Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Portland Timbers

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Portland failed in 2012, and they know it. From the moment owner Merritt Paulson fired coach John Spencer, he set about making it clear to fans: Last season – a year in which he’d asked for a playoff appearance – was not acceptable. While Portland was only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of Spencer’s departure, the Timbers spent the rest of the season near the bottom of the west preparing for the arrival of Caleb Porter.

Change is already evident in Portland. There’s no air of disappointment lingering from last season. Instead, a new coach and an entirely different approach has restored the optimism. They may not be saying it out loud, but for the second year in a row, the Timbers plan to compete for the postseason.

Here are three (of many) questions they’ll need to answer this winter if they’re going to make waves:

  • Can Porter adapt?

On Tuesday, former Zip Darlington Nagbe was asked if he was having flashbacks to college training. Surprisingly, he said no. All of the drills Portland’s done this week are brand new to the somebody who played under Porter at Akron.

So Porter’s already adjusting. Whether that translates to wins is all that matters, something we won’t know until (at least) March, even if early returns are encouraging. The Timbers are training like a team ready to play to the strengths of Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara. That fit may ultimately be the magic that justifies Porter’s hype.

  • Is Diego Valeri worth the label?

We’ve seen a lot of Designated Players come and go, most of which haven’t met the expectations that come with the label. We should adjust our views on the high-priced talents, but still, when you hear a team is bringing in a new designated player, you rightfully assume they think very highly of him.

And so we have Portland’s Argentinine import Diego Valeri, a loanee from Lanus brought in to orchestrate the attack. Even on the nights he can’t generate goals, he’s doing to be tasked with managing a possession-based passing game that should take pressure off the defense.

As with Porter, early returns are encouraging, but on an expensive loan deal (and with little pedigree outside of Argentina to recommend him one way or another), fans would be right to reserve judgment. In case you missed it, the last DP didn’t work out so well.

  • Can Darlington Nagbe reach his potential?

We don’t even know where he’ll play, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do in 2013, but with the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe looks set to assume a more goal-scoring role. He started in one last season when John Spencer paired him with Kris Boyd up top in a 4-4-2, but when Gavin Wilkinson took over and switched to a 4-3-3, Nagbe had to orchestrate the transition.

While he’s capable of doing that, Nagbe is the Timbers’ best goal scorer. His skill and instincts in the penalty area (along with the acquisition of Valeri) suggest he should be moved back forward. Given the paucity of scoring threats on Portland’s rost, the move’s almost necessary if the Timbers are going to score enough goals.

If the chance produces a much-needed double-digit goal scorer, Portland will have solved their biggest problem.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Real Salt Lake

Antonio Conte admits he misses Italy, plans to return home

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This is not exactly what Chelsea’s fans will want to hear on a Monday morning after a resounding 4-0 win at Stoke as the Blues moved up to third in the Premier League table.

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Antonio Conte, who delivered the Premier League title in his first season in charge of the Blues, and his first season in England, in 2016-17, has been speaking of his desire to return to his homeland.

Conte, 48, spoke to Italian radio station RadioUno about his experience in the Premier League and left the door wide-open for a return to Serie A in the coming months as he admitted he misses Italy.

“I miss it, that’s beyond doubt,” Conte said. “Italy is my homeland, so once I have had some good experiences, formative experiences, important and life-changing experiences, I’ll be back. I don’t know when but that’s the aim.

“It’s always difficult to predict the future. Us managers have the most precarious job of all. Today you’re working, tomorrow you’re out. I want to succeed, to finish one project and make the right decision about the next. This experience has given me so much, has improved me so much, but perhaps in the future I won’t be a manager. Perhaps I’ll work as a director of football. I don’t know.”

Conte has been linked with the managers job at Inter Milan and with comments like this, those links will not go away.

Adding further fuel to the fire was his decision to only signed an improved contract over the summer rather than extending his stay at Stamford Bridge. Conte’s current deal is due to expire at the end of the 2018-19 season.

After a tough summer and a tough start to the season which saw a feud with Diego Costa dominate the talk surrounding Chelsea, a loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield, an opening day defeat at home to Burnley, plus some questionable dealings in the transfer market, the pressure was piling on Conte.

His team have responded with five wins in their next six games in all competitions and are right up there with the early pacesetters in the Premier League.

That said, the fact that Conte was under any pressure whatsoever was a joke considering what he had achieved last season when nobody expected Chelsea to seriously challenge for the title. Therein lies why he could want out when his current deal at Chelsea is up, or maybe even sooner than that.

In situations like this I often think about what Eric Cantona did: leave before anybody else expects you to and you’ll go out, and remain, a hero.

Mourinho escapes ban after sending off

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Jose Mourinho will face no further action from the English Football Association after he was sent off at Southampton on Saturday.

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Towards the end of United’s 1-0 win — which keeps them unbeaten and in second-place in the standings — Mourinho encroached slightly onto the pitch (we are talking half a yard here) and referee Craig Pawson sent him to the stands after being called over by fourth official Mike Jones who pulled Mourinho back into his technical area.

Mourinho, in true fashion, then delayed his sending off by shaking the hands of every member of Southampton’s coaching staff before he took his place in the stands for the final few seconds of the game.

After being sent off nine times in his career for various discrepancies over the years, Mourinho is no stranger to having the FA’s rule book thrown at him.

However there is an argument out there, and a credible one, that due to his high profile and history of misdemeanors Mourinho is treated rather differently than most managers.

In his long list of previous incidents where he has stepped out of line, stepping slightly over the touchline at Southampton was incredibly minor.

Common sense has prevailed.

MLS Snapshot: POR carve up 9-man ORL, keep pace with VAN, SKC

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The game in 100 words (or less): All of a sudden, the Western Conference has sprung to life as the 2017 regular season winds down — Vancouver Whitecaps, winners of five of their last seven games (unbeaten); Portland Timbers, winners of four of their last six following Sunday’s 3-0 victory over 10-man nine-man Orlando City SC at Providence Park; Sporting Kansas City, losers of just two of their last 15 games; Seattle Sounders, who had their 13-game unbeaten run snapped on Saturday; and Real Salt Lake, winners of four of their last five. With fewer than a handful of games remaining, Vancouver’s lead on Portland and Sporting KC remains one point after all three sides won this weekend; RSL and Seattle are separated by just three points, three points back of second and third. As for Saturday’s game, Diego Valeri is now a top-two candidate for MVP after scoring two more goals (his 19th and 20th, to go with 9 assists) against 10-man Orlando.

[ MORE: TFC’s Shield celebration delayed | RSL end Seattle’s run at 13 ]

Three moments that mattered

15′ — Valeri extends his streak, makes it 1-0 — The last time Valeri failed to score in a game, the date was July 23.

29′ — Mattocks taps it home after Asprilla’s cross — Huge credit to Diego Chara for the through ball to spring Dairon Asprilla into acres of space. The ball to Mattocks was simple, and he got it right.

59′ — Valeri gets no. 20, makes it 3-0 — Joe Bendik managed to deny Mattocks’ initial effort, but Valeri followed up when everyone in white had already quit on the play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Valeri (15′ – PK, 59′), Mattocks (29′)

The 2 Robbies: City Sparkle, Chelsea Shine, Liverpool Hold On

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe take a look at some of the weekend’s biggest storylines, including Liverpool’s thrilling victory over Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur’s frantic win away to West Ham United and Manchester City’s demolition of Crystal Palace.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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