Looking back on 2013: Talking through Real Salt Lake’s path to MLS Cup

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It’s easy to forget now, after a nine-month season left last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners out of the playoffs, but back in March, the San Jose Earthquakes were still considered one of the Western Conference’s favorites. How much that changed after Real Salt Lake went into Buck Shaw and won on opening day is difficult to remember, but in hindsight, the victory served early notice. RSL were supposed to be rebuilding. Instead, they handed San Jose their only home loss of the season.

Jason Kreis’s team didn’t exactly burst out the gate, though. A loss at D.C. United, draw at Colorado, and loss to FC Dallas followed. Before closing March with a win over Seattle, Real Salt Lake looked very much like a team going through an adjustment period, which they were. In addition to trading Jámison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola in the offseason, RSL were without the injured Javier Morales, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert for the first four games of the season. The spine of Álvaro Saborío, Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Borchers and Nick Rimando didn’t play together until April 13 – the team’s sixth game of the season.

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

Over the next 17 games, between league play and the U.S. Open Cup, Real Salt Lake would go on the run that would establish their contenders’ credentials – a 12-2-3 stretch that pushed the team to the top of the conference and into the Open Cup semifinals. Still, the team wasn’t quote whole. Injuries to Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe had forced young Carlos Salcedo into action in defense. When he wasn’t with Costa Rica, Saborío was having trouble staying healthy, while the callups of Rimando, Beckerman, and Tony Beltran for the Gold Cup were testing the teams depth. When Sporting Kansas City took a contested 2-1 victory out of Rio Tinto in late July (Ike Opara scoring the winner in the 97th minute), RSL was missing five starters for what began of a three-match winless run.

source: AP
Real Salt Lake and Portland finished two-one in the West during MLS’s regular season, but RSL went 4-0-2 against the Timbers in 2013. Two wins came in the Western Conference finals. (Source: AP Photo.)

August’s return to Open Cup play brought the Portland Timbers onto the schedule, a team Real Salt Lake would go on to beat four times in 2013. Over the course of the month, RSL would go 2-0-1 against the West’s eventual one-seed, the team’s 4-2-1 month helping the squad move on to from July’s rocky finish.

Yet come September, the bumps were back, with the team losing back-to-back games to Seattle and San Jose. And on Oct. 1, RSL suffered the biggest setback of their campaign, losing a U.S. Open Cup final at home to D.C. United. Looking back on the stretch, Jason Kreis would later confess to not knowing what he had with his team. Did he have a contender? Or would 2013 really be a step back for Real Salt Lake?

Nobody knew for sure until the playoffs. Closing the regular season with two draws and a win (over Chivas USA) earned RSL the West’s second seed, but they’d also be paried with the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy. Perhaps the uncertainty led Kreis to change his tactics for the postseason opener in LA, a move he would later describe as a mistake, but headed back to Rio Tinto for their conference semifinal’s second leg, RSL were tasked with turning around a 1-0 deficit.

It was only after RSL had done so, winning 2-0 in Sandy, that everything truly came together. Two-plus weeks later, after the team had eliminated Portland 5-2 in the Western Conference final, players and staff talked about the importance of the LA second leg in a way that transcended an elimination game victory. In going back to their tried-and-true system – forgetting the 4-2-3-1 they tried in Carson – Real Salt Lake had affirmed their identity, giving them confidence they’d lacked through most of the fall. It wasn’t just that they’d beat the Galaxy, doing what nobody else had done since 2010. They’d done it by going back to what makes them RSL.

Ultimately, that’s what’s defined their 2013. It’s been RSL’s search for self. Offseason changes and early season injures obscured their identity this spring. After their summer surge, they were back on their heels come fall. Yet come mid-November, all the pieces had fallen into place.

The RSL team we’ll see on Saturday won’t be much different than the teams that have defined the club’s success since 2009, even if that success hasn’t been so straight forward in 2013.

Iniesta joins Japanese club Vissel Kobe

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TOKYO (AP) Former Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta was introduced as the newest member of Japanese club Vissel Kobe on Thursday, a poorly kept secret that’s been rumored for weeks.

Iniesta appeared before a packed news conference at a central Tokyo hotel on Thursday along with Kobe’s billionaire owner, Hiroshi Mikitani.

[READ: Earnie Stewart being considered for U.S. Soccer post]

“I’m pleased to announce,” Mikitani said, “that Andres Iniesta will be signing up play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at Barcelona.”

Iniesta signed his contract as Mikitani watched, and then spoke through an interpreter.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Japanese media are reporting he will earn $30 million annually on a three-year deal.

“For me this is a very special day,” the Spaniard said. “This is an important challenge for me. My family is excited to come to Japan and we are very pleased. There were many offers. Other clubs showed interest. But I decided to sign with Vissel Kobe because the project presented to me was impressive.”

Mikitani is also the CEO of Barcelona sponsor Rakuten, a Japanese online retailer.

Iniesta held up the team’s red shirt with his famous No. 8 on the back, and his name written across the bottom.

Iniesta previously had said he would probably retire from international soccer after Spain plays at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

The 34-year-old Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. He also was a key part of Spain’s two European Championships in 2008 and 2012.

He announced last month he would leave Barcelona after 16 seasons. His last match for the Spanish club was on Sunday against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.

Vissel Kobe is in sixth place after 15 games in the J-League. It signed Lukas Podolski last year, but the German striker is out until the end of June with an injured calf.

Yaya Toure talks future, wants to play with Paul Pogba

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There is very little debate: Yaya Toure is his own special case.

The longtime Manchester City midfielder does what he wants, flies his own flag, has the worst agent in the game, and is pleased or dismayed in unusual ways.

[ UCL: What would Real 3-peat mean? ]

Toure, 35, has been linked with a move to NYCFC now that he’s leaving Man City, but the Ivorian still wants to play two more seasons for a Champions League or Europa League club.

And he wants to get together with Paul Pogba. You can see where this is going… (from The Manchester Evening News):

“Pogba is the same size, power – but different in the way he wants to go. Technically as well, the ability to score goals as well. It is a player I want to play with, to be honest, just to teach him some things.”

That must mean both are going to Paris Saint-Germain because… Yaya at Manchester United? No way, right? Right? Even with last year’s reports from his — again — terrible agent that it was an option, that still seems too villainous.

“I don’t rule big teams out. The big teams are very important for me. What they want to achieve, the way they want to go, for me is very important. … I want to go somewhere I can win and achieve. It’s going to be hard one day to play against City, but I have to do that. It is part of my job.”

Toure later said he was “no good in an office,” which had us thinking, well, what if they properly celebrated your birthday, Yaya?

WATCH: Miami United midfielder unleashes Open Cup laser

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Tomas Granitto, have yourself an extra plate at the postgame buffet.

The Miami United midfielder scored a gorgeous goal in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over fellow NPSL side Jacksonville Armada in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

Complete with aesthetically-pleasing post-ping, the former El Salvador U-20 player laid into a 25-yard shot to open the scoring in Florida.

Granitto, 24, has played for Timbers 2, Swope Park Rangers, FC Edmonton, since leaving NCAA side Florida Gulf Coast.

Rondon wanted by Atleti, Inter Milan, and West Ham

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The big boys are looking to Salomon Rondon as a bargain striker.

Yes, $22 million is a bargain in the striker market these days.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

West Brom’s Venezuelan international, 28, stands 6’2″ and has a relegation release clause that is reportedly interesting Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, and West Ham United.

Atleti and Inter are in the Champions League next season, but Rondon played for new West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini at Malaga, posting 25 league goals in two seasons.

He’s scored 24 goals in three Premier League seasons at West Brom, almost a quarter of the 104 produced by the Baggies.

He also picked up three assists this season as the target man for Tony Pulis, Alan Pardew, and Darren Moore (and was fouled more often than any other Baggie (Baggy?)).

Rondon and Marko Arnautovic next to each other would be a real handful for PL defenses. Then again, maybe he’ll stay loyal to West Brom and set the Championship scoring record next season.