It may only be preseason, but Portland, Porter right to be confident

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Had the score reflected the unbalanced play, people outside of Portland may have taken notice: The Caleb Porter Project is starting to yield early returns for the Timbers. True, his defense was mistake-prone and made what should have been a comfortable victory into what appears to be a shootout, but for 90 minutes against the Supporters’ Shield holders, Porter’s product was as advertised. His team passed, pressed, ran and rocked the visiting Earthquakes onto their heels, leaving 14,229 at Jeld-Wen Field with a performance that transcended the result.

“In the end I think we proved to ourselves and each other that we’re capable of beating anybody in Major League Soccer,” was Porter’s bold assessment after the 3-3 result, a game highlighted by a hat trick by new Timber Ryan Johnson. It also featured three defensive mistakes which allowed San Jose to earn a draw.

“There were some moments in the game that we need to address,” Porter conceded. “The nice thing is that those are things that are easily addressable.”

The first goal, three minutes in, came after a ball-to-hand in the box. Chris Wondolowski buried the opener from the spot. A midfield foul and a converted set piece allowed Victor Bernardez to score San Jose’s second, while chaos in the penalty area let former Timber Mike Fucito give the Earthquakes a late equalizer.

The goals weren’t enough to cloud Porter’s standout Jeld-Wen debut, one that allowed his team to show the stylistic revolution anticipated from the former Akron boss is more than some hyperbolic fable. Returning from their four-game stretch in Arizona, the difference between Porter’s teams and the style of former coach John Spencer’s was drastic. The Timbers dominated possession, relied on short passing that capitalized on constant off-the-ball movement, and were steadily throwing players at the defense.

The first goal, two minutes after San Jose’s opener, illustrated the approach. San Jose left back Justin Morrow had been drawn in, leaving Portland fullback Ryan Miller — advanced to play along San Jose’s line — space to receive and play a pass toward the byline. Kalif Alhassen ran through the channel and onto the ball, providing a perfect near-post cross to Ryan Johnson. The Jamaican international’s looping header pulled Portland even.

Portland opened up San Jose’s midfield for the second, Diego Valeri given too much time to threat a ball behind Bernardez for Ryan Johnson, while the third saw Johnson chip Jon Busch to complete a Portland counter.

(MORE: Ryan Johnson hits for three in Jeld-Wen debut – HIGHLIGHTS)

It may have just a preseason game, but San Jose started seven regulars. Portland started nine players who are likely parts of Porter’s First Kick XI, but their setup was slightly different than the one we’re likely see against New York on March 3. The relatively flat midfield in Sunday’s setup should give away to a midfield diamond, with newly acquired Ben Zemanski playing at its base.

But with time running out on the preseason, it’s time to start drawing some conclusions about teams’ preparedness. And in that regard, Portland is far ahead of the game. You can see Valeri will be their playmaker, Johnson their push, and (eventually) Nagbe their poacher. You can see a narrow midfield giving way for fullbacks to provide width and pressure.

You can see the chemistry developing among players learning to read each other’s movements, and you can see players bursting from midfield seeking to exploit the space exposed by their passing game. It’s shocking how much the team is playing to the Caleb Porter hype.

source: Getty ImagesIt’s the type of approach a stylistic homogenous, tactically risk-averse MLS rarely sees. That was evident by San Jose’s reaction. The Earthquakes, playing a standard MLS 4-4-2, saw their midfield flattened and rooted by the Timbers’ movement, with the home side habitually breaking down the Earthquakes’ left flank. Even after Frank Yallop switched loanee John Bostock with starting right midfielder Shea Salinas, San Jose couldn’t stop right back Ryan Miller and right midfielder Kalif Alhassan from teaming with forwards Johnson and Diego Valeri (right) to breach that side. The Timbers’ new passing and movement was going to take more than 90 minutes for San Jose to get used to.

“That’s going to be a strength of our team,” Porter said of his side’s style, sentiments that have been echoed since his mid-winter introduction. “We want to be an aggressive team … a proactive team. We want to be on the front foot, and we want teams to have to deal with us. San Jose had to deal with us tonight.”

San Jose couldn’t say the same of Portland. For most of the night they were without the ball and forced to rely on transition for opportunities. Yet with three goals that came decidedly against the run of play, the Earthquakes highlighted why Portland’s 2012 defense ranked 17th in Major League Soccer. Giveaways, soft fouls, and lapses in focus — all correctable offenses — kept the Timbers from victory.

“It’s easier to clean up the defensive side,” Porter said of his team’s progress. “It’s easier to sort out a giveaway that can’t happen. It’s easier to sort out getting your back four tightened up. It’s easier to sort out marking a guy on a set piece. Those things will be sorted out …”

Even if the defense stays problematic, Sunday’s game represented a huge step forward for the Timbers. Not only do they seem better than last year, but their style of soccer is much improved. That entertainment value is something owner Merritt Paulson has stressed since the Timbers entered Major League Soccer. Even if Portland can’t challenge for a playoff spot, a new, more ambitious tactical approach will be a reprieve for Timbers’ fans.

source: Getty Images“I was pleased because there were moments where we showed Portland Timbers football and our identity and what it’s going to be,” Porter said. “We also showed we’re adjustable as well, and we do what we need to win games.

“That’s a mark of a good team in MLS. You know who you are but you also can adjust and be flexible at times if you need to.

This all assumes the team that showed up on Sunday is for real. It could have just been a good night against a team that’s not as far along in their preseason preparation. Until Portland can transfer this production onto a regular season game, the revolution’s yet to start.

Ultimately, it was just an exhibition, though it was one that will inspire a lot of conviction.

“[San Jose] was the best team in the regular season last year. We went toe-to-toe with this team, and in the end, I thought we were the aggressor looking to win.

“If we would have cleaned up a few mistakes, the game would have been ours. So we take a lot of belief and confidence from this game. “

Kuwaiti FIFA council member resigns amid bribery allegations

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In the wake of Richard Lai’s guilty plea on bribery charges in a U.S. court, another FIFA member has been ousted as well.

Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait has denied all allegations, but decided to step down. Sheikh Ahmad was not named specifically, but was described enough in detail to pinpoint in the U.S. court documents regarding Lai’s guilty plea.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC [Asian Football Confederation] and FIFA Congresses,” Ahmad said, after resigning from both FIFA and AFC positions. His resignation comes prior to an imminent decision from the FIFA ethics committee on whether he should be suspended from his roles.

Following Lai’s plea, U.S. Department of Justice court documents identified Ahmad not by name, but by position, reading, “Co-conspirator #2 was a high-ranking official of FIFA, the Kuwait Football Association [KFA] and the Olympic Council of Asia [OCA],” who was “ultimately elected to the FIFA Executive Committee.”

The allegations read that Ahmad approached Lai and bribed him for influence and information amid the Asian Federation and in the FIFA executive committee. “One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates.”

Lai, in his plea, claimed he received as much as $770,000 from Ahmad. The guilty plea is the first in the U.S. DoJ FIFA probe from outside the Americas, and Ahmad’s resignation represents its wide-reaching effects.

MLS roundup: FCD, POR thrill in 2-2 draw; Sounders’ epic comeback

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With eight MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 26 more to go…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

FC Dallas 2-2 Portland Timbers

For the third straight week, we were a matchup featuring two of the top three teams in the Western Conference. After Sporting Kansas City beat Portland two weeks ago, and Dallas topped Sporting KC last week, it was FCD’s turn to host Portland on Saturday. Thankfully, the third game of the early-season round robin did not disappointed, and delivered a higher level of entertaining, attacking soccer (each of the first two ended 1-0).

Fanendo Adi opened the scoring to conclude a cagey opening 30 minutes, and out the window went all semblance of structure and discipline from either side. FCD needed a full 30 minutes before they’d draw level, courtesy of Maximiliano Urruti, a goal that set up a fantastic, frantic final half-hour.

Sebastian Blacno’s first MLS goal put Portland ahead for the second time in the game, in the 71st minute, but the advantage was short-lived, as Tesho Akindele’s 80th-minute header brought FCD back to level terms once again.


Seattle Sounders 3-3 New England Revolution

Game. Of. The. Day.

Seattle found themselves 3-0 down to New England, at home, after 54 minutes. In 13 minutes’ time, from minute 75 to 88, the comeback was on. There’s not much to be said of this one. Just sit back, and enjoy.


Orlando City SC 2-0 Colorado Rapids

Five home games, five wins for Orlando City. The best home-field advantage in all of MLS might just reside in central Florida, and the summer humidity is yet to reach full effect.

Saturday’s victory over a truly awful Rapids side was more labored than you might have expected — all of 70 minutes passed before Carlos Rivas scored the breakthrough — but the result was never in doubt. Colorado managed all of three shots (one on target) over the course of 90 minutes, and Kaka marked his return to action (hamstring injury) with a goal in the 91st minute. All is very, very well in the City Beautiful.


New York Red Bulls 2-1 Chicago Fire

Dax McCarty’s return to Red Bull Arena, following the trade that sent him to Chicago during the offseason, was more than a little bittersweet for the box-to-box bulldog when spent five and a half seasons with New York.

After falling behind to Bradley Wright-Phillips’ opener in the 37th minute, McCarty assisted on Nemanja Nikolic’s 59th-minute equalizer — the spin and lay-off were perfectly executed. The evening ended in disappointment, though, as Kemar Lawrence broke the deadlock in the 71st minute and secured all three points. That’s back-to-back losses for Chicago, who were unbeaten in their first three games since Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s arrival. On the other end, three straight wins for New York, and they’re within two points of first-place Orlando in the Eastern Conference.


Columbus Crew SC 2-3 New York City FC

When two teams with zero desire to play the game at a non-frenetic pace, and no clue how to slow things down and control the game, get together, fireworks are to be expected.

Columbus and New York City meet the above criteria, and were happy to prove as much on Saturday. Jack Harrison put the visitors ahead with the deftest chip in the 8th minute, but Federico Higuain’s equalizer 21 minutes later was just as impressive.

Ola Kamara put Columbus 2-1 ahead in the 49th minute, and all Gregg Berhalter’s side seemed to be in total control. 15 minutes, later Angel Herrera’s header made it 2-2, and Jack Harrison completed the comeback in the 76th minute. Few victories in MLS this season will deserve greater praise than this one, achieved without the services of David Villa (illness).


Sporting Kansas City 3-0 Real Salt Lake

When Sporting KC get themselves a lead, it’s game over. In the four games in which they’ve scored this season, they’ve won 12 out of 12 points possible. On the season, they’ve conceded three goals in eight games, and haven’t conceded multiple goals in a game yet this season.

Of course, scoring has been the majority of the problem, as Peter Vermes’ side has already been blanked four times themselves. It wasn’t a problem on Saturday, though, as Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer and Gerso Fernandes were each stellar from beginning to end, and each bagged a goal in Sporting’s 3-0 win over RSL. An inability close out games has haunted this team in the past, but they’re a perfect 4-for-4 thus far in 2017.


Montreal Impact 1-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Someone’s giving Colorado a run for their money as the worst team in MLS. With just a single win to their name this season, Montreal have to make the most out of 1) home games; 2) games in which they lead, if they’re to mount any kind of playoff challenge in 2017.

They did neither against Vancouver, throwing away an early 1-0 lead — Marco Donadel opened the scoring in the 9th minute — by conceding goals either side of halftime, to Andrew Jacobson and Cristian Techera. In truth, Vancouver were the better side over 90 minutes and fully deserved the three points, and it’s a crushing result for a Montreal side with just one victory (and zero clean sheets) on the season.


Minnesota United 0-1 San Jose Earthquakes

Elsewhere in MLS

LA Galaxy 0-0 Philadelphia Union

Ligue 1: Level on games played, Monaco go 3 points ahead of PSG

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PARIS (AP) Monaco warmed up for its Champions League semifinal against Juventus with a 3-1 win over Toulouse to move three points clear of Paris Saint-Germain at the top of the French league on Saturday.

Teenage striker Kylian Mbappe, the new wonder of French football, scored his 14th league goal this season.

Kamil Glik and Thomas Lemar also got on the scoresheet for the hosts.

Mbappe has been unstoppable in recent months, scoring 22 goals in his last 20 starts in all competitions.

Having turned 18 just four months ago, Mbappe has scored 24 goals in 38 games in his first full professional season to become one of the most sought-after players across Europe.

Both Monaco and PSG, which travels to third-placed Nice on Sunday, have four league matches left to play.

After rotating his team in a 5-0 loss to PSG in the French Cup to save his best players for Wednesday’s Champions League clash, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim switched back to his usual starting lineup. His players made a slow start but ended up scoring three goals – their average this season.

Toulouse, which upset Monaco 3-1 in the corresponding fixture last October, had the first chance in the 10th minute when the unmarked Andy Delort sent a header inches wide at the far post from a free kick.

Monaco gradually worked its way into the game and took a firm grip near the half-hour. Following a one-two with Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva dribbled past a defender and forced `keeper Alban Lafont to make a good save to his left.

The youngest player in French league history to reach 10 goals in a season, Mbappe was then perfectly set up by Nabil Dirar’s long ball down the left flank but saw his effort deflected by a last-minute tackle from Toulouse skipper Issa Diop.

Struggling to break a well-organized defense, Monaco kept peppering the box with teasing crosses but lacked a cutting edge.

Monaco found itself trailing against the run of the play just after the interval following a blunder from Jemerson. The Brazilian defender fluffed the ball in front of goal, allowing Ola Toivonen to beat Danijel Subasic with a clean finish.

The goal spurred Monaco on even more and Glik put the teams level with a beautiful header into the top right corner from Joao Moutinho’s cross.

Mbappe made it 2-1 in the 64th minute after Bernardo Silva set him up on the right side of the area, rifling a shot into the net from a tight angle.

Lemar completed the win in the 75th minute from Dirar’s clinical cross.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”