Landon Donovan

MLS Preview: Portland Timbers at LA Galaxy

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  • Portland on a 13-match unbeaten run
  • Galaxy have allowed eight goals in their last two games
  • LA took nine of nine points from Portland last season

Remember that one time Caleb Porter lost a Major League Soccer game? Unless you’re a Timbers or Montréal Impact fan, you might not, because that single loss came in the season’s second round, before narratives around the league’s two most surprising teams became entrenched. But now, three-and-a-half months into the season, that March meeting at JELD-WEN looks like one of the more important games of the young season. The East-leading Impact remain the only team to derail Portland, while the Timbers have a 13-match unbeaten run.

If Portland’s to catch FC Dallas’s record of 19 without a loss (set in 2010), they’ll have to navigate a six-match stretch that includes four road games and two meetings with the defending champion Galaxy. But for a team that’d only won two road games in their MLS history coming into the season, games away from JELD-WEN suddenly pose surprisingly few fewer concerns. The Timbers have MLS’s only unbeaten record away from home (2-0-6).

The Galaxy games, however, could reintroduce an element Portland hasn’t dealtwith since the beginning of their run: Doubt. Coming into the year, the Timbers needed to prove their new coach’s concepts would lead to results, something that became evident by the middle of April. Since then the team has pushed on, become a confident, efficient team that’s as capable of opportunistic wins as impressive results. Yet although the Timbers have proved themselves against conference leaders (FC Dallas), league stalwarts (Dom Kinnear’s Houston), and some of the league’s most talented squads (Sporting Kansas City), the one true benchmark remains.

There is something different about the Galaxy. Two-time league champions, managed by the league’s best coach of all time, possessing transcendant talents like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, Los Angeles is a unique challenge no matter the circumstances. The MLS embodiment of Atreyu’s mirror, LA engender doubts in anyone, not just the Timbers. Even without Omar Gonzalez, away on national team duty, the Galaxy are capable of presenting a greater challenge than any team in Major League Soccer. Even if they only sit fifth in the West, if LA decides tonight meeting in Carson’s a big game, recent history says they’re likely to win it.

Whether the Galaxy are capable of flipping the switch right now is a point of concern. Two weeks ago, the team was routed in New England, an embarrassing 5-0 loss that failed to serve as a wakeup call ahead of last week 3-1 defeat in Utah. Without Gonzalez, the team’s allowed eight goals in two games, terrible form to carry into a match against one of the league’s best attacks.

Unfortunately for the Timbers, their weaknesses play into LA’s greatest strength. Depleted by injuries at the back (having lost and Mikael Silvestre and David Horst while Futty Danso left Saturday’s win over Dallas), Portland will be particularly susceptible to a league best counter attack that’s buttressed back-to-back titles. Will Johnson and Diego Chara have done a great job protecting their center backs from other team’s counters, but other teams don’t have Donovan pulling the strings, Keane making the runs. Particularly away from the snug confines of JELD-WEN Field, Portland could see their vulnerabilities exposed.

There is, however the case to be made for Johnson and Chara. As well as the help they get from Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, the support they receive as an outlet from Michael Harrington, as well as the disaster insurance that is right back Jack Jewsbury. Look beyond the drawbacks of Pa Modou Kah and Andrew Jean Baptiste and you see a complete picture that explains why a defense that was seen as a preseason liability has yet to pose a significant problem. The pieces around the men in the middle are compensating for the issue.

And against an LA central midfield that’s failed to assert itself this year — one that will be without Marcelo Sarvas (suspended, yellow card accumulation) — Portland may be able to claim another result. Without his partner, Juninho will need to find the form he carried through the middle of last season. Given his talents, that only seems like a matter of time, but unless he can pick up his game against a Timbers system that sends numbers at opponents with each change of possession, the Galaxy will have a difficult time springing those nightmare-inducing counters.

Regardless of who wins, we’re like to learn something tonight at StubHub Center (10:30 p.m. EDT kickoff). If Portland wins and climbs to the top of the West, they’ll send another notice to the rest of the league, claiming as validating result against the league’s standard-bearers. And if LA derails a team that carries a 13-match unbeaten into Carson, it will be affirm their place as the league’s true litmus test, rendering any contenders’ progress irrelevant until they’re tested against the defending champions.

Other notes: Omar Gonzalez will miss tonight’s match while on international duty. José Villarreal is also gone, with the U.S. U-20s, while Portland will be without Rodney Wallace, returning from international duty with Coast Rica … Los Angeles took all nine points from Portland last year, scoring five times in the team’s last meeting … Portland have never earned a point in Carson … Brian Rowe got the start last week in Utah. Few Galaxy fans would be upset if he keeps the struggling Carlo Cudicini on the bench … Todd Dunivant returned to full training this week. He could start only his third game in nine … Portland’s unbeaten run is the 10th-longest in MLS history … The run leaves Porter tied with Tom Soehn for the longest streak for a first-year head coach. Soehn did the same with D.C. United in 2008.

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.