’s some low-risk, high-reward players for rounds that sometimes see teams pass on individual picks altogether.

Chris Wingate, MID, New Hampshire — Engine room feature piece at UNH

Wulito Fernandes, FWD, UMass Lowell — Cape Verde striker has flair

Jorge Gomez Sanchez, FWD, Temple — 27 goals in two years is good

Chris Nanco, FWD, Syracuse — Showed big upside at MLS Combine

Brandt Bronico, MID, Charlotte — Steadied any worries at Combine

Daniel Deakin, FWD, South Carolina — English striker great at set pieces

Russell Cicerone, FWD, Buffalo — Combine overshadowed solid four years

Christian Thierjung, FWD, California — 18 goals last two seasons

Eddie Sanchez, MID, Portland — Game changer in WCC; Can it translate?

Jordan Wilson, DEF, Kentucky — Scottish center back did well at UK

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New rules crushed Chinese club’s Costa hopes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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New Chinese Super League rules stopped the nation from acquiring four of the biggest names in the football world.

Tianjin Quanjian believed it had successful bids lined up for Chelsea’s Diego Costa in addition to Real Madrid frontman Karim Benzema, Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, and PSG’s Edinson Cavani.

[ MORE: Costa trains on his own ]

And Tianjin Quanjian owner Shu Yuhui says it had Falcao and Benfica forward Raul Jimenez signed and sealed before the new rules were announced. The club already has Korean midfielder Kwon Kyung-won, Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, and Brazil’s Geuvânio on the books.

But the new rules, which will limit the amount of foreign players on a team to three, hampered his hopes. From the BBC:

But Chinese clubs will only be able to field three foreign players per game when the new season starts.

“This situation has brought a change to our signing plans,” said Shu.

“The online reports about Costa – it’s true we’d like him, and we made an offer for Cavani and were deep in negotiations,” said Shu.

So clearly Costa’s “back injury” seems more likely to be the burden of financial desires on his shoulders. That said, MLS commissioner Don Garber will crack a wry smile at the new rules.

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