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. “

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”