The changing identity of … Portland Timbers FC

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In a cold, scientific sense, Seattle’s acquisition of Clint Dempsey shouldn’t affect the Portland Timbers any more than it affects Major League Soccer’s eight other Western Conference teams, who only feel a slightly more acute impact than the 10 teams in the East. The emboldened Sounders only affect other teams in so much as they keep them from achieving their goals. With Dempsey in Seattle, each team is a little less likely to win against the Sounders and ever so slightly less likely to make the playoffs.

Portland’s relationship with Seattle is neither cold nor scientific. Even more so than the teams’ link to fellow Cascadia rival Vancouver, the Sounders and Timbers are judged relative to each other. As Seattle succeed in their first three seasons, they set an implicit benchmark for the Timbers. When Portland claimed last year’s Cascadia Cup, they dealt a significant blow to the playoff-bound Sounders. When the Timbers succeeded at the beginning of 2013 while Seattle struggled, the dynamic between the two northwest neighbors subtly began to shift.

[MORE: In pictures: Clint Dempsey, Seattle celebrate Deuce’s arrival.]

That’s why, after considering Seattle’s side of the Dempsey equation, people naturally looked to Portland, asking a series of questions: What will the fans think of this? How could the Timbers let this happen? Were they in the picture to get Clint? What happened to the allocation order?

How will Timbers owner Merritt Paulson react?

You can’t be familiar with soccer in the northwest without imagining Paulson’s reaction to this news. He’s never shied away from the rivalry, and in bringing Caleb Porter, he took a big step toward gaining a foothold in it. For much of the season, Portland was the right track team, Seattle was the wrong. But with one signing, Seattle has completely reversed that momentum, whether the standings reflect that or not.

Did Adrian Hanauer’s coup take Portland by surprise? If so, who’ll bear the brunt of the blame? Or was Portland, like so many around MLS, in tune with the whispers and just unable to compete with the Sounders’ financial might?

And if that’s what’s happened in some form, you couldn’t blame Portland if they tried to turn their cheek, go about their business, and golf clap their rivals in front of clenched teeth. Yet judging by their fans’ reaction, that’s easier said than done. Hardcore Timbers supporters across social media were incredulous as to how the allocation order was bypassed to allow Seattle to sign Dempsey. Even after MLS attempted to clarify the standing of Designated Players relative to allocation, there was the feeling that something other than Seattle ingenuity saw Dempsey land on Puget Sound.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC.]

To those fans, the balance that was starting to be established between the Sounders and Timbers has been thrown off by forces beyond Cascadia. After two inconsistent years, Portland’s own ingenuity had led them toward the top of the Western Conference. At the same time, Seattle was having a down season. Now somebody else has greased the wheels to give the Sounders another leg up. Combine a supporter’s intensity with the conflict in Major League Soccer’s published rules, and the fans’ anguish makes sense.

During the normally raucous atmosphere of Saturday’s Cascadia Derby, you could almost sense something was off. With Vancouver employing a physical approach early, the game’s style may have fostered that perception. Or maybe the feeling was pure confirmation bias. Regardless, when Portland unveiled their “ML$ TRANSPARENCY = LEGITIMACY” banner in the second half, you knew not even a visit from the rival Whitecaps could take Dempsey off the Timbers’ Army’s mind.

There’s the potential here to cause a bit of an identity crisis; at least, in comparison to the identity Portland had cultivated from March through July. Then, the Timbers’ were one of Major League Soccer’s 2013 darlings. Now, not only is there the potential for the Timbers to be pushed back into Seattle’s shadow, climbing out is even more difficult. If Seattle is your rival, and like it or not you are defined in terms of their relative success, then how do you realistically top the acquisition of the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team? Try to sign Landon Donovan when his deal expires this winter?

[MORE: The changing identify of … Major League Soccer.]

Ultimately, the answer is to beat Seattle on the field, which was the goal all along. With Dempsey up north, that becomes more difficult, but he’s only one player. Particularly if the Timbers keep adding Diego Valeri-esque talents, that gap can disappear.

What can’t disappear is Portland’s connection to Seattle, one which may have become more difficult to reconcile on Saturday night. After the Sounders made one of the most notable acquisitions in league history, the Timbers are left with a bunch of questions. To the extent the answers change perceptions of the team remains to be seen.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.