Real Salt Lake’s 2013: The not-so-rebuilding year that could end in an MLS title

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“What are you doing this offseason” is the question you hear most this time of year around Major League Soccer, but it has less and less significance. With seasons starting sooner and ending later, there’s barely enough time to fit in drafts, re-entry drafts, ang preseasons before we’re kicking off again in March. The games may stop on this Saturday, but come Monday morning, teams will start overhauling their rosters. With player movement often grabbing headlines as big as the matches themselves, there is no offseason for an MLS diehard.

Take last year. Coming out of Los Angeles, you’d think there would have been a period of reflection on the year that was, particularly since neither David Beckham nor Landon Donovan seemed ready to give us quick answers to their career quandaries. Instead, Garth Lagerwey was putting us to work. As planes were lifting off from LAX, the Real Salt Lake general manager was shipping Jaimson Olave and Fabian Espindola to New York. Around the same time, news broke that Will Johnson was going to Portland. While the rest of the league was resetting, an Real Salt Lake team that have been to five straight post seasons was rebuilding.

At least, we called it rebuilding, though now that Jason Kreis’s team is back in their first title game since 2009, we might want to reconsider the label, one which became a bit of a cliché throughout the regular season. Espindola, Johnson, and especially Olave were valuable pieces for RSL, but when you look at the core Lagerwey maintained, the offseason looks like more of a small shuffle than major remodeling. The core of the team was still in place.

That core starts at the back with U.S. international Nick Rimando and continues through a back line that returned three quality veterans: fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert and former Best XI central defender Nat Borchers. In the middle, Real Salt Lake still had their linchpins: Kyle Beckerman at the base of their diamond; Javier Morales at the tip. And although he wasn’t there when the team raised the cup in 2009, Costa Rican international Álvaro Saborío has been an integral part of the team’s continued success. He was coming back, too.

Add in Ned Grabavoy, key in a season where RSL were occasionally without Kyle Beckerman, and the team had eight starters returning from a squad that finished second in the West. Among the replacements they had in house, Jason Kreis could call on Luis Gil in midfield and Chris Schuler at the back. The only real question was whether they’d have somebody to fill Espindola’s shoes. By the time March came around, they’d have more than enough options: Robbie Findley; João Plata; Devon Sandoval; and Olmes Garcia.

source: Getty Images
Jámison Olave, seen here playing with RSL, was the best defender on a team which reached a CONCACAF Champions League final. This offseason he was sent to New York, with RSL trusting Chris Schuler, Kwame Waston-Siriboe, and Carlos Salcedo to take up the spot next to Nat Borchers (Photo: Getty Images.)

How did this come to be thought of as rebuild? It was probably that Olave trade that got the ball rolling. That it came so quickly, involved such a good player, packaged him with another starter, and didn’t land Real Salt Lake a significant player in return hinted Lagerwey was being forced to hit the reset button. To a limited extent, that was true, but whereas many saw those early December trades as auguring a complete rebuild, the next dominos never fell, even if the narrative had already been set in motion.

If we’re forcing ourselves to call 2013 a rebuild, then it started all the way back in 2010 when they drafted Chris Schuler. It continued when they traded for a 17-year-old Luis Gil a month later then took a three-year break. That’s when (this offseason) the team drafted Sandoval, traded for Findley and Plata, and signed Garcia. In between, players like Sebastian Velazquez (draft) and Lovel Palmer (re-entry) were added, but they aren’t a big part of the rebuild narrative. If we’re looking at how RSL were able to like Olave, Johnson, and Espindola go without regressing, the answers lie in a series of moves that don’t look much different than the drafting of Sebastian Velazquez or the reclamation of Lovel Palmer.

Except for those high profile departures, 2013 has been business as usual for an organization that continues to uncover talent. Sometimes that involves getting the most out of recycled talents like Rimando, Grabavoy, and Wingert. Other times it’s late draft steals like Schuler and Velasquez. There’s the occasional Garcia-esque signing from abroad, and when they need to, they can go out and get a Morales or Saborío. This isn’t rebuilding. This is roster management done within the thin margin allowed a small market team competing against the likes of Los Angeles and Seattle.

It’s natural to think of the emptied lockers of Olave, Johnson, and Espindola and assume big changes were in store, but the fire sale never came. If Real Salt Lake’s brains continue running their organization the way they have, that fire sale will never has come. When the day comes that Rimando, Beckerman, and Morales have to go, the transitions may prove just as smooth, provided the same philosophies are underpinning them.

If changes stay limited and can be planned for in advance, there’s no reason why RSL can’t continue to succeed. Last year, they finished second in the West and made the conference semifinals. This year, they finished second and are playing for an MLS title.

How to qualify for soccer’s EURO 2020

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GENEVA (AP) With the inaugural Nations League program ending Tuesday, the 2020 European Championship is up next for the continent’s national teams.

All 24 places at Euro 2020 are up for grabs when qualifying starts in March, although the Nations League helped shape the draw that will be held on Dec. 2 in Dublin.

Germany, for instance, won’t be among the top-seeded teams because of its poor results since September.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

For 16 teams, there already is a backup plan to reach Euro 2020. Those Nations League group winners are sure of a place in a playoff round held in March 2020 regardless of their finish in the traditional qualifying groups.

Another quirk of Euro 2020 is there are 12 host countries – from Ireland in the west to Azerbaijan in the east – and none gets an automatic entry.

Here is the Euro 2020 outlook:

EURO 2020 QUALIFYING DRAW

All 55 teams in the Dec. 2 draw are seeded according to Nations League results.

They will be drawn into five groups of five teams and five six-team groups, with games played from March to November next year.

The Nations League top-tier group winners – Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England – must be in the smaller, five-team groups. They will play the Final Four tournament hosted by Portugal in June when others are playing Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The top two finishers in each group qualify automatically for Euro 2020.

Pot 1: Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Poland.

Pot 2: Germany, Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Austria, Wales, Czech Republic.

Pot 3: Slovakia, Turkey, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland, Bulgaria, Israel.

Pot 4: Hungary, Romania, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Georgia.

Pot 5: Macedonia, Kosovo, Belarus, Luxembourg, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Gibraltar, Faeroe Islands.

Pot 6: Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Malta, San Marino.

EURO 2020 PLAYOFFS

The last four places at the tournament will be decided through a 16-team playoff, the format of which is completely new.

Four teams from each of four Nations League tiers will play in a mini-tournament featuring semifinals and a final next March 26-31. The four winners advance to complete the 24-team Euro 2020 lineup.

If one of the Nations League group winners have already secured a spot, the next-best team in that tier will make the playoffs.

It is a golden opportunity for fourth-tier League D teams which are unlikely to qualify automatically.

So, one of Georgia, Macedonia, Kosovo or Belarus will make its tournament debut at Euro 2020. For Kosovo, it’s a first entry in qualifying after gaining membership of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016.

Other potential playoff lineups:

League C: Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland.

League B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden.

League A: Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England.

12 HOST COUNTRIES

Euro 2020 will be hosted in 12 cities in 12 different countries, kicking off in Rome on June 12.

It was supposed to be 13 cities – each hosting three group-stage games plus a knockout game from the round of 16 or a quarterfinal – but Brussels dropped out when a new stadium project failed.

The semifinals and final were awarded to Wembley Stadium in London, which also stepped in to get the four Brussels games.

Host nation teams who qualify will have at least two home games in the group stage.

The host city pairings are:

Group A: Rome, Italy; Baku, Azerbaijan.

Group B: St. Petersburg, Russia; Copenhagen, Denmark.

Group C: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Bucharest, Romania.

Group D: London, England; Glasgow, Scotland.

Group E: Bilbao, Spain; Dublin, Ireland.

Group F: Munich, Germany; Budapest, Hungary.

Round of 16 games (June 27-30) will be in: London, Amsterdam, Bilbao, Budapest, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, Dublin.

Quarterfinals (July 3-4) will be in St. Petersburg, Munich, Baku, Rome.

The semifinals will be July 7-8 in London, and the final on July 12.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

U.S. Soccer announces Player of the Year nominees

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The USMNT’s 2018 Player of the Year is going to be one of the new breed, while the USWNT’s list of nominees is a bit unusual as well.

Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga, Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp are the men vying to become the fifth different name to win the Male Player of the Year in as many seasons.

[ USMNT: Player ratings | 3 things ]

There are three players on the Female list to have won the award in previous years with Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath, and Alex Morgan having laid claim to the honor. Megan Rapinoe and Lindsey Horan are the other two nominees.

The two teams could hardly have had more different years, as the USWNT was undefeated behind a prolific season from Morgan.

The men stalled as U.S. Soccer failed to enlist a full-time coach, leaving interim coach Dave Sarachan to meld new players into a “part-time” system.

Steffen is probably the favorite to win the men’s award, though Miazga and McKennie had some high-profile moments in red, white, and blue. Trapp is beloved by the staff and could grab the award as well, while Adams seems a true long shot.

Pulisic talks Dortmund future, pride at USMNT captaincy

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GENK, Belgium — Christian Pulisic became the youngest captain of the U.S. men’s national team in the modern era on Tuesday, as the Borussia Dortmund star led the side out against Italy in Genk, Belgium.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

Remember: Pulisic is just 20 years and 63 days old.

The USMNT lost 1-0 to Italy, as they conceded a 94th minute goal after soaking up plenty of pressure and having goalkeeper Ethan Horvath to thank for several fine stops.

[ MORE: Sarachan out as USMNT head coach ]

Asked about the moment he became the youngest USMNT captain since 1990, breaking Landon Donovan’s record by over two years, Pulisic was full of pride.

“It is a huge honor to captain this team. I’ve been with these guys for a while and for them to think that I can lead the team, it means a lot to me. It was special but in the end we wanted a better result with the game,” Pulisic said. “For the coaches, staff, team to trust me to be captain of the team, it means everything. I was never a captain in my life. Now, to be captain for the United States national team it is an incredible honor. It doesn’t matter what age you are. I will never forgot this moment.”

Pulisic was one of the few U.S. players (Horvath and Tyler Adams the others) who tried to hold Italy back in a one-sided game where the U.S. had just 26.5 percent of possession.

The Dortmund winger was critical of the U.S. after their defeat to England last week, and he didn’t hold back following the loss against Italy.

“They came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”

Asked if adding veteran players into the squad in the coming months was the way forward, Pulisic said it will be up the new head coach to decide.

If he was the coach, he’d definitely give more minutes to experienced players.

“That would be up to the coach, it is impossible for me to see. I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”

And what about his own future?

Chelsea have been heavily linked with Pulisic in the past few days, while the Pennsylvania native has also been a long-term target of Premier League powerhouses Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur as his current contract with Dortmund runs until the summer of 2020.

Dortmund’s sporting director released a statement on Monday saying that Pulisic would not be for sale this January, and Pulisic was asked by Pro Soccer Talk if there has been any change in his current situation given the increased speculation.

“I’m still focused on Dortmund. We are doing great this season. Once the break comes [in January], that is always when I will have to discuss with Dortmund and see about my future,” Pulisic said.

The door appears to remain open for a move in the coming months.

PSG’s Neymar, Mbappe injured on international duty

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Not a banner day for Paris Saint-Germain.

Both Kylian Mbappe and Neymar were injured on international duty Tuesday, the effects of which remain to be seen for the Ligue 1 club (Perhaps it could be an opening for American attacker Tim Weah, or a huge opening for Liverpool as the Reds prepare to face PSG in the Champions League).

[ USMNT: Player ratings | 3 things ]

A 1v1 challenge with Uruguay goalkeeper Martin Campana felled the 19-year-old Mbappe, and France coach Didier Deschamps did not have a decent prognosis.

From the BBC:

“He has a sore shoulder, he’s fallen badly. He will have to see with the medical staff. I hope it’s not bad.”

As for Neymar, he suffered “an adductor injury while taking a shot in the sixth minute, and left Brazil’s friendly against Cameroon in England.

Let’s throw it to the most quoted national team doctor in ProSoccerTalk history, Dr. Rodrigo Lasmar:

“He felt discomfort. He will need a bit more time to evaluate it and take a scan, but in principle it is not a serious injury.”