MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Thursday’s second leg against the LA Galaxy

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Ahead of Thursday’s second-leg of this Western Conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about Jason Kreis’ Real Salt Lake (Thursday’s match kicks off at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2):

  • Ned Grabavoy out; a big blow for RSL

A hamstring strain will keep veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy out Thursday; RSL manager Jason Kreis confirmed so to media on Wednesday.

He collected the injury during the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 first-leg loss at the StubHub Center outside Los Angeles.

It’s a big loss in that Grabavoy was reborn in 2013. After a few years of “just OK” around Rio Tinto Stadium, Grabavoy was a central element thanks to sharp form from the first 2013 kick. He eventually posted career highs in starts (29), goals (5) and assists (5).

Second-year man Sebastian Velasquez seems the most likely candidate to replace Grabavoy. He is probably more mobile and energetic than Grabavoy (not to mention 8 years younger). But if you don’t think MLS playoff know-how is important, see “Houston Dynamo upset New York.”

Then again, RSL is likely to return to its 4-4-2, which could mean re-introducing Robbie Findley into the starting 11 alongside striker Alvaro Saborio. (Or even Joao Plata if he is healthy enough following a recent injury.)

  • Formation shift for RSL

Remember when Jason Kreis was a 4-4-2 guy through-and-through? That diamond midfield was RSL’s signature.

Kreis, still young at age 40 but with quite a few years at this managerial thing now, having assumed his current post at age 34, has matured. He now has the confidence to put something different on the field tactically.

And he has the confidence the say hold up his hand and say “My bad … that didn’t work.”

The set-up against Los Angeles for last weekend’s first leg was a 4-2-3-1, with   Yordany Alvarez sitting alongside longtime Rio Tinto holding midfield fixture Kyle Beckerman. Alvaro Saborio was the lone striker, supported by Javier Morales centrally, Grabavoy on the right and Luis Gil on the left.

Safe to say, we won’t see that again. Not tonight at least.

It was mostly a way to deal with the Galaxy’s dangerous counter-attack. Only, it didn’t work out at all, confusing Beckerman when in possession and certainly in the defensive assignments, too.

The result was more or less to RSL’s liking. A draw would have been better (or a win, of course). But going back home trailing by one goal isn’t the worst thing ever. Still, the Galaxy created plenty of chances, often moving through RSL’s defensive shape with too much ease.

(MORE: Real Salt Lake-LA Galaxy second leg preview)

  • RSL center backs had better be on it

One of the lesser told narratives this year around MLS has been the rise lately of Chris Schuler as Nat Borchers’ partner in the middle of the defense. He’s certainly big enough (6-4) – they sure needed those long, stretchy legs of his a couple of times on Sunday – and physical enough, but also technical enough.

And he had better be good enough tonight.

The movement of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane troubled RSL’s entire back line Sunday, but the central areas (along with Real Salt Lake’s two holding midfielders) will be particularly vulnerable to their pair’s movement, which is so quick and instinctive at the instant the Galaxy win the ball.

If Schuler and Borchers cannot communicate with each other with midfielders in tracking those feints, curling runs and big sprints from the Galaxy’s pair of star attackers, the one-goal deficit could expand in a hurry.

(MORE: What we learned from LA Galaxy-RSL first leg)

  • In praise of the old faithfuls … like Nick Rimando

We all like to look for the next new thing … the new restaurant or the new show on TV or whatever. But it’s always important to take a step back and appreciate the old stand-byes, too, right?

That’s Nick Rimando. His numbers remain strong, he’s a strong and commanding leader in the back and the 34-year-old can still deliver the big, game-changing save.

Rimando been so good for so long that we probably take the man for granted. Don’t forget, Rimando’s first starting assignment in MLS was 14 years ago with some good Miami Fusion teams. A lot of RSL holdovers have an MLS Cup medal from that 2009 title claimed over the LA Galaxy in Seattle. Rimando also has one from 2004, when he started for DC United.

(FYI, three current MLS managers started on that 2004 D.C. United side: Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke and Ben Olsen.)

  • Yellow card warning

Kyle Beckerman is the only RSL man on yellow card warning. “Only” man is a bit mis-leading. Beyond Rimando and Borchers, Beckerman is probably the most important RSL figure, not just for all the midfield tackling and calm possession, but for the leadership and composure.

The U.S. international will miss the next playoff match if he receives another booking.

(MORE: MLS playoff scheduling, timing and pace make no sense)

Messi says Barcelona is ‘home,’ but he ‘sees weird things happening’

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Lionel Messi is not sure what to make of recent allegations that Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is responsible a social media campaign which set out to criticize the club’s top players while also aiming to rebuild his own reputation.

[ MORE: Pep’s not-so-subtle warning to Barcelona: “Don’t talk too loudly” ]

Messi once again called Barcelona his “home,” though he also admitted that he “sees weird things happening,” presumably referring to statements made in recent months and weeks by members of the Barca hierarchy, including Bartomeu and sporting director Eric Abidal.

For a club of Barcelona’s size and stature to be airing this much dirty laundry for the world to see is certainly weird, to say the least. Messi sounds like he’s desperate to remain at the club and finish his career there, though it’s beginning to sound as if certain individuals have other ideas — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was a little surprised because I was not present, I was traveling. When I arrived, I discovered it all bit by bit. The president told us the same things he said in public, the same things he said at a press conference — what was the situation, what had happened. And I cannot say more.

“The truth is that I see weird things happening. But, it was also said that there would be evidence. We will have to wait to see if it is true or not. We can’t say much and we have to wait and see what happens. Frankly, the subject seems strange to me.”

“I love Barcelona, although I miss Rosario very much.

“This is my home, I was here longer than in Argentina. I love Barcelona, the place where I live, Castelldefels, and I live a life that I like very much.”

Pep’s not-so-subtle warning to Barcelona: ‘Don’t talk too loudly’

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Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are currently neck-deep in legal troubles after UEFA handed the Premier League side a two-year European ban last week, leading a handful of clubs and figures from around the continent to delight over their current predicament.

[ MORE: Guardiola will not leave Man City: “Truth will prevail” ]

Guardiola’s message for those folks, including some longtime friends and former co-workers at Barcelona? Essentially, don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.

Earlier this week, allegations were made that Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who voiced his full support of the punishment handed down by UEFA, was involved in a campaign to bash a number of key players and figures at the club while also attempting to boost his own reputation.

“I don’t know if they spy me, but they know me. It is not necessary to spy me. If they are happy we are suspended, I say to the president of Barcelona, give us two appeals. I ask right now the people trust what they have done. Don’t talk too [loudly], Barcelona. That is my advice because everybody is involved in situations. We are going to appeal and hopefully in the future we can play Champions League against Barcelona.”

Players ‘absolutely dead’: Mourinho finds no faults in Spurs’ performance

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Jose Mourinho can find few, if any, faults in Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-0 defeat to RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday, as he is simply making do with the very limited and exhausted tools presently at his disposal.

[ MORE: Spurs fall under nonstop pressure from RB Leipzig (video) ]

“[Lucas] Moura was absolutely dead, [Steven] Bergwijn was absolutely dead, [Giovani] Lo Celso was absolutely dead,” Mourinho said as he ran through the list of players forced to play all 90 minutes despite desperately needing a reprieve.

Given his side’s current injury list — Harry Kane, Son-Heung Min, Moussa Sissoko and Juan Foyth are all out, while Lo Celso, Erik Lamela and Ben Davies have only just returned to the team in recent days — Mourinho was emphatic in stating his players “did everything they could do” — quotes from the BBC:

“What do you mean by ‘the real Spurs?’ Come on, let’s be loyal to the boys and tell them they did everything they could do.

“Lamela — you know how many training sessions with the team? Zero. Direct from injury to recovery with physios and then direct to 20 minutes in the Champions League.

“There are two perspectives — an amazing group and amazing guys, but another side you see how we are at the moment. It’s a situation like going to fight with a gun without bullets.

“You can say we had luck in some moments, but a great goalkeeper made two magnificent saves. I’m not worried with the 1-0. We can go there and win. What worries me is that these are our players for the next however many matches.

“Moura was absolutely dead, Bergwijn was absolutely dead, Lo Celso was absolutely dead. We are really in trouble. If it was just this game I’d say no problem but we have FA Cup and Premier League games.

“I know Lamela could only give us 20 minutes and I knew Ndombele could not play for 90 minutes. I tried to manage the pieces I had. Don’t tell me Lamela and Ndombele could have started the game, they couldn’t have started the game.

“Here we go, Chelsea [Spurs’ opponent at 7:30 a.m. ET on Saturday], drinking sparkling water with lemon. Saturday morning [looking at the interviewer — the game was moved for television coverage] — thank you very much for the choice.”

Tottenham’s recent “winter break” was reduce from 14 to 10 days when they were forced to face Southampton in a fourth-round FA Cup replay two weeks ago today.

Anger, confusion surrounds Man City’s European ban

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MANCHESTER — There was anger and plenty of confusion in the air as Man City played their first game since their ban from European action was confirmed.

The name of their owner, Sheikh Mansour, was sung loud and proud, so too Pep Guardiola‘s, as there was an extra level of defiance among City’s fans who held up anti-UEFA banners, some of which were confiscated, as anti-UEFA chants ruled supreme.

Chants of ‘F*** UEFA, F*** UEFA” and “F*** off UEFA, we will see you in court!” were plentiful, especially after Rodri’s goal gave Man City the lead.

West Ham’s fans responded by signing “cheating b*******, you know what you are!”

City’s 2-0 win against West Ham was secondary. Pretty much everything else is secondary after the seismic news arrived late last week. City’s fans didn’t seem to know what to think or what to say. Guardiola revealed he will not be leaving the club. That was at least some clarity as the Etihad Stadium was shrouded in mist, rain and cloud on Wednesday.

The weather summed up the mystery shrouding Man City’s future in European competitions after being given a two season ban which is due to start in the 2020-21 campaign. City will appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) but as things stands the reigning Premier League champions will not be in Europe until Sept. 2022 at the earliest.

[ MORE: Key questions answered

“It is not finished. The club believes it is unfair so we are going to appeal and we are going to wait,” manager Pep Guardiola said afterwards. “So all we can do on the pitch is all we have done in the last four years and try and win games. We are going to wait. I trust 100 percent my club what they have done, they explained to me what happened. They have explained to me the reasons why and we are going to see.”

Man City’s fans were a little more emphatic.

“I just laughed out loud. I had a laugh. It is UEFA. They are corrupt,” lifelong Man City Chris Hyde said ahead of the game against West Ham.

UEFA delivered its verdict last Friday after an extensive investigation into what they call “serious breaches” of Financial Fair Play rules. City were also fined $32.4 million for the breach as UEFA’s Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) found the reigning Premier League champions guilty of serious breaches of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations.

The Manchester club were previously charged by UEFA in 2014 as they were fined and had a limited number of players in their squad for UEFA competitions for FFP breaches. This new charge comes after Football Leaks documents published by Der Spiegel in 2018 accused Man City of wrongdoing.

On the day of the West Ham game the CEO of the City Football Group, Ferran Sorriano released a lengthy statement via the club media channel in which he said the allegations against the club are “false” and “simply not true” and that he hoped for a quick resolution by the end of the season.

“The most important thing I have to say today is that the allegations are not true,” Sorriano said. “They are simply not true. The owner has not put money in this club that has not been properly declared. We are a sustainable football club, we are profitable, we don’t have debt, our accounts have been scrutinized many times, by auditors, by regulators, by investors and this is perfectly clear.”

He also had this message for fans.

“The fans can be sure of two things. The first one is that the allegations are false. And the second is that we will do everything that can be done to prove so,” Sorriano said. “We know the fans are supporting us. We can feel it. Man City fans have gone through challenges over the decades. This is just another challenge. We will stick together, we will go through it and we will not let the fans down.”

How have the fans reacted? Do they feel let down by the Man City hierarchy?

“No, not at all,” Paul Drew, a well-spoken Mancunian and lifelong Man City said defiantly. “I don’t think there is any antipathy or anger towards the senior leadership. It has been managed pretty well but it is just the way it is.”

City are a club which is used to falling down.

Ask any City fan over the age of 30 and they will tell you all about the heartache, near misses, relegation to the third-tier and the constant hard-luck stories. They revel in those struggles and believe the decades of agony make their recent success even sweeter.

“We take the mick out of ourselves because we have to. I hate to coin the phrase but: ‘Typical City.’ We are the only team that can be one of the most successful and best teams ever and then screw it up ourselves!” Hyde laughed when discussing the allegations.

When you walk around Manchester there are nods to Man City’s past everywhere. Many fans wear retro jerseys from the third-tier days and still talk about Gillingham, Paul Dickov and Shaun Goater (who was on the pitch at half time as a guest) fondly. The fanbase is one which embraces tough times and many don’t regard being kicked out of the UEFA Champions League for two seasons as a big issue.

There is a sense that City are being picked on by UEFA. There is anger and confusion as every club will have fans sticking up for themselves not matter how stacked the evidence is against them.

Are City’s fans angry about their team being banned from European action?

“Very much so. I hope it is articulated in the right way because it just doesn’t feel fair,” Drew said.

There is a sense this situation could actually make their fanbase more defiant, more supportive and rally behind their team in their time of need as reports have surfaced detailing possible Premier League points deductions and in extreme cases relegation to the fourth-tier of English soccer.

“It would make the fanbase stronger. That is the good thing,” Drew explained. “We are often criticized for not being a big club until the last 10 or so years but the past 120 years we have been something like the top six supported clubs in England. It might dent the international fanbase a little bit, I don’t know, but certainly the domestic fanbase not at all. It might even encourage it.”

Hyde agreed.

“It is just annoying. We are City fans we will just have a laugh at it. We will laugh it off. At the end of the day it is a load of millionaires talking about how they’ve spent their money. We won four league titles, we are in the Champions League, let’s have a bit of fun! It is a bit different than 10 years ago.”

There is a sense of confusion around what is fact and fiction. City’s fans, the club, pundits, UEFA, everyone seems to be saying something slightly different.

“It doesn’t feel fair,” Drew said. “I get the principles of Financial Fair Play but when you’ve got an owner who gifts the club money and might ultimately reap the profits that’s fine, when you are leveraging buyouts of clubs built on debt and paying interest on that debt, have money from the fans which other clubs do as well, how is that even comparable? It is Financial Fair Play but aimed at the wrong people.”

Guardiola has hope City will not be banned and in turn every single Man City fan, and player, will be sharing a similar view.

“We spoke. We made a deal. We are going to fight, like we fought every single day, until the end of the season,” Guardiola said of his talks with the players. “We are optimistic that in the end the truth will prevail, and if next season we qualify for the Champions League that we will be there.”