MLS Cup preview: Real Salt Lake meets Sporting Kansas City to decide Major League Soccer’s 18th championship

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KANSAS CITY – Playing careers will be defined and future coaching careers could be shaped Saturday on a bone-chilling afternoon at Sporting Park, where Major League Soccer’s 18th championship will be decided.

Sporting Kansas City will look for its second MLS Cup title overall, but the first for this current bunch, when the match against Real Salt Lake kicks off on ESPN just after 4 p.m. ET.

RSL, meanwhile, will aim for its second championship in five years, with many of the same central figures still around from the winners who triumphed over David Beckham and Landon Donovan in MLS Cup 2009, that one played in Seattle.

Saturday’s coaches are a big part of the plotlines here. RSL’s Jason Kreis was the youngest MLS manager to claim the title when he won in 2009 as a 36-year-old. He’s still considered one of the bright young minds of the business – so much so that well-heeled New York City FC has targeted Kreis as the choice to build their club. We’ll find out soon after Saturday’s contest if Salt Lake’s intense, introspective leader will remain in Utah or aim for something bigger.

On the other bench, a win Saturday for SKC manager Peter Vermes would tick the one unchecked box on his own promising managerial career. Kansas City has been a solid performer and U.S. Open Cup winner over the last three seasons, but this is his first time in the league’s ultimate match. Win Saturday and, who knows, perhaps we’ll all start mentioning Vermes along with Kreis as a potential, future U.S. national team manager.

The other looming story line: We already know Saturday’s match will set a record for coldest MLS Cup yet, much further on the frigid scale than the other chilly championships, rainy nights in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and in Seattle in 2009, and a wind-swept night in Toronto in 2010. Temperatures were in the low 40s for those; they’ll be down into the low 20s at best, and perhaps into the teens at Sporting Park.

An underground heating system should keep the field from freezing; it looked to be holding up fine as Real Salt Lake trained there Friday afternoon.

This is Major League Soccer’s second year under a format that gives host duties to the finalist with a better record. The net out means unpredictable weather, but the atmosphere inside a packed ground will be worlds beyond all those years of neutral-site deciders witnessed by largely indifferent audiences.

How will the game play out? Defensively, most likely, thanks to the dominant figures involved; A majority of the best players at Sporting Park on Saturday will be goal preventers more than goal producers, the goalkeepers, defenders and defensive-minded midfielders.

This crop of crème starts with Real Salt Lake center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler have found the sweet spot lately, a major reason RSL dispatched the two-time MLS defending champion LA Galaxy and then blew past Portland, which was everyone’s stylish choice to win the West.

source: Getty ImagesBut Sporting KC’s pair of center backs stand every bit as respected: U.S. international Matt Besler is the brains and irascible Frenchman Aurelien Collin is the brawn, if you will. Either way, they are quite effective, guiding the way to the league’s top goals against average over 2013.

There are, of course, goal scorers afoot, too. Robbie Findley, who scored in RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup win, has been huge in this year’s playoffs. Playmaker Javier Morales (left, in the middle) has been exceptional, as well, and the ability to find Findley on the break (probably behind one of the SKC fullbacks if they stray too far into the attack) is RSL’s top scoring ploy.

For the home team, during the Eastern Conference finals win over Houston, former U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was finally the playmaking presence everyone thought he could be upon this year’s arrival into the heartland. On their games, he and fellow pass-master Graham Zusi operating out of the 4-3-3 can create plenty of opportunities for whichever forwards are up in something of a rotation Kansas City.

MORE ProSoccerTalk MLS CUP COVERAGE

  • Real Salt Lake

Report says Jason Kreis on sure track to take NYCFC job; the RSL manager just frowns

Looking back on RSL’s top moment as a club, the 2009 MLS Cup

Real Salt Lake in 2013: the “not-so-rebuilding” year

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

  • Sporting Kansas City

What we learned as SKC dispatched Houston in the Eastern finals

Sporting KC’s new way; the team is far more versatile today

MLS Cup 2000 flashback: Meola, Molnar and the SKC heroes

The Benny Feilhaber conundrum; has Peter Vermes finally cracked the code?

Notes from Sporting Kansas City’s Thursday press conference

Sporting Kansas City’s key players

  • Team versus team

MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

MLS Cup positional edges: Defenses

MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

MLS Cup positional edges: Forwards

  • MLS Cup general

MLS Cup will close banner 2013 season for Sporting Park

MLS Cup first: manager who are both former players in the league

Debunking the myth of Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake as bitter rivals

MLS Cup history: the three best finals yet

Looking at how the playoff format worked in 2013

Lamar Hunt’s legacy looms large over Garber’s HOF induction

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NYC & Company
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FRISCO, Texas (AP) Back in 1999, NFL team owners Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft approached Don Garber and asked if he might be interested in serving as commissioner of Major League Soccer.

[ VIDEO: Wayne Rooney swerves long free kick around the wall ]

The domestic soccer league was in trouble in just its fourth year, and at the time Garber was head of NFL International.

Garber mulled the proposition before ultimately taking the job. Now nearing two decades at the MLS helm, Garber is guiding an ever-expanding league that is set to field 26 teams by 2020.

Garber will be enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame at Toyota Stadium, the home of FC Dallas, this weekend. Originally selected for the honor in 2016, Garber put off his addition until now for a simple reason.

Lamar Hunt.

“Probably more important than just his role in bringing me here, Lamar is really one of the true legends in the sports industry. He had such grace and such humility, and such a passion for the sports industry, but really a deep passion for the sport of soccer,” Garber said. “As a young man in my early days at MLS, I was in such awe everything that he was – not just what he accomplished, but how he thought about life, and how he thought about the commitment needed to make the game permanent and indelible in this country.”

[ MORE: USMNT’s Sargent moved to Werder Bremen first team ]

The story goes that Hunt was inspired to promote soccer in the United States after attending the World Cup in 1966. He founded the North American Soccer League in 1967. He was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to the United States in 1994. And he was a founding investor in MLS.

Hunt, who owned the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew, passed away in 2006. One of his last big projects was to open Toyota Stadium. So it was in his memory that his family partnered with U.S. Soccer, the city and Frisco Independent School District and announced plans in 2015 for a new National Soccer Hall of Fame to be built at the stadium.

Garber put off his induction so he could be enshrined at the new Hall of Fame, which also allows him to further honor Hunt.

“When I was told that I was going to be inducted, at that point I knew that the Hall was being built and I just thought it would be a really special opportunity for me, and really, Major League Soccer, to have a close MLS connection with the Hall,” Garber said. “And it would give me an opportunity to honor the memory of Lamar and to really make a strong statement on how indebted I am and how MLS is to the Hunt family overall.”

The Hall of Fame was established in 1979 and for a time was located in Oneonta, New York. It was closed in 2010, but inductions continued. The collection was stored in North Carolina.

“We just thought it would be a fitting way to honor everything he did for the sport, while also giving the sport of soccer and the Hall of Fame, that celebrates all the great players, a really outstanding home,” eldest son Clark Hunt said.

Garber tells the story of seeing Hunt at the 2002 World Cup match between the United States and Portugal. Hunt was seated in the stands and following the U.S. upset victory, Garber glanced over and saw Hunt had a tear in his eye.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 9

“When we were both leaving the stadium I said, `Boy, Lamar, you looked quite emotional.’ And he said it was one of the great sporting experiences of his life. And this was a guy who won the Super Bowl,” Garber said.

Garber asked Clark Hunt to introduce him at the induction ceremony Saturday.

“Our family does have a 30-year relationship with Don, going back to his time with the NFL,” Clark Hunt said. “He and my dad were very close, and my dad played a critical role in luring him from the NFL over to Major League Soccer, where he became commissioner. And I know he’s very excited that the Hall is going to be associated with one of the stadiums and teams my father was involved in.”

In addition to his role as commissioner, Garber is also CEO of Soccer United Marketing, the exclusive marketing partner of U.S. Soccer, and a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation board of directors.

Joining him in the Hall of Fame this year is a trio of former U.S. national team players, Tiffeny Milbrett, Brad Friedel and Cindy Parlow Cone, as well as former U.S. Soccer President Bob Contiguglia. Veteran broadcaster JP Dellacamera is the 2018 Colin Jose media award recipient.

The new Hall opens to the public on Nov. 2.

Dyche: Hart has “nothing to prove” in return to Man City

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Anytime a player faces his former club, there exists a certain edge and desire within the player to get one over on his former team — especially when said player was driven out of the club the way Joe Hart was done at Manchester City.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 9

Players and managers can — and typically do — say there’s no animosity and that they only have fond memories of those earlier days of their career, but, assuming that top-level athletes are indeed still humans, rarely should they be believed. Especially when that player is Joe Hart.

Alas, ahead of Hart’s clash with Man City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold), Burnley manager Sean Dyche insists that Hart “has no point to prove” and that his first trip back to the Etihad Stadium after 12 years at the club will be just another outing in Hart’s 15-year career — quotes from the BBC:

“He has no point to prove. He just wants to get on with it.”

“I was pretty sure he was still a top-class keeper. There can be different reasons why you play well at some places and not others. Sometimes you just fit naturally. You can sense it.

“For keepers, sometimes what is in front of you helps. He wants a defensive unit he has faith with. I think there is a nice connection here. Possibly at other clubs he didn’t find that connection.

“But a lot of credit goes to him for finding his way again.”

Hart was welcomed back to the Etihad on Thursday, when a small ceremony was held to honor his return and a training field, bearing a mosaic of Hart from his time at the club, was named after him.

Report: Martial rejects “several offers” of new Man Utd contract

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Anthony Martial‘s Manchester United future has been in doubt ever since the summer, when Phillipe Lamboley, the 22-year-old’s agent, announced that his client wanted to leave the club.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 9

Since that time, Man United reopened negotiations with the French international over a new contract — the key concern of his desire to leave — but a report from French news outlet RMC Sport, the same outlet that was first on the scene when Lamboley began making demands, indicates that those negotiations are not going well.

According to the report, Martial and Co., have rejected “several offers” of a new contract in recent weeks. Martial’s current contract expires at the end of this season, though the club has an option to extend the pact an additional year.

[ VIDEO: Wayne Rooney swerves long free kick around the wall ]

While the expectation remains that a new contract will be agreed, United have just two and a half months before clubs from outside of England can discuss pre-contract terms with Martial as an impending free agent. At that point, United would undoubtedly exercise their option for the 2019-20 season, but that’s a situation they’d certainly like to avoid — for the sake of the player’s happiness and willingness to sign a long-term contract after months of failed negotiations.

Martial has scored 38 goals (in 144 appearances) during his three-plus seasons at the club. Nearly half of his goal haul — 17 — came in his debut season of 2015-16.

Salah, Van Dijk updates following injuries on int’l duty

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Mohamed Salah and Virgil Van Dijk are expected to be available for Saturday’s Premier League clash with Huddersfield Town (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com).

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 9

The Egyptian and the Dutchman each suffered an injury during the most recent international break, but both returned to full training on Wednesday and Thursday. Jurgen Klopp is expected to name both his star winger and star center back in the starting lineup at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Salah suffered an undisclosed muscular injury to his leg during Egypt’s 4-1 victory over Swaziland last Friday and missed altogether the Pharaohs’ following game three days later.

[ VIDEO: Wayne Rooney swerves long free kick around the wall ]

Van Dijk carried a pre-existing rib injury into the international break, thus the 27-year-old was held out of the Netherlands’ friendly with Belgium on Tuesday. He played all 90 minutes, and scored a goal, in the Oranje‘s 3-0 dismantling of Germany on Saturday.

The latest updates on Sadio Mane, Naby Keita and James Milner, however, aren’t so positive. Mane (thumb) and Milner (hamstring) aren’t expected to travel for Saturday’s fixture, while Keita (thigh) could be out for two weeks.