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 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.”

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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.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)