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.”

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.

Report: Jose Mourinho willing to let Wayne Rooney leave

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United shakes hands with Manager of Manchester United, Jose Mourinho during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Wayne Rooney‘s future at Manchester United seems increasingly uncertain.

[ MORE: Tight title race? ]

A report in the Sun newspaper states that United’s captain and talisman, 31, has been told by manager Jose Mourinho that he can leave if it’s regular game time he wants.

Rooney hasn’t started any of United’s last four Premier League games and was left out of their squad for the 4-0 thumping at Chelsea last weekend with a small injury.

Per the report, Mourinho has spoken to Rooney’s advisers and has told them he can not guarantee the England national team captain a starting role.

There’s no doubting Rooney’s huge impact at United over the past 12 years since he arrived at Old Trafford. He’s won five Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League title, two League Cups and an FA Cup.

Rooney is also just three goals shy of breaking the all-time club record for number of goals scored — he has scored 246 times for United in all competitions — which Sir Bobby Charlton has held for over 40 years and although he has this season plus two more on his huge contract, it seems like he’s reaching a major crossroads in his career.

Even if he is willing to stick around for the final years of his playing days and get stuck into a bit-par role a la Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, you know that Rooney will still make an impact.

The Englishman is stuck in a rut but so are United.

If fit, it would be very surprising to not see him feature heavily in the next few days as United host bitter rivals Manchester City in the EFL last 16 on Wednesday and then Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports).

Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Griezmann of Club Atletico de Madrid looks on during the match between Sevilla FC vs Club Atletico de Madrid as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuanon October 23, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann has won the best player award in the Spanish league for last season.

The Atletico Madrid forward was announced as the winner in a ceremony organized by La Liga in Valencia on Monday. The Frenchman was not at the ceremony.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or omissions ]

Atletico also had Diego Simeone win the best coach award, Diego Godin earn the best defender award, and Jan Oblak clinch best goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was selected as the best forward, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as the best midfielder.

Team captains voted for the top players in each position, while a data-analysis system generated the best player award.

Barcelona won the Spanish league last season, ahead of Real Madrid and Atletico.

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason.