MLS Preview: Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers

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  • Second-largest MLS crowd expected at CenturyLink.
  • Clint Dempsey set for his MLS home debut.
  • Sounders, Portland drew last meeting, 1-1.

People noticed moments after Clint Dempsey transferred back into MLS. His first home game would be against the Portland Timbers, a matchup so enticing it almost justified the cost.

Perhaps not, but with at least 66,500 expected at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders should record the second-highest single-game attendance in Major League Soccer history, with only the Galaxy’s inaugural game against the MetroStars in 1996 left to top that total (drawing 69,255 at the Rose Bowl). Sunday’s crowd should also top the number that attended the last match between the teams at a fully open CenturyLink – last year’s 3-0, October win by Seattle, a game that drew 66,452 (the current second-highest total in league history).

That’s why, for all the hype he’s brought to the league over the last three weeks, the Seattle-Portland rivalry has overshadowed Dempsey’s home debut. With or without Dempsey, this game would have drawn a huge crowd. The fact that MLS’s highest profile player is set to take part only adds another subplot to the league’s marquee derby.

Whether Dempsey is ready to make a major impact remains to be seen. In his first game, two weeks ago in Toronto, Dempsey was effective as a focal point out of the back as Seattle killed off a 2-0 halftime lead (holding on to win, 2-1). In Houston, the Dynamo never allowed him to get into the game, controlling the match against the visiting Sounders en route to a 3-1 win.

Over the course of that near-150 minutes, we’ve yet to see Dempsey in an ideal situation. As a result, he’s yet to have a major impact. In Toronto, he was brought on prematurely for an injured Obafemi Martins. In Houston, Seattle was playing without the suspended Eddie Johnson and the injured Martins, leaving “Deuce” to form an unlikely strike partnership with Lamar Neagle. We may not see that combination again the rest of the season.

On Sunday, Martins is expected to be back, though head coach Sigi Schmid has remained coy. The team’s best defender, Djimi Traore, is in the same boat, both players listed as questionable. Osvaldo Alonso, the midfield anchor that proved so important in the teams’ earlier meeting in Seattle, practiced on Friday and looks likely to go.

That leaves Portland with all the injury worries. Captain Will Johnson is probably out, unlikely to be ready while recovering from a shoulder problem. Frederic Piquionne is questionable with an ankle sprain, while Jack Jewsbury, out recently with his own ankle problem, may be pressed into action with Diego Chara suspended (yellow card accumulation). Given central defender Futty Danso is also out, the corps most important to protecting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts have been significantly thinned out.

With Portland’s possession-based approach, the Timbers have other ways of mitigating their exposure. Schmid’s tactics could play into that, though with Ben Zemanski, Pa Modou Kah, Andrew Jean-Baptiste and possibly Jewsbury through the middle, smart decisions from Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Rodney Wallace will become even more important. If Alonso can reek havoc and find the likes of Mauro Rosales and Brad Evans, Seattle’s attack of Dempsey, Johnson, and Martins could produce another lopsided result.

What they are saying

Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, on the lack of tickets available for Sunday’s game: “It’s a good problem to have. You never would’ve thought that as you started into the career of the Sounders in their second reincarnation here, in MLS. Now to realize that might’ve been the case. Maybe you could’ve sold 75,000 for this week. It’s a fantastic feeling to have.” [source]

Clint Dempsey, on derbies: “It’s big. The fans are really going to be up for it, as you can see — 67,000-68,000 fans coming out to the game. But yeah, I’m used to the derbies and used to the rivalries and I understand the importance of it. Hopefully I can open my account this weekend against them.” [source]

Portland head coach Caleb Porter, on the occasion: “[I’ve] never been a big believer in the big game, because it takes away from the other games. The reality is every game — as cliché as it sounds — is a big game. In this league, points are points. But I’ve tried to build as a culture where the players approach every game like it’s the biggest game. So clearly there’s some external factors that play into this game, perhaps being a bit more buzz to it, but I really try to avoid that psychology with my team.” [source]

Prediction

Seattle will have the more talented, healthier team, but most teams Portland face are more talented. Porter’s system, to this point, has offset that advantage, and while most coaches are reluctant to change their approach for one game, Schmid needs to adjust. The extent to which he can do so while preserving his attackers’ threats should determine Seattle’s success … though you could shoehorn that analysis into any match.

Even if Portland can dictate the game’s tempo, their set piece defending could be a problem. And if they can’t control the match, Seattle will torch them. No surprise given Portland’s health and the game’s location, the Timbers should be seen as underdogs.

Bobby Wood looks forward to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann

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A back injury kept Bobby Wood from United States men’s national team camp, but the Hamburg striker has been feeling good about the side’s World Cup fortunes since before the big win over Honduras.

Speaking with Hamburg’s team magazine, Wood gave a sprawling interview on his career and time with the national team. Wood praised Arena for scouting in Germany, saying the USMNT boss is a quiet coach who has his own style of playing, one that will prod the Yanks into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Complete USMNT-Panama preview ]

But the 24-year-old Hawaii-born striker saved his fondest words for ex-coach Jurgen Klinsmann, essentially calling him a career-saver. From HSV live (translated from German):

He’s very important to me. I believe if Jürgen had not been U.S. coach, then I might have stopped playing football or would have played somewhere in the fourth league.

That is why I am very, very grateful to him. At that time I was in a deep hole – it was real heavy. … He has believed in my quality. We are still in contact, he texts me.

Wood was a part-time player for 1860 Munich when Klinsmann first called him up to the national team side, and now he’s a Bundesliga striker who will be in demand if the club is relegated. Wood has also been mentioned as a target for Premier League clubs.

That’s a pretty good career jump. Klinsmann may have failed to deliver much of what he promised to the national team, but talent mining was done quite well.

USMNT-Panama preview: World Cup calm at stake

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Still wounded from the first two matches of the Hex but buoyed by its demolition of Honduras, the United States men’s national team faces an inspired Panama on Tuesday night in Panama City.

The Yanks arose from the ashes of losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to bury Honduras 6-0 Friday behind a Clint Dempsey hat trick and a goal and two assists from Christian Pulisic.

A win on Tuesday in Panama gives the U.S. something that can only soothe the nerves ahead of two summer qualifiers and the Gold Cup: Top Three status in the Hex (as is always expected).

Now the resurgent Americans face a Panama side which sits above them on the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table, having narrowed the gap on a Los Canaleros side who itself has narrowed its sights on a USMNT which burned them nearly four years ago.

[ USMNT-HONDURAS: Player ratings | Three things ]

Panama looked set to earn an interconfederation playoff berth with a 2-1 lead over the already-advanced U.S. when Graham “San” Zusi and Aron Johannsson led a shocking comeback at the Estadio Rommel Fernández to give Mexico the Hex’s fourth-place.

Los Canaleros shot out of the Hex gates with a win at Honduras and a 0-0 draw at home against Mexico, but fell 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago on Friday thanks to Minnesota United star Kevin Molino.

Now licking its wounds while eyeing revenge, Panama will hope its pair of draws with the U.S. at the 2015 Gold Cup are the start they need to pick up a first home World Cup qualifying win over the States. Panama won the third-place match over the USMNT via shootout at the that tournament.

Boss Hernán Darío Gómez is no stranger to international battles having led Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. He deployed a 4-5-1 against T&T, and could opt for that again but has usually used either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 with two holding mids against deeper sides than the Soca Warriors.

The former has worked better, and the personnel sometimes serves as a surprise. Last time out, in a 0-0 draw against Mexico, Gomez kept Anibal Godoy and Luis Tejada on the bench in what looks like a 4-2-2-2 at times.

[ MORE: Making sense out of the 6-0 win ]

Bruce Arena faces his own issues. In addition to the absences of Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson, the USMNT lost Sebastian Lletget and John Brooks in the win over Honduras.

Lletget’s absence is quickly remedied by either Alejandro Bedoya or, more likely, Jermaine Jones, but Brooks is a bigger problem. The Hertha Berlin man cleaned up several messes made by Omar Gonzalez, the ex-LA Galaxy man who — for better or worse — may not have shaken Arena’s confidence thanks to their long relationship.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Geoff Cameron is his best option at CB, and could serve a similar purpose to Brooks. Still, he’s not 100 percent.

Gonzalez and Matt Besler worked well together a long time ago, but Tim Ream was Arena’s first choice when Brooks hit the turf with dehydration on Friday. There’s also wild card Walker Zimmerman, who would be taking the field in his highest-profile match yet.

Arena will want to take the match to Panama, even on the road. How will it look in front of Tim Howard? This is an option for Arena, though not one we expect:

Howard

Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana

Jones — Bradley — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

Instead, Arena will probably roll the bones with Gonzalez again, and keep things close to the Honduras win. It would be silly to break up the Villafana-Nagbe partnership on the left, and the top three isn’t changing one bit.

The question is whether Arena ruffles Jones, who is both combustible and not part of the long-term future. But Jones, like all of us, would’ve seen 6-0. So, probably, this:

Howard

Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana

Bradley

Bedoya — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

If Bradley provides the same picture-perfect cover for the back four and Pulisic continues to hum off the veteran big bodies of Dempsey and Altidore, the latter of which who is due a goal or two, the Yanks win. At worst, they’re beaten for pace by Alberto Quintero and stymied by Jaime Penedo. But the former can be covered by an in-form Howard, and the latter can only hold out for so long.

A draw puts the U.S. behind Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico ahead of two months off and the knowledge that both Mexico and Costa Rica are home for both June qualifiers.

Schweinsteiger waiting on visa, training in Mallorca

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is waiting on a visa to make his trip to Chicago official.

It’s a formality, albeit a bit trickier now given the political climate in the United States. The former Manchester United midfielder is training at Real Mallorca ahead of the move.

The transfer was announced one week ago, and Schweinsteiger is anxious to get back on the pitch. Set for a 1-year, $4.5 million deal, the midfielder has not missed any Chicago matches yet.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Fire is 1-1-1 to start the new season under Veljko Paunovic, and has three home matches next: Montreal (Saturday), Columbus (Apr. 8), and New England (Apr. 15)

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.