Marco Pappa scores free kick golazo in Sounders win

imageHe loves it when you call him Big Pappa. (Image: USA Today)

Looks like we’ve found our goal of the weekend, folks.

It comes courtesy of Seattle Sounders midfielder Marco Pappa and in the form of a delicious free kick special. Watch how Pappa’s left-footed curler dips over the wall and leaves Real Salt Lake keeper Jeff Attinella with no chance:

Mmmmm, mmmm good!

Pappa’s goal briefly made it 2-0 for the Sounders, who went on to win 4-0 and bumped their lead atop the Western Conference to five points over second-placed RSL.


Real Salt Lake places faith in Jeff Cassar

PHILADELPHIA — Cohesiveness, stability and technique formed the basis of Real Salt Lake’s success under Jason Kreis. But Kreis decamped to New York City FC in December — and now, the responsibility for maintaining those philosophies and principles falls to his former assistant, Jeff Cassar.

Cassar ascended to the top job with a brief to maintain the team-first ethos and retain the attacking, possession-oriented style RSL have cultivated over the past few seasons. The former Dallas and Miami goalkeeper knows how to do the job — he helped Kreis to establish them on his arrival in 2007. But now, he needs to implement them quickly on his own.

“It’s been crazy,” Cassar said after wrapping up his first SuperDraft in mid-January. “It really has. I got the job and I had to hit the ground — not running, I was sprinting. I was a goalie, so I’m so slow. I’m sprinting slowly. But it’s been exciting and busy. We still have a lot of work to do.”


Jeff Cassar (R) served as Jason Kreis’ assistant at Real Salt Lake (Image: USA Today Sports/Russ Isabella).

RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey has placed an emphasis on building a firm structure around his first-time coach and former Fusion teammate to ease the transition. Former head coaches Paul Dalglish (current PDL champions Austin Aztex) and Daryl Shore (NASL side Fort Lauderdale Strikers) bring experience and expertise. Ex-RSL midfielder Andy Williams supplies considerable knowledge of the club and the league after spending the past two years as a club scout.

Cassar also benefits from the consistency within the playing squad. All of the key figures from last season’s run to MLS Cup return. The established, veteran spine of the team — goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defender Nat Borchers, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales and striker Álvaro Saborío — provides leadership and sets the tone in the locker room. The mix of emerging talents (including recent US selection Luis Gil and promising center back Chris Schuler) and trusted figures (fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert, midfielder Ned Grabavoy and forward Robbie Findley feature prominently) ensure the depth and the talent remains.

The consistency within the squad places Cassar in a position to succeed without relieving him of the pressure to deliver immediately. Kreis’ success over the past few seasons created a baseline. Cassar now must find a way to meet or somehow exceed it as he adapts to the top job. Lagerwey said RSL must exhibit some patience in order to allow Cassar to find his way.

“It’s fun. It’s an exciting new challenge,” Lagerwey said. “It’s a new group of guys and a very talented team. But we also have to be patient and understanding that Jeff is a new coach. We have to give him a chance to succeed. When we hit the bumps — which everybody does — we have to support him, be patient and understand that we made him the next head coach for a reason.”

It is now down to Cassar to validate that decision over the long haul.

“I’m very humbled by this opportunity,” Cassar said. “There is pressure to perform because our team is so good. I think with the staff I’ve put together and the way I know this team and this city, we should still keep things going.”


RSL’s Jeff Cassar (L), owner Dell Loy Hansen (C) and Jennifer Cassar (R) pose for a photo after Cassar’s press conference (USA Today Sports/Chris Nicoll).


MLS SuperDraft: Chaos emerges from uncertainty


PHILADELPHIA — It was quiet the night before the MLS SuperDraft. Just a little too quiet. Uncertainty about this draft class hung over the crowd.

The deadlock broke right around midday on Thursday. A timeout before the first pick set the stage for a frenetic draft with five trades in the first 11 picks as teams jostled for position to purloin their players of choice.

“I should have realized it last night because, in my time doing this, it was the quietest night before the draft of any night I can remember,” New England general manager Michael Burns said. “Half the teams weren’t trying to do anything. You couldn’t find them. But then today, when we went in the back and did the trade with Colorado, all of the league officials were like, ‘you’re kidding me, another trade?’”

D.C. United sparked the fracas by finally choosing a winner in what had been a  languid sweepstakes for the first pick. A handful of teams — including eventual winners Philadelphia — chased the top overall pick over the past few days, but none of packages prompted United to pull the trigger prior to the proceedings.

Union manager John Hackworth eventually enticed United to move down one spot in exchange for an undisclosed amount of allocation money. Both teams got their men — University of Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake to the Union, California defender Steven Birnbaum to United — without  disrupting their plans for the rest of the day. Hackworth explained he decided to flip the picks to secure Blake and ward off any potential interlopers.

“We knew for a fact that he wouldn’t be there,” Hackworth said. “There were a couple of deals on the table. We had to make that decision at the last minute. It worked out.”


Philadelphia even managed to recoup its allocation outlay and secure a little extra money for two further trades, but other sides focused on sliding into position first and foremost. Montreal jumped five spots to claim Creighton fullback Eric Miller. FCD reaped the benefits of the Impact’s decision by stockpiling allocation money and an international slot in addition to the 10th overall pick and then used them to climb back to six to take Colorado School of Mines forward Tesho Akindele. Toronto FC then swiped number 10 away from the Union for allocation money and the 15th pick to take Xavier defender Nick Hagglund. New England and Colorado swapped spots at 11 and 12 — and the Rapids scooped the 19th pick for their troubles — to send MAC Hermann Trophy winner Patrick Mullins to New England and stop the carousel.

Recounting the craziness may undersell its lingering impact. Clubs acted decisively to secure their preferred options, particularly with a spate of Homegrown Player signings depleting the pool across the board. The uptick in movement inspired Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey to wonder whether those quiet nights will disappear over the next few years.

“It was a little busy,” Lagerwey said. “It’s interesting — and I’m speculating now — but I wonder if we’re in for more of this going forward in first round stuff. There is a smaller number of good players. A lot of times, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We saw a lot of one-spot moves, which you had never seen. I have to attribute that to teams wanting very, very specific players, having only that one guy left and being willing to pay for them. That’s exciting and new.”

Images by USA Today Sports Images


MLS Cup: Tactical Preview

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Most of the focus in the buildup to MLS Cup lingered on the apparent and substantive differences between the two teams.

It comes straight from the stock identities imposed for the ease of assessment and classification. Real Salt Lake cobbles together long sequences in possession with its vaunted 4-4-2 formation. Sporting Kansas City disrupts its opposition and wins the ball in good areas to spur the attack in its 4-3-3 setup.

Those observations are all well and good, but they fail to capture the nuances ahead in Saturday afternoon’s final. Both teams are complete, well-rounded outfits capable of operating at a high standard in several different ways. They have their strengths and their weaknesses like all outfits, but they perform proficiently in most departments.

By establishing an effective baseline in a variety of scenarios, RSL and Sporting navigated through the postseason and reached the final match of the campaign. They must now figure out how to dictate terms against an equally competent opponent and seize those rare moments when they can exploit the opposition to determine the outcome of a tense, tight affair.

1. Establishing the basic operating principles: The bitterly cold conditions, the potentially slippery surface and the significant stakes at hand require a return to fundamentals first and foremost. Both sides must avoid mistakes (particularly on set pieces, a strength and a worry on both ends) and maintain their composure for the duration of the affair. They must also grapple earnestly to ensure their potential advantages are not squandered for reasons solely within their dominion.

“It’ll definitely be a physical affair,” Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “For Kansas City, all 11 players play really hard and tough. That’s what we’re going to have to try and match. I’m expecting a really physical game.”

2. Breaking Sporting’s relentless pressure: Sporting manifests its robust approach to the game in two particular ways: it fouls intelligently to break up coherent movements through midfield and it presses earnestly to close down space and gain possession in good spots.

RSL must find a way to cope with Sporting’s inevitable desire to interrupt its usual cadence in possession. No MLS team is better than Sporting at stopping the other team from playing through the center of the park. The visitors must move the ball quickly and tidily in order to relieve the pressure, settle into their preferred rhythm and string together the sequences required to create chances from the run of play.

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Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis talks future ahead of MLS Cup

imageKANSAS CITY, Mo. – Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis prepared his response to the inevitable question about his future ahead of time.

“I was going to ask you what you were talking about,” Kreis said to the inevitable laughter of the assembly during a press conference on Thursday. “That was a joke.”

This particular inquiry did not focus on the nuts and bolts of his impending choice between RSL and New York City FC. Kreis coaches one team and visited with the other earlier this year to discuss its vacancy. RSL wants to retain his services. NYCFC wants to acquire them. He addressed a SI.com report about leaning heavily toward NYCFC on Monday and categorically denied he had made his decision one way or the other.

Instead of surveying the well-trodden ground yet again, the query focused on the emotions surrounding the denouement to this campaign. In the wake of his glowing remarks about his players and the joy they have brought him with their success this season, he fielded a question about how he would approach and process this game given the possibility that it might conclude his nine-year association with RSL.

Kreis answered by recalling the final match of the regular season against Chivas USA. He subsequently highlighted the potential season-ending matches against LA Galaxy and Portland during the playoffs. He noted those affairs unfolded in similar circumstances because there were no guarantees he would receive another opportunity to lead his players out onto the field.

“And then we go into this match, and, yes, it might be the last match I get to coach with this group,” Kreis said. “I will soak it up for sure, every single moment of it. But that decision is yet to be made. It’s something that I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of putting on the back burner. I will continue to do so for another 48 hours.”

The future can wait. After all, he still has the present to relish for a couple of more days.

imageWill Saturday’s MLS Cup be Kreis’ last game with RSL? (Images: USA Today)


Breakdown of the MLS Conference Finals

imageKansas City earned home field for MLS Cup 2013 (Image: USA Today)

Nineteen teams clubs started the season with a dream of lifting MLS Cup. Only two teams can fulfill that objective when the final takes place on Dec. 7.

Both of them earned their spots in that one-off encounter with their displays this season and their performances this weekend. Sporting Kansas City earned the right to host the league’s showpiece fixture by dispatching its playoff demons against Houston on Saturday. Real Salt Lake secured its trip to Sporting Park on Sunday with a professional victory at Portland.

The holiday-enforced interlude provides plenty of time for both sides to recover from their exertions at the weekend and start their preparations for the task ahead. The end is in sight after a long campaign. Now it is just a matter of determining which side can write the perfect conclusion.

Sporting Kansas City 2 – Houston 1 (Sporting wins series 2-1 on aggregate)

Midfield balance shifted in Sporting’s favor: Houston entered the second leg at Sporting Park without the injured Ricardo Clark (left knee sprain) to cover his usual ground in central midfield. Clark’s absence forced Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear to alter his usual shape to inject an extra man into central midfield. The adjustment could not stop Sporting from exploiting the spaces usually covered by Clark, though. Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi carved out openings with their incessant movement and eventually found a way to use that space profitably. Feilhaber’s work on the winner – including a free run through midfield and a neat clip through the line for Dom Dwyer – highlighted the Dynamo’s limitations on the night and sent Sporting through to MLS Cup on home soil.

Portland 0 – Real Salt Lake 1 (RSL wins series 5-2 on aggregate)

Real Salt Lake dictates terms, quells Timbers: RSL submitted a ruthlessly professional performance by forcing the home side into difficult areas and funneling the play into areas where it could thrive. Portland sent cross after cross – the high, hanging kind, not the low, tempting sort usually preferred – for Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler to clear dutifully because it could not suss out room for its usual combination play in and through the line. It found itself exposed at the back by RSL’s willingness to employ the width of the field on the break to avoid the Timbers’ usually influential midfield three. The emphasis on stretching the play horizontally (plus a poor turnover) created the game’s only goal. RSL saw out the game and the tie from there by adhering to its strengths and showing Portland how to march through a playoff match on home soil.

imageRSL are headed to their second-ever MLS Cup after winning in 2009.


MLS Conference Finals: Second Leg Previews

Scheduling complications left MLS to inject a two-week break into the normally congested postseason. The extended respite fell at a rather inopportune juncture for the four remaining sides and for the league itself. Any momentum – real, perceived or otherwise – dissipated with the protracted break.

It is down to all involved parties to generate the rhythm created during the early stages of the postseason ahead of this decisive weekend. The situation offers little room for error. The precarious state of both ties – Houston and Sporting Kansas City enter the return leg level after a scoreless draw, while Real Salt Lake visits Portland with a 4-2 aggregate lead – leaves just about any sequence of events on the table.

The final outcome rests upon how these sides react to their protracted layoff and shoulder the pressures inherent in these do-or-die situations. It is incumbent on these teams to discern the answers to the questions ahead – including the one key query outlined below – and secure their places in MLS Cup by Sunday night.

Sporting Kansas City – Houston (Saturday, 7:30p.m. ET – series tied 0-0 on aggregate)

Can Sporting keep its mental and tactical balance? Sporting will hope to dump the Dynamo out of the postseason at the third attempt in front of an expectant Sporting Park. The home side must change the dynamic from the last couple of playoff meetings – applying pressure from the start, permitting the frustration to distract when it does not yield results and watching the visitors break them on the counter – in order to complete the task. Comportment and discipline serve as the keys to success. Sporting must push earnestly without losing faith in its ability to garner results or its shape when it searches for goals. If Peter Vermes’ outfit can remember its core principles, then it could finally vanquish its playoff demons.

Portland – Real Salt Lake (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET) – RSL leads series 4-2 on aggregate)

Can Portland reduce Kyle Beckerman’s influence on the game? Beckerman serves as the critical cog in RSL’s finely tuned possession engine. He always floats into the proper spots to provide an outlet and moves the ball quickly and efficiently. His tidy presence in front of the back four allows RSL to generate its cadence on the ball. In this fraught scenario, RSL must find its fluidity at different points in the game to maintain its control over the tie.

image Beckerman is the man who pulls the strings for RSL (Image: USA Today)

Portland must find a way to disrupt Beckerman’s ability to function as a conduit during those crucial sequences by closing down his time and space on the ball. If Beckerman cannot exert his usual influence on the proceedings, then RSL – and Javier Morales, in particular – will struggle to combine effectively, move higher up the field for extended stretches and relieve the tension created when the Timbers commit their usual numbers forward. And those operating principles could open the door for a great escape by the home side.


What we learned: MLS conference championships, 1st legs

Images: USA Today

Philosophical differences rose to the forefront as the Eastern and Western Conference championships kicked off this weekend. Pragmatism ruled in Houston. Idealism triumphed in Sandy. And the two matches adhered to those principles as they unfolded.

Houston and Sporting Kansas City leaned on the experience gained in their recent playoff meetings to guide them through this tricky first leg tie. They knew an error or two in the first leg could prove costly given the tattered state of play. And they pursued the match accordingly.

Real Salt Lake and Portland adopted a more ambitious deportment and chased after a result ardently. The endeavor ultimately benefited the home side and left the Timbers with considerable work ahead to turn the tie around in the second leg.

The two disparate approaches ensured some difference in the ties without settling either of them. There is work still left to do for all four teams. And now it is up to all four teams to devise the approach required to advance to MLS Cup in two weeks’ time.

Houston 0 – Sporting Kansas City 0 (second leg: Nov. 23 in Kansas City, Kan.)

Both teams scrap for level pegging: The previous two playoff encounters and the exhaustive toil in midweek inspired a note of caution ahead of the first leg. Both teams entered the tie willing enough to muddle through to keep their chances alive in the second leg. It showed in the approach (rugged as usual from both sides) and the execution (neither team topped 65 percent passing accuracy, according to Opta statistics) during this ugly affair. The final result left both sides relatively satisfied. Now the onus will fall upon both of them to recover over the next two weeks and stump up a bit more incisiveness ahead of the return match.

Real Salt Lake 4 – Portland 2 (second leg: Nov. 24 in Portland, Ore.)

RSL uses tempo and width to tear apart the Timbers: Credit the Claret-and-Cobalt for assessing the landscape in this test against the fatigued visitors and tailoring its game plan accordingly. The usually narrow and tidy work through midfield transformed into a more expansive gambit using the wide areas consistently. RSL bombarded the Timbers penalty area with crosses (14 in the first half, according to Opta statistics) and tried to play behind the line early and often (see: Devon Sandoval’s sweeping third on the counter shortly after halftime) with Robbie Findley a constant menace. Portland buckled under the pressure and succumbed to RSL’s sharp work in every department. The job isn’t done yet, but RSL’s astute work at home – and, most importantly, its assured and furious response to Will Johnson’s opener – offers a firm foothold ahead of the difficult second leg at JELD-WEN Field in a fortnight.


MLS Cup Playoffs: Previewing the Conference finals

imageAfter squeaking past New England, a date with the Dynamo beckons for Sporting KC (Images: USA Today)

The achievement of advancing to the MLS conference championship comes with a significant caveat: there isn’t any time to relish it.

MLS found itself bound by an awkwardly placed FIFA date in the middle of November when it compiled its playoff schedule. Those strictures – complete with potential international duties for for some players next weekend – forced the league to compress the schedule to play the second leg of the conference semifinals in midweek and the first leg of the conference championships at the weekend.

The rather peculiar nature of this tie – compressed time frame at the start, yet two weeks between the first leg and the second leg – could naturally prompt some caution by all four sides still involved. Three of these four sides enter this fray after playing 120 minutes just a few days ago. Houston, in particular, must figure out a way to manage its fifth match in two weeks against a Sporting side capable of exerting high pressure from the start.

At this stage, the fundamental objective involves keeping the tie in play after the first leg to benefit from the fortnight off to recover. Other priorities – including the key questions outlined below and the prospect of taking a commanding first leg lead – fall a bit lower in the pecking order with a MLS Cup berth on the line during the third weekend in November.

Houston – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 2:30p.m. ET)


Is there a way for Sporting to exploit Corey Ashe’s absence?: Ashe received a one-match ban for caution accumulation when he picked up his second yellow card of the postseason at New York on Wednesday. His absence leaves Houston short on the left side (Mike Chabala offers the most likely replacement in a straight swap) and offers Sporting with a potential avenue to exploit. Sporting prefers to focus on its defensive duties away from home (and Ashe’s missing influence on the overlap with Brad Davis certainly helps here), but Ashe’s omission could entice some adjustments in Sporting’s midfield. Look for the industrious Graham Zusi to drift over to that side of the field to probe for space and use that channel to create room through the middle and provide service into the penalty area.

One other point worth noting with Ashe out: the onus will fall on Boniek Garcia and Kofi Sarkodie to bear most of the attacking burden on the right side. Garcia’s ability to tuck inside with Sarkodie on the overlap – plus Davis’ willingness to pinch on the far side when he does so – creates structural issues for Sporting defensively. If the Honduran international can locate the ball on a regular basis without suffering the inevitable foul in the middle third, then he could present significant problems for the normally resolute Sporting rearguard.

Real Salt Lake – Portland (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET)

imageCan Robbie Findley pull apart the Timbers’ defensive shape?: Findley must fill the role once inhabited by former RSL forward Fabián Espíndola and use his time on the field to create operating room for others. Findley’s ability to dart behind the line and peel off into wider areas poses matchup problems for a Timbers side with a dearth of pace and tactical discipline in central defense and a desire to push its fullbacks forward to support the attack. Javier Morales will do his part by sliding out to the left to avoid Diego Chara and Will Johnson, but Findley must provide similar runs on the right to break apart the Timbers’ rearguard. It is then down to the supporting cast to deliver service into the penalty area with the Timbers stretched and Álvaro Saborío (if recovered from the hip flexor knock aggravated on Thursday night) or a midfield runner or two (see: Sebastián Velásquez’s opener against LA Galaxy) to benefit from the chaos created.


MLS Cup Playoffs Preview: Conference semifinals 2nd legs


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – New England coach Jay Heaps captured the fraught nature of the toil ahead over the next two days as he assessed the Revolution’s situation ahead of the season-defining visit to Sporting Kansas City tonight.

“There’s a lot of work (ahead),” Heaps said earlier this week after his side claimed a 2-1 victory in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal tie on Saturday. “These are playoff scenarios in MLS: you have to be ready for halftime, basically. It’s just a long halftime. It’s a tough task. We have a couple of days to prepare. We’ll go in there ready.”

The entire season for eight teams boils down to the second half of a two-game, aggregate goals series. Each of the four semifinals – yes, even Portland up 2-1 heading into a second leg at JELD-WEN Field – hangs firmly in the balance after the first half. The job isn’t done yet, though. And the way these teams see out the second half will determine the composition of the final four when the last of these conference semifinal ties winds to a close on Friday morning.

New York – Houston (Wednesday, 8:00p.m. – tied 2-2 on aggregate)

How – if at all – will Houston adjust to Jamison Olave’s absence?
New York must take the field without its defensive leader after he procured a red card for his rash lunge on Omar Cummings during the first leg.  The corresponding alterations – Markus Holgersson into the middle, Brandon Barklage to fill the void at right back – appear relatively straightforward from the Red Bulls’ point of view. Houston’s amended approach remains a bit more uncertain, though. The most straightforward play involves dropping Giles Barnes or Will Bruin and injecting a bit of pace, but the Dynamo – tried and true in the postseason – could find other ways to exploit the deficiencies without altering its personnel group.

New England – Sporting Kansas City (Wednesday, 9:00p.m. – New England leads 2-1 on aggregate)

Can Sporting Kansas City muster the necessary sharpness in front of goal?
The question isn’t whether Sporting will produce the chance or two required to pull this tie level. The home side will enjoy enough of the ball and send enough numbers forward to threaten at some point. Whether this group can finally break through when presented with the requisite opportunity remains uncertain. If Sporting fails to find its equalizer in due course, then its ambition could prove its undoing with the Revs more than capable of absorbing the pressure with its stout defensive shape and exploiting the resulting space with tidy work on the counter.

Real Salt Lake – LA Galaxy (Thursday, 9:00p.m. – LA Galaxy leads 1-0 on aggregate)

Will Real Salt Lake find a way to translate its possession into goals?
Big matches at Rio Tinto Stadium often unfold along the same, frustrating lines for the home side: plenty of the ball, not enough incisiveness. The infuriating recent history provides further incentive to start well and place the Galaxy under the sword from the outset. The desire to rectify past ills comes with a caveat, though: RSL must carefully monitor where it concedes possession in order to prevent the visitors from dashing through midfield or exploiting the additional space ceded on the edge by penalty area with the return to the 4-4-2 diamond setup.

Portland – Seattle (Thursday, 11:00p.m. – Portland leads 2-1 on aggregate)

How often will Seattle place Clint Dempsey in a position to change this series?
Dempsey posed a constant threat in the first leg without converting in front of goal. Any improbable revival effort – and it is decidedly against the odds given Portland’s formidable home record and its ability to see out these sorts of matches with its work in possession – hinges on whether Dempsey can turn those openings into a more tangible end product. Seattle paid Dempsey handsomely to deliver in these sorts of spots. The formation and the team selection must provide him with the latitude to do so.