Drilling down on: at Seattle Sounders 1, Portland Timbers 1

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SEATTLE, Wash. — For as exciting and fluid as their new soccer can be, the Portland Timbers have been surprisingly predictable. Against New York, Montréal, and today against Seattle, Portland fell behind, went on to rack up advantages in shots, passes and possession, and eventually got on the scoreboard. In their 2-1 loss to Montréal those advantages weren’t enough, but Saturday in Seattle, the pattern produced a 1-1 draw, with Rodney Wallace’s 91st minute header sending the Sounders to a heartbreaking result.

The goal saw the Sounders drop points in a game they’d led for 77 minutes. Despite playing on the back foot for much of that time, Seattle had managed the game well, conceding possession but keeping the Timbers from any significant chances on goal. As the game approached full time, the Sounders looking on track for a comfortable end to their first win of the season.

But it was the second ball in on a late corner that undid the hosts. After right back DeAndre Yedlin headed Diego Valeri’s cross clear, Andrew Jean Baptiste’s chip toward the edge of the six-yard box found an oncoming Wallace. Unmarked, the substitute’s headed into the right of goal, giving Michael Gspurning no chance to prevent the equalizer.

It was the second time in three meetings Rodney Wallace had cost Seattle points. On Sept. 15, the teams’ last meeting in Portland, Wallace converted a late corner to give the Timbers a 1-1 draw.

Up until Saturday’s equalizer, Seattle had leaned on their 13th minute goal, an Eddie Johnson finish that took advantage of a Diego Chara turnover. Just inside Portland’s half, Chara mishandled a ball played left from the middle of the park. Steve Zakuani collected the loose ball, turned up the pitch, and sprinted 40 yards before rifling a pass across Donovan Ricketts’ six-yard box. Johnson finished his far post run with an easy tap-in for his fifth Cascadia Cup goal.

The Timbers finished with a 13-7 edge in shots and 55 percent of the game’s possession, but both were season lows. Between his decision to exploit Steve Zakuani’s edge on the left and his team’s second half adjustments to the Portland’s style, Sigi Schmid played his cards right. Portland only had two shots on goal and few significant chances on the night.

Unfortunately, Schmid again had no answer for RodneyWallace.

Man of the Match

He was the focal point of an attack that had to do wide, a role that forced Steve Zakuani to produce. In the 13th minute, he did, creating the match’s only goal, and although Seattle couldn’t replicate that moment of brilliance, his play along the left (in combination with Eddie Johnson’s) continuously threatened Portland.

As usual, Osvaldo Alonso played a huge part, with the Seattle midfielder destroying almost everything that came into the middle of the park. Often venturing up to became Seattle’s most advanced midfielder, Alonso was also instrumental forward, though his distribution was the subject of Schmid criticism after the game. While praising the holding midfielder’s defensive contributions, Seattle’s coach said his all-star needed to be quicker moving the ball.

Threesome of Knowledge

  • Portland’s defense still a problem

For the first time this season, Portland didn’t allow multiple goals, but the team still made the type of mistake you’d see maybe once-per-month from other teams. Chara’s giveaway was an act of carelessness. In a system that continuously throws people forward, it was a crippling error, but when nobody in defense tracked Johnson’s run, it cost Portland on a scoreboard.

Mikael Silvestre had his best match yet, and Ben Zemanski (a surprise starter at right back) had a strong audition in an unfamiliar position. But the defense as a whole continues to be a problem. Portland’s now allowed six goals in three games.

  • Remove all doubts: Steve Zakuani is back

Let’s forget about Zakuani’s performance: A strong but not overwhelming game (many may disagree he was Man of the Match). The mere fact that he’s good enough to be a focal point tells of what Sigi Schmid is seeing day-to-day in practice. Zakuani is strong enough to be leaned on, which means this is the last time this bit is newsworthy: Zakuani is fully back.

If it wasn’t for strong play from Silvestre and Zemanski, Zakuani and Johnson would have created more than the one goal. The duo were constantly lining up and beating whomever happened to be on Portland’s right. Had Seattle not changed gears in the second half, Zakuani’s performance may have been more pronounced.

  • Why did Seattle change gears?

But the Sounders definitely did change gears, something Schmid admitted wasn’t the plan. After the match he lamented the team’s inability to keep possession or win more second balls. After taking the lead, the Sounder players looked more willing to hold their positions rather than pursue their opponents.

So what happened? Tired legs were brought up by multiple people, with eight Seattle starters playing their second match in six days. Both were big games. Both were on turf, and both required 90-minute efforts.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Ben Zemanski, acquired from Chivas USA in the preseason, made his first start of the season. It was a surprise inclusion, particularly considering the position: Right back. Ryan Miller, Portland’s starter in each of their first two games, didn’t get in the game.
  • Jack Jewsbury also made his first start of the year, playing at the base of midfield as the Timbers changed formation. Switching away from a 4-2-3-1 that Caleb Porter has identified as a 4-3-3, Portland played a 4-4-2 variant on Saturday, with Darlington Nagbe, Will Johnson and Chara defending in a line in front of Jewsbury.
  • Seattle was initially without two of their regulars, though Mauro Rosales played most of the second half. The back injury he incurred on Tuesday improved enough to allow him to come off the bench. Brad Evans, however, was out with a calf injury.
  • New Designated Player Obafemi Martins made his debut, playing 20 minutes in the second half. He nearly created a goal shortly after coming on, with Eddie Johnson failing to get a toe to a ball that could have been the game-winner.
  • Controversy struck in the 25th minute when Jhon Kennedy Hurtado went down in the box to win a ball at Ryan Johnson’s feet. Kevin Stott, with an unimpeded view of the play, saw it as a good tackle. Replays showed Kennedy had wrapped his legs around Johnson while playing the ball.

Highlights

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Liverpool’s murky Top Four path depends on Manchester United

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Liverpool is a historic club with incredible presence. Jurgen Klopp is a celebrated manager with a strong reputation as a players’ coach.

Those two facets will always make the club attractive to players. Missing out on the UEFA Champions League is another thing altogether and would put a huge dent in Klopp’s ambitious recruitment goals.

And right now, the Reds look destined to drop out of the Top Four.

[ JPW: Oriol Romeu — The Perfectly Poised Destroyer ]

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Chelsea 32 24 3 5 65 27 38 13-0-2 11-3-3 75
 Tottenham Hotspur 32 21 8 3 68 22 46 15-2-0 6-6-3 71
 Liverpool 34 19 9 6 70 42 28 11-4-2 8-5-4 66
 Manchester City 32 19 7 6 63 35 28 8-6-1 11-1-5 64
 Manchester United 32 17 12 3 50 24 26 7-9-1 10-3-2 63
 Everton 34 16 10 8 60 37 23 12-4-1 4-6-7 58
 Arsenal 31 17 6 8 63 40 23 10-3-2 7-3-6 57

Even if Manchester United and Manchester City draw Thursday’s derby, both will be poised to pass the Reds by winning the match-in-hand.

Injury-ravaged United is bothered by UEFA Europa League duty against Celta Vigo, and has a brutal run-in that includes Spurs and Arsenal in addition to City. Liverpool has to hope United falls off, because Man City is likely going to walk over the Top Four line even with a draw in the derby.

The worst case scenario for Liverpool, aside from continuing to flail against clubs outside the Top Seven, is United toppling City on Thursday.

As an aside, it’s extremely unlikely that Arsenal leaps into the fray but if the Gunners did it would come at the expense of United.

Really, Liverpool’s run-in is perfectly built for two of its supporters’ favorite things: Winning matches and rooting against Manchester United. Here’s how they finish:

May 1 — at Watford
May 7 — vs. Southampton
May 14 — at West Ham United
May 21 — vs. Middlesbrough

Liverpool battered Watford 6-1 at Anfield and Boro 3-0 at the Riverside Stadium, but drew both Saints and West Ham earlier this season in addition to losing to Southampton in an EFL Cup semifinal.

Say the Reds nab a perfect 12 points to finish with 78; They’ll need City to take less than 14 from six remaining matches and United to earn less than 15 from six. The latter is far more likely than the former, but will matter very little if Klopp can’t motivate and organize his men in the final four matches.

Schweinsteiger shares thoughts on MLS, much more in lengthy interview

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Ambassadors responsible for Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s move to America extend deep into the 1970s.

1977 to be exact. That’s when Franz Beckenbauer first came to the New York Cosmos from Bayern Munich, a three-season tenure that went so well he returned to New York for his final professional season after time with Hamburg.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

Schweinsteiger said Beckenbauer’s words meant a lot to him, and admitted that he’s not imparting that wisdom to other overseas players who ask him about MLS.

From TSN.ca (Full video here):

“I remember when David Beckham was playing here or even I know when Franz Beckenbauer was playing here, and I was talking to him and he said he had his best life in America,” Schweinsteiger said. “We spoke about it and I was thinking about it a little bit.For me it was a little bit different because I love to play soccer and in Manchester I couldn’t play enough soccer so that was the problem.”

Among several interesting soundbites from the interview with Schweinsteiger also spoke about Germany’s memorable destruction of host nation Brazil at the 2014 World Cup:

“I remember the semifinal that we won 7-1. Everyone speaks about the 7-1, but we were not talking so much about it because we felt very, in a way, sad, because you saw your teammates like Dante and Luis Gustavo and the Brazilian supporters and the team crying, so you couldn’t really celebrate. Our focus was so much looking forward to the final. I remember things like this, sometimes more than the final.”

Not something you consider often. Winning a match 2-1 against your club teammates is one thing, but sending them to international humiliation is another.

Oriol Romeu: The perfectly poised destroyer

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SOUTHAMPTON — A two-hour drive on a straight highway along the coast of Catalonia in Spain, the road from Ulldecona to Barcelona is not as easy to navigate as you might think.

Ask Southampton’s star performer this season, Oriol Romeu.

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Currently reaching levels he admits he wasn’t sure he could ever reach, the 25-year-old midfielder is nailed on to be named Saints’ player of the season and as he prepares to head back to his former club Chelsea on Tuesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) the combative Catalan has been reflecting on his journey to the Premier League.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a sunny day on England’s South Coast, it was another coastal route which Romeu and his family got extremely used to navigating in his days with Espanyol as a youngster.

“It’s 200 kilometers from Barcelona, so quite far,” Romeu said of his hometown, Ulldecona. “It was a bit tough in the beginning because I had to travel a lot and my parents were a bit scared to spend too long on the road. When I was 12 I decided I wanted to go back home and wanted to stop playing football at a big level. Suddenly Barcelona came and said ‘we like you, we want you to be here and we don’t won’t you to go away’ and I said ‘okay, I will accept’ because obviously I love Barcelona and that was a chance I had to take. It went well. It went very well and I was very lucky to develop since the first day and I could become a good player. It was tough because I was too far away from home and I had to travel a lot. It wasn’t easy but I could make it.”

And make it he has.

Given Romeu’s steady ascent over the past 12 months where he first shadowed Victor Wanyama, Saints’ chief midfield destroyer at the time, and then shone at the back-end of last season, we’ve had a chat penciled in many times over recent months but due to his schedule or mine it has never quite worked out. Yet now, ahead of Romeu’s return to Chelsea, it seemed like the perfect time to discuss his rise at Southampton in the midst of the finest season in his career so far.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

“Finally, we can meet!” Romeu says, smiling as he walks through the door at Southampton’s training base at Staplewood. Sporting tattoos on the inside of his arms, Romeu places his wash bag and a light jacket down on the table as we catch up and discuss his plans for the afternoon.

Q&A with @nbcsports and @jpw_nbcsports today. Thanks for your questions! 😉 #saintsfc #southamptonfc

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He explains that his dogs will be waiting by the door for him when he gets home and then he’ll set off on a long evening walk across one of the many stunning vistas within close proximity to his home in southern England. It gives him a chance to relax and switch off, he explains, as his life off the pitch is far from what you would expect for a powerful central midfielder who used to showcase a mean Mohawk hairdo.

Calm, collected and poised as he juggles a bottle of water while we talk, Romeu has had a long and winding journey to become a regular in the Premier League.

That journey has taken him to three countries, six clubs and the hugely likable Romeu seems to know so many people in the game. After Saints’ preseason friendly with Espanyol he was holding court with coaches and players in the tunnel area and the likes of Juan Mata and Fernando Torres are close friends, while following a recent home defeat to Manchester City his former boss Pep Guardiola spent several minutes speaking with him outside the locker rooms at St Mary’s.

Romeu made his way through the famed La Masia academy after deciding to stick it out in Barcelona after those tough early years and played under Guardiola for the team he grew up supporting. In his hometown of Ulldecona he idolized Brazilian legend Ronaldo and was a true Barca fan.

“My parents always say that I was a bit mad for Ronaldo” Romeu smiles. He even played up front in his early days as he looked to emulate Ronaldo yet Romeu sheepishly admits that scoring goals quickly became an afterthought in his game.

A move to Chelsea in 2011 saw Romeu’s career take a huge step forward as he played regularly under Andre Villas-Boas but with injuries hampering his progress at Stamford Bridge and after two loan moves to Valencia and Stuttgart, it’s at Southampton where he’s found his feet. Big time. A true fans favorite at St Mary’s in just his second season at Saints, Romeu is both the midfield organizer and destroyer.

His brute force is backed up by a growing intelligence to read the game and time interceptions to perfection. He has made the third-highest amount of tackles for midfielders in the Premier League, behind only Idrissa Gueye and N'Golo Kante, and also ranks sixth in the PL for most interceptions by a midfielder.

Romeu was rewarded for his fine displays by signing a new long-term contract in January, on the eve of what he calls his favorite moment in his career so far. He put in a man of the match display as Southampton beat Liverpool at Anfield to secure a place in the EFL Cup final at Wembley.

“The favorite moment of my career was that semifinal at Anfield when we beat Liverpool away. That was my happiest day as a footballer,” Romeu smiled, again. “We played amazing football and we got to a final and along with the fans we were all there enjoying and playing against a top side like Liverpool. That’s the top moment in my career. When Longy [Shane Long] scored, we all went mad! Fighting for that final, it was so close and if they scored it would be going to extra time. So when he scored it was one of the happiest moments of my career, no doubt.”

This season there’s no doubt it has been the best of his career and Romeu credits this to his growing confidence as he plays week in, week out in Southampton’s midfield. He’s been named Southampton’s Player of the Month on three occasions by the fans as he led their charge to a heroic EFL Cup final defeat, plus a historic campaign which saw them go within one goal of reaching the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League after Romeu dominated Inter Milan in a famous win at St Mary’s.

Even after losing to Man United in the EFL Cup final, just when Saints seemed to be destined to win their first major trophy in over 40 years, Romeu chooses to take the positives from that experience.

“We hope that we can play at Wembley many times,” Romeu said. “It was a day that straight after we didn’t have a good feeling. But looking back now after a couple of months, it was a day to remember. We all had a very, very good feeling playing in that stadium. There was an amazing connection with our fans and since that day we have started to play better football and the fans started to realize we are trying to do our best. We didn’t win, we didn’t get the title we wanted, but there are so many positives to take.”

In the aftermath of that defeat, Romeu was inconsolable on the Wembley pitch as tears poured down his face as he wore the captain’s armband.

He and his teammates had given everything and with the score locked at 2-2 in the 62nd minute, he beat Paul Pogba to a header from a corner but the ball hit the post and was cleared. If Romeu’s header had gone in, there would not have been a more fitting scorer of a cup-winning goal for Southampton, especially at the exact same time as Saints’ fans were also lighting up their end of Wembley with a tribute to their savior and former owner Markus Liebherr who passed away at the age of 62.

Romeu’s song is sung with gusto each and every game by Southampton’s fans and the Catalan admitted he’s never received that kind of adulation anywhere else in his career.

When Romeu steps out onto the pitch against his old club Chelsea on Tuesday — he is once again available after a two-game ban for picking up 10 yellow cards this season — he’s no longer a kid from Catalan among Chelsea’s superstar squad. He’s a beast from Ullcedona who is capable of dominating their midfield.

Romeu credited current Saints boss Claude Puel (who was also a midfield destroyer in his playing days) with improving his game since he arrived last summer as he made the Spaniard a key part of his team.

“He is always trying to help me with the structure of the team. As a midfielder you always have players around yourself. If I can help the team to get tactically ready, it helps the team a lot,” Romeu explained. “We know in this league that sometimes the team gets unorganized and everyone is out of their place. Basically, in me he wants to have someone who makes sure everyone is back in their place and the team is ready to go again. Apart from having that faith in me and playing me in so many games, he is always trying to teach me in different parts of my game.”

Puel has recently compared Romeu to another Frenchman as his talents start to become widely appreciated alongside a growing number of holding midfielders in the Premier League who are garnering added respect. The likes of Kante at Chelsea, Gueye at Everton, Ander Herrera at Manchester United and Wanyama at Tottenham have all become integral for their respective teams.

In the summer of 2015 Leicester City had two options when looking to buy a new holding midfielder: Kante or Romeu.

Kante went to Leicester and Romeu went to Southampton and both proved to be fine signings. Romeu admitted that when Saints signed him in 2015 he was not at the best moment in his career and was struggling after a loan spell at Stuttgart. He has more than repaid the faith Saints showed in him to help him rebuild his career.

Both Kane and Romeu will do battle in the center of midfield at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday and with Kante named the PFA Player of the Year on Sunday for his fine destructive displays in midfield, Romeu’s manager believes his midfield destroyer is close to Kante’s level.

“N’Golo Kante brings the same qualities as Oriol Romeu for us. Without Kante it is difficult for Chelsea. Without Romeu it is difficult for us. For me, Oriol is not far off Kante,” Puel explained. “He is very consistent. Every game he gives a good performance and is strong on the recovery of the ball. He has a lot of qualities to also start on the ball and for me, he is at the same level. He’s a great player for me. But for the moment we cannot play for the first place of the table and he is not on the TV, but we will see for the future. For me he can go also to the selection with Spain for example.”

Representing Spain is also at the forefront of Romeu’s mind as a former coach of his at national team youth levels was Julen Lopetegui, the current head coach of the Spanish national team.

“As a footballer it is one of your dreams,” Romeu said. “When you are younger you see the national team playing and you say ‘oh, hopefully one day’ but it seems so far away. Now, honestly, I am feeling very good and the coach from the national team has been training with me in the U-23s. He knows the way I am and if he wants me to go there, I feel like I am ready to go. We will see what happens.”

A thoughtful individual who can often be found reading books in his spare time, beating everyone at table-tennis and even darts in the team lounge, Romeu allowed his mind to wander back to when he first arrived in England at Chelsea almost six years ago. Things were very different.

He admitted, perhaps surprisingly, than he’s even surprised himself as to how far he’s come since then.

“I see myself playing matches a few years ago and now I try different things and do different things, I’ve tried to learn to obviously get better and to be one step ahead. This year while I’m playing, I’m even discovering new things about myself because I’m playing on a level that I probably wasn’t expecting before,” Romeu smiled. “Before, I wasn’t feeling that I could do the things that I am doing now. It’s time to see how far I can go. I just want to keep going and see how long it will last. I’m feeling good.”

Romeu’s club and his teammates are in a very similar position.

Each and every season Southampton have been written off after selling on key names – Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle were the latest to exit last summer – but somehow they dig deep to grind out more from each player and secure a top 10 finish. This season, with new manager Puel at the helm, Saints are on course for their fourth-straight top 10 finish in the Premier League after competing in the Europa League and reaching a major cup final.

Puel has hailed Romeu’s importance to Southampton’s future.

“He learned with Barcelona and we can see this. He feels the play and feels the game with passes disguised and quality on the pitch,” Puel said. “He is very important in our start of the play. I like this.”

What’s the next step for Saints and Romeu? To challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot?

Romeu hopes that is achievable in the next “three or four years” at Southampton.

“That would be the main target. Definitely. That would be something so nice,” Romeu said, puffing out his cheeks. “There are teams, even top teams this year, that are struggling to get there. You need to be very, very consistent and have a very, very strong team. We will see if we can get that. Looking at our team now, if all the players injured were okay and if everyone playing is in his best moment, we will have a very strong side. Hopefully we can keep building into this structure that we have in this team and can get even better next year.”

Although there’s still a tinge of disappointment at Southampton that they couldn’t get past Manchester United at Wembley to seal Europa League action for a third-straight season, Romeu believes the potential to not have European games next season could be a blessing in disguise.

“We are seeing recently that the teams that are not playing in Europe, they feel better in the league and get in better positions at the end of the season. Last year with Leicester and this year with Chelsea,” Romeu said. “So we need to take that part of next year as something good, not something negative.”

Always positive after coming through plenty of testing times at home and abroad, Romeu is far from the end of his journey. Southampton is certainly glad a young midfielder decided to keep making those journey from one side of Catalonia to the other nearly 15 years ago.

Ahead of his return to Chelsea he is, as ever, reflective about his days at Stamford Bridge as a youngster. Perhaps the biggest compliment which can be paid to him is that Chelsea fans often flood social media feeds discussing Romeu’s displays with comments such as ‘why did you leave Chelsea?’ and ‘come back to Chelsea, Oriol.’

“It was probably a learning period of time. I was very young and I was sharing a dressing room with amazing players, idols for me then and now. I could learn a lot from them, the way they approached games and trained on a daily basis. It was a very good period. I was very happy to be there [at Chelsea]. To go back there it is nice and it will be good to play against some players I have a good relationship with and I get on with very well. It is always nice to go back there and play against them… and hopefully beat them!” Romeu laughed. “I think Chelsea have done amazingly and they are in the best position. They cannot relax. This league does not allow you to bring your level down one step.”

Romeu has taken his level up several steps and he shows no signs of stopping that climb now.

Pardew laments firing, credits Palace turnaround to new players

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Alan Pardew knows why Crystal Palace was failing when he got fired, knows he could’ve fixed it, and seems pretty bummed he’s not there any more.

Pardew emerged to make the comments after Sam Allardyce helmed another upset win for Palace, a 2-1 win over Liverpool which joins defeats of Arsenal and Chelsea.

The win moves Palace 12th, and the Eagles have a legitimate shot at a top-half finish despite their poor start to the season. But Pardew wants fans to know it was about a personnel mistake, and that Palace dropped into the relegation zone after he was fired.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

The Northeast Chronicle says Pardew aimed to bring former Newcastle left backs Davide Santon and Paul Dummett to Palace, but couldn’t get the moves over the line. Then Pape Souare was hurt in a car accident and Palace was in trouble.

Over to you, Pards (From the Chronicle’s Lee Ryder):

“We were kicking ourselves not to have any left-footed cover. We were playing right-footed players there and things were exploiting that situation. We became one dimensional.

“I was really disappointed I didn’t get to the window because Sam Allardyce followed me and the results didn’t really improve until the new players got bedded in and they made a big difference.”

Allardyce brought in Patrick Van Aanholt from Sunderland and Jeff Schlupp from Leicester to shore up the left side.

The story is made more amusing by the fact that Allardyce has not hesitated to make Palace’s return to form almost exclusively about his influence, while Pardew bleeds the very same blood.

Who’s on first?