MLS playoff focus: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s visit to Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Real Salt Lake carries a 4-2 lead into Sunday’s second leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference finals, the 2009 league champions having taken a huge step toward their second MLS Cup final with their Nov. 9 win over the Portland Timbers in Utah. Here are the must knows about RSL ahead of the teams’ second leg, which kicks off at 9:00 p.m. Eastern at JELD-WEN Field:

[REVIEW: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

  • Replacing Álvaro Saborío’s not a problem

Real Salt Lake’s best goal scorer’s out, the Costa Rican international’s pulled muscle keeping him out of the travel squad for Sunday’s game. But the 31-year-old’s absence is nothing new to a team that only had him for 1346 (out of a possible 3060) minutes this season. Between injuries and international duty, Saborío has been out more often than he’s been in.

Expect rookie Devon Sandoval to get another start on Sunday. The number nine, a second round pick out of New Mexico, picked up the fourth goal of his Major League Soccer career in leg one. Combining good size (6’1″) with the level of effort you’d expect from somebody still establishing themselves as a professional, the 22-year-old is the ideal player from Jason Kreis’s attacking reserves to help protect their lead.

[MORE: MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers, with the Western Conference title on the line]

  • Center backs aren’t just good

With the exception of Frederic Piquionne’s 94th minute goal two weeks ago, Real Salt Lake’s center halves have been great throughout the postseason. Nat Borchers is playing like a recent Best XI player, while the emergence of Chris Schuler has given Kreis the postseason’s best central defense tandem (a high standard, given what Peter Vermes is working with in Kansas City). If Borchers and Schuler continue playing at this level, it’s hard to see anybody beating RSL, let alone overturning a two-goal deficit.

  • The continuing importance of Kyle Beckerman

From our pre-match notes on the first leg:

Beckerman is always important to RSL, but against Portland, his performances could prove vital. As the Timbers seek to press high and create quick turnovers, his ability to retain possession, take advantage of openings, and decide when to do which will play in big part in RSL’s potential success.
Perhaps as important: How Beckerman handles Diego Valeri. Or Darlington Nagbe. Who knows? Depending on Portland’s tactics, either could end up demanding Beckerman’s attention, but with both free to drop deep into midfield to pick up the ball, there’s also the potential for one to open up space for the other.

Beckerman was great in leg one. By the 53-minute mark, Caleb Porter was changing things up, pulling an ineffective (and likely, tiring) Diego Valeri, though to little avail. Over the last 40-plus minutes, Portland’s only goal would come from a cross to Piquionne, not through the middle.

  • Javi Morales: The best player left in the playoffs?

After being a non-factor in game one of the conference semifinals, RSL’s playmaker has put in two dominant performances, being named PST’s Man of the Match for his team’s 2-0, semifinal-clinching win over Los Angeles and the team’s 4-2 win over Portland in leg one. He’s been directly involved in four of RSL’s six postseason scores, recording one goal and three assists since his team was shutout in Carson.

Morales is what Graham Zusi is to Sporting Kansas City or Diego Valeri is to Portland, but he’s been more effective. Even grouped with those talents, Morales’s star has shined brightest this postseason.

  • Kreis’s last game with RSL?

This is another point we’ve covered before, but it’s worth a reminder: Jason Kreis’s time with Real Salt Lake could be coming to an end, with the RSL boss presumably having the option to switch to NYCFC when his contract’s up at the end of the season. If Portland comes back on Sunday, it could be the end of an era.

Report: Minnesota United chasing Ecuadorian national teamer

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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Minnesota United may be hoping another Ibarra can cure what ails its attack.

Romario Ibarra, 23, is on the Loons’ radar according to The Athletic‘s Kristian Dyer and Jeff Rueter, who say Minnesota would like to land the Ecuadorian when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Ibarra was limited to eight matches for Universidad Católica this season as he battled through a lingering metatarsal fracture. But he’s scored against Argentina and Chile in each of his appearances for the national team, both World Cup qualifiers.

From The Athletic:

Sources say that Ibarra’s contract is unlikely to make him a designated player, leaving Quintero as the club’s sole DP. (It could depend, in part, on the size of the transfer fee.) Based on league standards, his salary will likely be drawn from Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) contract seems likely.

Ibarra’s older brother Renato plays for Club America, and has 36 caps.

Minnesota is six points outside the West’s final playoff spot, and has scored just 17 goals in 14 matches.

Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal field set

Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP
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The 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is down to one non-MLS entrant after LAFC fought past Sacramento Republic’s dogged effort to make it two, twice equalizing en route to a 3-2 win.

[ MORE: TFC extends Bono ]

Louisville City won a battle of USL sides in Wednesday’s final day of fifth round action, knocking off Nashville SC by a 2-1 score.

Now attention turns to the quarterfinals, where USL champions Louisville City will face the Chicago Fire on July 18.

All four quarterfinals will be staged on that day, and the winner of Louisville-Chicago will face the winner of the duel between Philadelphia Union and Orlando City.

The other side of the bracket shows Houston Dynamo against Sporting KC, and LAFC against the Portland Timbers.

Chicago and KC have won the cup an MLS-best four times each, while Philadelphia has finished second twice.

The remaining quarterfinalists have not advanced to a USOC final.

Sprawling translated Emery interview talks PSG, Guardiola, more

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Arsenal manager Unai Emery has given a sprawling interview, translated by France Football News, in which he discusses his history and his philosophies.

The interview was conducted after Emery was dismissed by Paris Saint-Germain but before he was hired by the Gunners.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

It’s a fascinating read, with Emery going deep into his relationship with Neymar, the need for PSG to get an “A-ha” goal for its history books, and much, much more.

The interview is with Marti Perarnau, the author of “Pep Confidential,” and there are plenty of good nuggets regarding the Manchester City boss, as well as Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, PSG, Real Madrid, and Barcelona.

It’s fairly clear that Emery figured he’d be going to a new league, and he certainly seems like a guy fit for a project like succeeding Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. For one thing, he’s proud of his team’s style.

That’s something valued by the North London set, and Emery pointed out that Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid and Pep Guardiola at Man City had to fail before they succeeded.

Let me say this: PSG played well and won. Many people don’t value that enough and believe that it is easy. But what happened to us? We lacked competitiveness in important moments. Why? Because this team is not confronted with enough moments of adversity in the league. Being competitive also means being faced with adversity. One has to suffer like Simeone’s team to win. One has to suffer like Pep’s team to win in England.

My team had two basic principles: having possession and pressing. That was the basis. Having the ball, and winning it back as fast as possible. I should add a little nuance. I’m talking about having possession and not positioning because there are moments where you can win the ball through positioning, and others where moving out of position can surprise the opponent. And like Guardiola says, if you have to win with a long ball from the goalkeeper towards the striker and that the forward scores with his ass, then so be it! We work like that as well.

And here’s just a quick nugget on the importance of playmaking, and how good players make a coach look better.

During his first match against Toulouse at the Parc des Princes, we get corner. Neymar takes it quickly and Kurzawa scores. We hadn’t worked that at all with him. Afterwards, I told Neymar, “My work is limited to your strokes of genius.”

Love it. Arsenal seems like it’s in good hands. Read the full interview here.

Khedira laughs off Swedish reporter’s offer of tickets home

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira brushed off a gesture from a Swedish reporter, trading a bit of banter ahead of Germany’s big World Cup match against Sweden on Saturday.

Germany fell 1-0 to Mexico in its opener while Sweden beat South Korea, leading a playful Swede to hand Khedira boarding passes for a flight home to Germany.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Khedira’s reply? He joked that Sweden won’t be a problem and he’ll use the tickets after the World Cup Final.

From Goal.com:

“After this bad start, we know that it’s super difficult, but we know that we are a strong team. We analysed the game, we saw Sweden play and we are sure that we are winning this game.

“I think we’ll need them [plane tickets] on the 16th of July.”