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.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.

PL Sunday preview: Spurs take on bogey Reds; Everton vs. Arsenal

Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
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Every club in the world has a bogey team (or teams) that no matter what they try, no matter the circumstances, it always seems to go sideways when they meet — a side that everyone associated with the club dreads when they see their name on the upcoming schedule.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man United shocked by Huddersfield; City, Chelsea win ]

For Tottenham Hotspur, the thorn currently in their side is Liverpool, who they’ll host at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, following Arsenal’s seasonal trip to Goodison Park to take on Everton.

Everton vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After starting the 2017-18 Premier League season with just two wins from eight games, every game could very well be Ronald Koeman‘s last game in charge of Everton, thus a visit from top-four-chasing Arsenal is anything but well-timed for the distressed Dutchman. What’s worse, the Toffees are also without a win in their last four games (all competitions) and on the verge of crashing out of the Europa League group stage.

“The performance was under level in the first half,” Koeman said following Thursday’s home defeat to Lyon. “We made a lot of mistakes, and the team played with a lot of doubts and little confidence. It’s very difficult (to reach the next stage). Most of the time you get your points at home but we have only got one out of the two we have had at Goodison. Nothing is impossible, but to gain more points — and I think we need six or seven — we need to improve the level and that is more important.”

Sounds similar to their league performances, strangely enough — Everton currently sit 16th in the PL table, mere months after spending in excess of $200 million during the summer transfer window.

European competition has treated Arsenal far better this season, as Arsene Wenger‘s side is three-for-three in the Europa League following Thursday’s win away to Red Star Belgrade. A number of key figures — Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, to name a few — were left in London, as a reserve- and youth-heavy side got the job done courtesy of an Olivier Giroud goal five minutes before full-time.

Still, the Gunners are in desperate need of a quick rebound following last weekend’s late defeat to Watford, after which Watford captain Troy Deeney publicly characterized the Arsenal players as mentally weak and said they lack the necessary “cojones” to compete at this level. On the bright side, Deeney’s 71st-minute equalizer (from the penalty spot) was the first goal Arsenal had conceded in 444 minutes in the PL, a streak they’ll look to start anew and build off Thursday’s win in Serbia.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Ross Barkley (back), Morgan Schneiderlin (knock), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg), James McCarthy (fitness), Yannick Bolasie (knee) | Arsenal — OUT: Danny Welbeck (hamstring), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh), Calum Chambers (hip), Santi Cazorla (achilles)

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Mauricio Pochettino has never beaten Liverpool in six tries as Tottenham manager (two triumphs in his 18 months at Southampton); in fact, Spurs themselves haven’t beaten Liverpool in the PL since Nov. 28, 2012 (three draws and six defeats in nine tries) — the north London side’s truest bogey club this decade. Having already fallen eight points behind leaders Manchester City, Pochettino’s side will have to clear that mental hurdle on Saturday if they’re to go on and challenge for the PL title for a third straight season. On the other hand, they’re unbeaten in 10 games (seven wins) across all competitions.

Fortunately for Spurs, the Wembley monkey is off their back after narrowly edging past Bournemouth their last time out at home. Harry Kane is without goal in his last 241 minutes for club (two for England during the last international break), which is practically an eternity after scoring seven goals in the previous 188 minutes.

As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp‘s side enters Sunday’s clash mired in a month-long slump, having won just one of their last four league games, and just two of their last nine in all competitions. A major part of the problem is more of the poor defending that dogged the Reds last season, but perhaps they’ve been a bit unfortunate as well.

“We had bad luck in the last three or four games,” summer signing Mohamed Salah said this week. “Everyone was confident a good result was coming.”

The tough stretch has seen Klopp somewhat recalibrate his expectations in the direction of reality, dubbing his side the “challenger” when they take on Tottenham.

“(Spurs) are in a really good moment as a club and we are the challenger when we go there, that’s how it is,” he said this week. “But they know it will not be an easy game, so good, let’s play and let’s see what happens.”

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Mousa Dembele (foot), Victor Wanyama (knee), Danny Rose (fitness), Erik Lamela (hip) | Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (hamstring), Adam Lallana (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring)

PL Roundup: City separation; Stunning goal show (video)

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From Pedro‘s pipe cleaner to Boufal’s wondrous solo march, the Premier League’s day started and ended with glorious goals.

[ SUNDAY PREVIEW: Spurs face bogey reds; Everton vs. Arsenal (streams) ]

Manchester United lost for the first time this season along the way, one a few notable score lines on Saturday in the United Kingdom.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap ]


Southampton 1-0 West Bromwich AlbionRECAP

Tony Pulis tried to park the bus, but Sofiane Boufal is a stunt driver. Southampton found a winner late at home to move into the top half.

Huddersfield Town 2-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

It had been 65 years since Town beat Manchester United, and the way it looked Saturday it won’t be that long before it happens again. Maybe United was beat from the UEFA Champions League midweek, or just wasn’t prepared to answer the bell, but goals from Aaron Mooy and Laurent Depoitre gave Town a 2-0 lead before Marcus Rashford provided for a tighter ending.

Manchester City 3-0 BurnleyRECAP

United’s neighbors took advantage of their loss, as Sergio Aguero converted a penalty before Nicolas Otamendi and Leroy Sane barged down the door and carried all three points with ease.

Swansea City 1-2 Leicester CityRECAP

A Federico Fernandez own goal gave interim manager Michael Appleton an early lead, and red-hot Shinji Okazaki made it 2-0 just after halftime. Alfie Mawson pulled one back for Swans, but that was all she wrote: Leicester had leapt out of the drop zone, and ahead of its hosts.

Newcastle United 1-0 Crystal PalaceRECAP

Rafa Benitez‘s men might’ve been second-best over 90 minutes to Roy Hodgson’s Eagles, but it was a Matt Ritchie corner kick to the noggin of Mikel Merino that did the trick and lifted Newcastle sixth before Sunday’s matches.

Stoke City 1-2 BournemouthRECAP

Mame Biram Diouf’s pull back was not joined by another Stoke goal, as an Andrew Surman goal and Junior Stanislas penalty kick combined to give the Cherries a notable win at the Potteries. Bournemouth is now just one point back of four teams with eight points, including 18th place Stoke.

Chelsea 4-2 WatfordRECAP

When Abdoulaye Doucoure canceled out Pedro’s fantastic 12th minute goal just before halftime, the Blues and Hornets went to the locker room with very different feelings. When Roberto Pereyra made it 2-1 Watford four minutes into the second, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was desperate. Fortunately, super sub Michy Batshuayi scored a brace wrapped around Cesar Azpilicueta’s 87th minute marker to give Chelsea a big win after its midweek draw with Roma in the UEFA Champions League.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 9 8 1 0 32 4 28 4-1-0 4-0-0 25
 Manchester United 9 6 2 1 22 4 18 4-0-0 2-2-1 20
 Tottenham Hotspur 8 5 2 1 15 5 10 1-2-1 4-0-0 17
 Chelsea 9 5 1 3 17 10 7 2-1-2 3-0-1 16
 Watford 9 4 3 2 15 17 -2 1-2-1 3-1-1 15
 Newcastle United 9 4 2 3 10 8 2 3-1-1 1-1-2 14
 Arsenal 8 4 1 3 12 10 2 4-0-0 0-1-3 13
 Liverpool 8 3 4 1 13 12 1 2-2-0 1-2-1 13
 Burnley 9 3 4 2 8 9 -1 1-2-1 2-2-1 13
 Southampton 9 3 3 3 8 9 -1 2-2-2 1-1-1 12
 Huddersfield Town 9 3 3 3 7 10 -3 2-2-1 1-1-2 12
 Brighton & Hove Albion 9 3 2 4 9 10 -1 2-1-1 1-1-3 11
 West Bromwich Albion 9 2 4 3 7 10 -3 1-3-0 1-1-3 10
 Leicester City 9 2 3 4 12 14 -2 1-1-2 1-2-2 9
 Swansea City 9 2 2 5 6 10 -4 1-0-4 1-2-1 8
 Everton 8 2 2 4 5 13 -8 2-0-2 0-2-2 8
 West Ham United 9 2 2 5 8 17 -9 2-0-2 0-2-3 8

 Stoke City 9 2 2 5 10 20 -10 2-1-2 0-1-3 8
 Bournemouth 9 2 1 6 6 13 -7 1-1-2 1-0-4 7
 Crystal Palace 9 1 0 8 2 19 -17 1-0-3 0-0-5 3

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern, BVB level on points; USMNT’s Johnson scores

Marius Becker/dpa via AP
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Borussia Dortmund’s dominant start to the season is no more, and new Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes has his side very much in the race for yet another Bundesliga crown.

[ MORE: LFC prospects buries U.S. ]


Hamburg 0-1 Bayern Munich

Strikers Bobby Wood (Hamburg) and Robert Lewandowski (Bayern) were frustrated, combining for just 47 touches, and it took a fittingly messy goal to separate the two. It came from French midfielder Corentin Tolisso and pulled Bayern level with leaders BVB on points, three goals back in differential.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Borussia Dortmund

BVB is, quite officially, in a bit of a funk. Nuri Sahin and Marvin Philipp gave the visitors a 2-0 lead, but Eintracht sprung for goals in the 64th and 68th minutes to deny the leaders more than a point. Christian Pulisic ran his socks off, as usual, with more than 11km covered, but will not look back on his 90 minutes fondly. It happens.

Borussia Monchengladbach 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen

American left winger Fabian Johnson buried a seventh minute goal… then watched the visitors put five of their six shots on target home for a gnarly home loss.

Elsewhere
Schalke 2-0 Mainz — Friday
RB Leipzig 1-0 Stuttgart
Augsburg 1-2 Hannover 96
Koln vs. Werder Bremen — 7:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Freiburg vs. Hertha Berlin — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Wolfsburg vs. Hoffenheim — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 9 6 2 1 25 7 18 3-0-1 3-2-0 20
 Bayern Munich 9 6 2 1 22 7 15 3-1-0 3-1-1 20
 RB Leipzig 9 6 1 2 16 10 6 3-1-0 3-0-2 19
 FC Schalke 04 9 5 1 3 12 9 3 3-1-1 2-0-2 16
 1899 Hoffenheim 8 4 3 1 15 10 5 3-2-0 1-1-1 15
 Hannover 96 9 4 3 2 10 7 3 2-1-1 2-2-1 15
 Eintracht Frankfurt 9 4 2 3 10 9 1 1-1-2 3-1-1 14
 Mönchengladbach 9 4 2 3 13 17 -4 3-0-2 1-2-1 14
 Bayer Leverkusen 9 3 3 3 20 14 6 2-2-0 1-1-3 12
 FC Augsburg 9 3 3 3 12 10 2 2-1-2 1-2-1 12
 FSV Mainz 05 9 3 1 5 10 15 -5 3-0-2 0-1-3 10
 VfB Stuttgart 9 3 1 5 6 11 -5 3-1-0 0-0-5 10
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 2 3 3 8 10 -2 2-2-1 0-1-2 9
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 1 5 2 8 11 -3 0-3-1 1-2-1 8
 Hamburger SV 9 2 1 6 6 15 -9 1-1-3 1-0-3 7
 SC Freiburg 8 1 4 3 5 16 -11 1-3-0 0-1-3 7
 Werder Bremen 8 0 4 4 3 9 -6 0-1-3 0-3-1 4
 1. FC Köln 8 0 1 7 3 17 -14 0-0-3 0-1-4 1