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MLS Season Preview: Real Salt Lake

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A new era is about to be ushered in at Real Salt Lake, as the Utah side are set for their first season since entering MLS in 2005 without Jason Kreis as a player or head coach.

But apart from that… not much has changed at RSL. New head coach Jeff Cassar was Kreis’ assistant at the Rio Tinto Stadium since 2007 and knows the club inside out, so settling in with the 2013 MLS Cup runners up wasn’t exactly difficult. Add to that the fact that RSL didn’t lose any of their stars and only a handful of youngsters and lower-league players arrived, and you could be forgiven for thinking Kreis is still around.

LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Even though the coach who helped build the RSL organization into the well-oiled machine they are today is gone, newly appointed New York City FC head coach Kreis has left behind a legacy which should see the ’09 MLS Cup champions go far once again in 2014. Looking to make up for their defeats in the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup finals last season, a fired up RSL side led by veterans Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio await the rest of MLS.

Be warned, underestimate RSL at your peril.

Transfers In: Luke Mulholland (Undisclosed, Tampa Bay Rowdies), Jordan Allen (RSL – Arizona academy, Homegrown player), Ryan Neil (Drafted, first round), Joey Dillon (Drafted, third round), Daniel Jackson (Drafted, fourth round)

Transfers Out: Lovel Palmer (Trade for allocation money, Chicago Fire), Khari Stephenson (Released), Brandon McDonald (Released), Josh Saunders (Released), Enzo Martinez (Waived, Carolina RailHawks)

source: Getty Images
Saborio, left, is still the man RSL look to for goals. Can he deliver this season?

Key Player: Alvaro Saborio

Many would point to captain Beckerman in the engine room or Rimando between the pipes but if Sabo is firing on all cylinders, RSL’s machine slots into action seamlessly. The Costa Rican forward is fired up ahead of a trip to the World Cup and he’s scored three of RSL’s four goals in the Desert Diamond Cup this preseason. He’s red-hot after an injury-hit season in 2013. At 31, he’s been around the block a few times and knows how to manipulate even the best MLS’ defenses to his advantage. With his pace still a threat and a lethal set of shooting boots, Saborio will be hoping to better his MLS tally of 12 goals from 16 games last season. If he stays healthy, Salt Lake has a chance of lifting their second MLS Cup.

Manager: Cassar is a bit of an unknown quantity, but he’s been around MLS for a long, long time and knows exactly what makes a successful team tick. A goalkeeper during his playing days, which took him to Bolton Wanderers, Miami Fusion and FC Dallas among others, Cassar will be keen to keep RSL’s tradition of punching well above their weight going. Getting of to a good start is important for the new man in the hot seat at the Rio Tinto. Everyone is intrigued to see if he deploys the famous diamond in midfield and is able to take Kreis’s sterling work to the next level.

Outlook: As we’ve mentioned, not much has changed around RSL. The old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings true here, as a solid spine of the side is still intact. With the playing philosophy set throughout the club from the academy level up, you have to think the youngsters who have been brought in can easily slot into Cassar’s side. With experienced heads likes Saborio, Beckerman and Rimando staying on and two near misses in both domestic finals last season, will those heartbreaks spur Salt Lake on this year? It could be the fuel to their fire, as another deep playoff run and a top three spot in the Western conference beckons. Under a new manager it will take time to readjust but I expect RSL to be up where they belong… with MLS’ elite as the underdogs. They thrive in that role and the rest of MLS’ knows better than to underestimate the team from the Rio Tinto.

Cantona claims ethnicity played role in Benzema, Ben Arfa France snubs

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 14:  Former Footballer Eric Cantona of France speaks during a press conference at the Shanghai Grand Theatre prior to the  Laureus World Sports Awards  on April 14, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images for Laureus)
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Eric Cantona has made the headlines again, this time making some bold claims against France national team manager Didier Deschamps.

Cantona, a former Manchester United legend and French international, questioned whether Deschamps excluded Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from the team due to their North African origins.

[ MORE: Skrtel set to leave Liverpool ]

Speaking to The Guardian, Cantona calls Benzema and Ben Arfa two of France’s best footballers, both of whom will not be playing for the national team this summer.

Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know.

So I’m not surprised he used the situation of Benzema not to take him. Especially after [French Prime Minister Manuel Valls] said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.

One thing is for sure – Benzema and Ben Arfa are two of the best players in France and will not play the European Championship. And for sure, Benzema and Ben Arfa, their origins are north African. So, the debate is open.

Cantona’s view doesn’t hold much merit as Deschamps did not even have the option of selecting Benzema, the country’s active leading goalscorer. The Real Madrid striker is suspended by the federation, embroiled in a blackmail sex-tape scandal involving French teammate Mathieu Valbuena, who was also left off the EURO roster.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine the Champions League final ]

France is an extremely diverse nation with a large North African population, Benzema of Algerian descent and Ben Arfa’s father a former Tunisian international. Both players were born in France and have received prior call-ups under Deschamps, with Cantona’s quite ridiculous comments likely to cause a stir before the EURO.

FA Cup will no longer have quarterfinal replays

HALIFAX, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09:  The FA Cup is seen prior to the FA Cup First Round match between FC Halifax and Bradford City  on November 9, 2014 in Halifax, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Starting in 2017, the FA Cup will no longer have replays in the quarterfinal round.

The decision was made in an effort to combat the congested English fixture list, which has been a topic of debate for years now.

[ MORE: Lukaku wants out at Everton ]

This season, Manchester United defeated West Ham in a quarterfinal replay before going on to win the competition.

In a statement released by the FA, these changes aim to add drama to the matches while eliminating an extra matchday needed for replays.

The revamped competition will see eight clubs battle it out over one weekend with each tie to be played to a finish on the day, adding to the drama and impact the competition has enjoyed in recent years.

Other new initiatives will be explored to ensure The FA Cup retains its status and appeal. These plans also form part of The FA’s commitment to help ease English football’s congested fixture schedule.

There will still be replays in the earlier rounds of the tournament, which allows lower level clubs the opportunity to earn a nice financial boost should they force a second match at a Premier League ground.

The Premier League is the only top league in Europe that does not take a winter break, a schedule that has been criticized by multiple managers, including Jurgen Klopp.

Judge hears arguments on US women’s team strike rights

HARRISON, NJ - MAY 30:  The United States team poses for a team picture before the match against the South Korea during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on May 30, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO — A federal judge in Chicago has heard arguments whether the world champion U.S. women’s soccer team has the right to strike for improved conditions and wages before this year’s Olympics.

Lawyers for the U.S. Soccer Federation told Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman at a Thursday hearing that a no-strike clause is implied in a still-valid 2013 memorandum with players.

[ MORE: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

But a lawyer for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association balked at that claim. Jeffrey Kessler said the federation had “screwed up” by not securing a no-strike clause in writing and can’t argue three years later that such a provision is implied.

The union wants the option to strike before the Olympics start in August, but hasn’t said it will. Many players have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer.

Three battles that could determine the Champions League final

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 14:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF is tackled by Koke of Atletico Madrid and Mario Suarez of Atletico Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final First Leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Vicente Calderon Stadium on April 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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We’re just two days away from the Champions League final, as Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid prepare to face each other in Milan on Saturday.

The tie is a rematch of the 2014 final when Real Madrid won 4-1 to claim a record tenth Champions League title. Atletico led that match 1-0 in stoppage time, only to concede a late equalizer before collapsing in extra time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

With Real one of Europe’s best attacking teams and Atleti the best defensive side, two completely different styles of play will clash at the San Siro this weekend. Below, we take a look at a few key matchups that could determine who leaves Milan as champions.

Keylor Navas vs. Jan Oblak

In the Champions League this season, Navas has kept nine clean sheets in ten appearances (tied for the most-ever in a single campaign), while Oblak has kept eight in 12 appearances. Oblak was named to the La Liga Team of the Year after a stellar season for Atleti, and his massive double-save on Thomas Muller’s penalty kick in the semifinals helped Simeone’s men reach Milan. For Navas, the keeper’s strong play is often overshadowed by Real’s attack, but the Costa Rican international has proved massive for the club all season long. In what will surely be an extremely tight match, one big save could prove the difference.

[ MORE: Ranking the Copa America Centenario contenders ]

Luka Modric vs. Gabi 

These may not be two “superstar” names in the sides, but Luka Modric and Gabi may be the most important men on the pitch for Real and Atletico, respectively. When Real goes forward, it starts with Modric in the midfield. The Croatian playmaker is confident in possession and spreads the ball all over the pitch, seemingly always in the right place at the right time. On the other side, Gabi epitomizes what Diego Simeone wants in his Atletico squad. The hard-nosed midfielder sits right in front of the back-line, in charge of clogging up and holes and making sure the rest of his midfield tracks back and keeps shape, which will be vitally important against Real. A product of the Atleti youth system, red and white runs through Gabi’s veins, and having already experienced a loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final back in 2014, Simeone’s leader on the pitch will want to turn the tides this time around.

(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Atleti back-line vs. BBC

When all is said and done, the biggest battle will be between the stout Atleti defense and Real’s potent attack. Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez have become the best center-back pairing in Europe, while Real’s BBC trio of Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano combined for 119 goals in all competitions this season. Atleti have already kept clean sheets in the Champions League against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but both of those matches were in front of a home crowd at the Vicente Calderon. Expect a few heavy challenges to come in early, as the Atletico defense will look to keep Ronaldo & Co. honest.