Bob Friend, Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers

Nat Borchers and RSL ready for LA Galaxy, as Western foes square off in Utah

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EXCLUSIVE — Sporting a rather impressive beard ginger beard this season, Nat Borchers presence at the heart and soul of Real Salt Lake’s defense is unchanged… even if his appearance has altered dramatically.

Laughing and joking about the flowing locks now emanating from his chin, RSL’s veteran defender is in his seventh season at the Rio Tinto Stadium, and seems to be as relaxed and confident as ever in the Utah outfit’s chances of proving everyone wrong. Once again.

Borchers has been ever present so far this campaign, with Salt Lake bagging four points from their opening two games, both on the road, after a 1-0 win over LA Galaxy was followed by a 3-3 draw at San Jose. With RSL’s home opener coming up on Saturday at the Rio Tinto Stadium vs. LA (Watch live on NBCSN, 4 p.m. ET and online via  Live Extra) Borchers is confident the home side can beat their Western conference rivals for the second time in three games, in a rare back-to-back situation for the Galaxy.

“When you look back at the last five or six years, it has been us and them, and sometimes Seattle, who have been the best in the conference,” Borchers said. “We both do similar things as clubs and we have a tremendous amount of respect for LA. It has definitely developed into a rivalry.”

(WATCH: RSL vs. LA Galaxy, live on NBCSN 4 p.m. ET and online via Live Extra)

That rivalry intensified after RSL’s MLS Cup win in 2009, as Borchers tasted success in just his second season with the club. With both teams keeping plenty of familiar faces around on the pitch, what is different about facing LA this season compared to the past? And what is Borchers expecting from their offense on Saturday?

source: AP
Borcher, far left, is looking forward to another physical battle against LA on Saturday.

“The biggest difference for them is where Landon Donovan is playing,” Borchers said. “He is now playing in midfield on the outside and they’ve added two big bodies up front with Samuel and Rob Friend. That’s creating a different dynamic in their attack. I still think they are as dangerous as they’ve ever been. Having a big body up there like Friend, paired with Robbie Keane, is a great dynamic to have and it is difficult for guys like myself to mark him.”

How RSL are going to overcome that threat from LA’s offense is a familiar story: play through the midfield. With Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy and others who can slot in seamlessly,  the diamond former manager Jason Kreis perfected means RSL have perhaps the best midfield unit in MLS. When it clicks.

“When our midfield is firing on all cylinders, I think they are the best in the league,” Borchers said. “Against LA we will look to keep the ball, possess and find spaces in behind Sarvas and Juninho, and find Javier [Morales] in there to attack some of those points.”

RSL have always been a team that tries to dictate the tempo of the game and try to force the issue and are notoriously tough to break down. What’s the secret to that defensive solidity? Borchers explains.

“I think you can defend in different ways, some teams like to sit back and defend, some teams like to go high and be more aggressive with the defending. We can do both,” Borchers said. “That’s what’s good about this group, we can push up high defensively and be aggressive but also try and keep the ball in the opponents half of the field.”

(MORE: Latest MLS standings)

Off the field, the big story of the offseason at the Rio Tinto was the departure of the franchises long-term head coach Jason Kreis, who had been with RSL since they became an MLS club back in 2005. But after accepting New York City FC”s offer to be heir new head coach, Kreis is gone.

Borchers admits there have been changes since Kreis’ assistant Jeff Cessar has taken over, but extremely subtle ones. And the 32-year-old defender also hailed former assistant’s C.J. Brown and Miles Joseph, who left when Kreis departed. Borchers also revealed how Cessar, who is unbeaten as an MLS coach after two very good away performances, acts behind the scenes.

“Jeff has come in and implemented his ideas and is just such a great guy to play for,” Borchers said. “He’s always asking for input from the players and you feel like it’s your baby as much as it is his baby.”

Jason Kreis’ legacy remains at RSL, but things are changing, ever so slightly, under his old assistant Jeff Cassar.

That baby, RSL, was blubbering at the end of last season. During the 2013 MLS Cup final RSL went into the home of Sporting KC and played tremendously well throughout a grueling 120 minutes, then lost on penalty kicks. Borchers admitted bouncing back from that defeat will spur on the team this campaign, as proving people wrong is part of RSL’s DNA.

“We’ve always been a great with a chip on our shoulder, so losing MLS Cup last year just gives us another reason to fight hard and fight for each other,” Borchers said. “Everyone, the media, pundits, says it every year, ‘we have an ageing squad.’ We have a limited time to get results, we have an ageing core and we know that. But we will continue to move forward and try to get some more trophies for this club.”

On Saturday when Borchers walks out and lines up in the center of RSL’s defense against LA, it could be his last home opener in the Cobalt and Blue. The former Odd Greenland defender has been a permanent fixture at the back for RSL for almost a decade, but his contract is up at the end of 2014.

Asked if he sees himself moving elsewhere in MLS or having another stint overseas, Borchers said the following.

“Ideally I’d like to retire with this club,” Borchers said. “This is my seventh year here, I’ve developed a really good bond with the guys in the locker room and the fans. My wife and I like living here and we see a future here after soccer. That would be ideal. But the door is always open if things don’t work out, as a soccer player I’d be ready if an opportunity knocked. But I will have conversations with RSL throughout the year, and hopefully I will get something done.”

(MORE: MLS on NBC TV schedule for 2014 season)

With Borchers continuing to impress for RSL, a wealth of experience on his side and three U.S. national team camps, is he thinking about a possible call up to the U.S. national team camp in April for the game vs. Mexico? After all, the USMNT isn’t exactly inundated with options in that position.

“If Jurgen called me up into a camp, that would be fantastic. If he doesn’t, I don’t feel any ill-will towards him,” Borcher said. “I’m an older player, if you look at things from his standpoint he has a lot of younger guys coming in, so you can’t take a whole of chances on a 32-year-old center back. I understand that. If my cards are called I’ll be ready, if not I’m not going to be disappointed. I’ve had my chances on the national team and not many guys get to say that.”

source: AP
Borchers, along with a strong core of players including Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, have enjoyed several seasons of success out West

Not many guys get to say they have a beard as strong as Borchers, either. We bantered about  ‘the power of the beard’ and how long it will stay around for, the likeable Arizona native is keen to leave the ginger beast where it is, for a while at least.

“The beard has just taken on another life,” Borchers laughs. “I grew it out for the playoffs. Then my wife and I are expecting a baby over the summer, so it turned into a ‘Daddy beard’ now. The fans like it, my wife likes it, so I’m going to stick with it for a little bit.”

LA have been warned; the beard, and Borchers, are hungry for more success when the 2014 MLS season finally kicks off in Utah on Saturday.

MLS Cup Playoffs: NY Red Bulls 1-0 (1-2 agg.) Columbus Crew SC

Tony Tchani, Michael Parkhurst

The game in 100 words (or less): Columbus Crew SC are headed to their second MLS Cup in club history (champions – 2008) after defeating the New York Red Bulls, 2-0 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (0-0 draw in an extremely chippy second leg on Sunday). Justin Meram and Kei Kamara scored the two-leg tie’s only goals — eight seconds and 85 minutes into the first leg, respectively — and Crew SC confidently managed the second leg by defending with numbers and wisely picking their spots to break out on the counter. RBNY held nearly 60 percent of possession in the second leg, but could muster just six shots on target over the 90 minutes. Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2015 next Sunday (4 p.m. ET) at MAPFRE Stadium.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

38′ — Robles at full stretch to deny Kamara — What’s better: the first touch, second touch, turn and shot by Kei Kamara; or, the sprawled-out save by Luis Robles to swat away a ball clearly headed for the bottom corner? Quality on quality.

90+3′ — Abang heads home to make it nervy late — Anatole Abange rose above the crowd and headed home a recycled ball inside the penalty area after a Sal Zizzo cross was headed high into the air late into stoppage time.

90+5′ — Madness in the penalty area, RBNY hit the post — It was absolute scenes inside the Crew SC penalty area. Ball after ball pumped into the box, headed high into the air and briefly cleared. The final chance of the game fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who headed the ball toward the far post with Steve Clark rushing out quickly, only to see his slow dribbler bounce off the front side of the post and back into the field of play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Abang (90+3′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: FC Dallas 2-2 (3-5 agg.) Portland Timbers

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers are headed to their first MLS Cup in club history after defeating FC Dallas, 5-3 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (2-2 draw in the second leg). Fanendo Adi scored in Sunday’s second leg, giving Caleb Porter’s side a 4-1 aggregate lead before Ryan Hollingshead and Blas Perez scored inside the last 25 minutes to give Oscar Pareja’s bunch a late lifeline, but Lucas Melano’s spectacular tap-in sealed the Timbers’ trip to MLS Cup. The third seed heading into the playoffs, Portland bounced Sporting Kansas City in an epic penalty shootout in the knockout round and outlasted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the conference semifinals before knocking off the West’s top seed over two legs to advance to MLS Cup 2015. No matter who advances from the East finals later on Sunday, Portland will play away in MLS Cup, to either the New York Red Bulls or Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

54′ — Adi fires past Gonzalez to make if 4-1 — Oscar Pareja elected to go with Walker Zimmerman at center back on Sunday, dropping regular starter Zach Loyd to the bench. On the game’s opening goal, it was Zimmerman who wound up on the ground as Adi received the ball, turned and fired a massive away goal past Jesse Gonzalez.

68′ — Diaz’s magical ball curled home by Hollingshead — Mauro Diaz is a wonderful magician capable of playing the kill through ball from anywhere on the field — this we’ve known for quite some time. His chipped through ball to set up Hollingshead’s goal was extraordinarily brilliant, even for him.

73′ — Perez heads home the free kick to pull within one — Would you be surprised to hear that it was Diaz who set up FCD’s second goal? His free kick was Perez-finding missile and found the head of the Panamanian striker at the top of the six-yard box, where 34-year-old headed home with ease.

90+5′ — Melano rounds Gonzalez, seals MLS Cup berth — Poor Jesse Gonzalez. Absolutely schooled and posterized by Lucas Melano. What a way to sew up a place in the championship final.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Mauro Diaz

Goalscorers: Adi (54′), Hollingshead (68′), Perez (73′), Melano (90+5′)

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid bounce back; Juventus on the charge

Gareth Bale, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

Eibar 0-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid bounced back from back-to-back La Liga defeats with a 2-0 victory away to Eibar on Sunday. Gareth Bale (below video) and Cristiano Ronaldo (penalty kick) provided the goals to keep Rafa Benitez‘s bunch (27 points) third in the league, two points behind Atletico Madrid and six behind leaders Barcelona.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Villarreal
Rayo Vallecano 0-3 Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla 1-0 Valencia

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup ]

Roma 0-2 Atalanta

Losing at home to sides currently in a relegation battle — rarely a good idea, especially if you fancy yourselves title challengers, but that didn’t stop Roma from doing just that on Sunday. Alejandro Gomez and German Denis scored the goals to knock off a 10-man Roma side (Maicon – 81st minute) and keep Rudi Garcia’s bunch (27 points) from gaining ground on any of the three teams currently ahead of them — Inter Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina — all of whom play on Monday.

AC Milan 4-1 Sampdoria

M’Baye Niang scored twice, while Giacomo Bonaventura and Luiz Adriano (below video) added single tallies for AC Milan (23 points) to keep pace with the top-five pack in Serie A. After 14 rounds of games, the Rossoneri sit sixth, a point outside fifth (UEFA Europa League) and five points out of third (UEFA Champions League).

Palermo 0-3 Juventus

Don’t look now, but here come Juventus. Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over Palermo makes it four straight wins in the league for Massimiliano Allegri’s side — a run that pushes them all the way up to fifth in the league (24 points), just six points off the pace of leaders Inter, who play on Monday. Mario Mandzukic (below video), Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza scored the goals for the world’s most frightening fifth-place team.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Torino 2-0 Bologna
Chievo 2-3 Udinese
Frosinone 3-2 Hellas Verona
Genoa 1-2 Carpi
Empoli 1-0 Lazio

Monday’s Serie A schedule

Sassuolo vs. Fiorentina (1 p.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Inter Milan (3 p.m. ET)

Arsenal’s injury crisis — add Sanchez, Cazorla, Koscielny to the list

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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From title challengers to just hoping to hold on to a top-four place while Arsene Wenger is forced to play reserves and academy players because half of his star players are currently out injured — the annual story of Arsenal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Oct. 27, when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both went down with injuries in the same game, marked the unofficial start of Arsenal’s 2015-16 injury crisis, but things didn’t really get going full bore until the last seven days, when five more players — four of them full-time starters — picked up injuries that will keep them out of action for anywhere between three weeks and three months.

Added to the list last weekend: Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks)

Added to the list on Sunday: Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – MORE DETAILS), Santi Cazorla (knee), Laurent Koscielny (hip)

Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich City, Wenger said Koscielny “could not walk” due to the hip spasm that forced him out of the game after just 11 minutes. He also divulged that Cazorla, who could not be subbed off because Wenger had already used all three subs late on, played the second half “on one leg.” Sanchez came into Sunday injured after picking up a hamstring injury in Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL roundup — Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs all draw ]

Arsenal fans were up in arms during the summer transfer window — let’s be honest, the following is true of every transfer window the last five years — crying out, “We must buy, we must buy.” Have a look at Arsenal’s complete injury list at the moment, and try to say, “They didn’t need to buy in the summer.”

In chronological order: Danny Welbeck (knee – early 2016 return), Tomas Rosicky (knee – Christmas time return), Jack Wilshere (leg – Christmas time return), Theo Walcott (calf – December return), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks), Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Laurent Koscielny (hip – to be assessed), Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – to be assessed), Santi Cazorla (knee – to be assessed)