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.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.

Barcelona announces Valverde as next manager

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Six days after leaving his post at Athletic Bilbao, another dream job has been signed, sealed, and delivered to Ernesto Valverde.

The ex-Barcelona striker is joining the Blaugranas as the replacement for accolade-winning coach Luis Enrique, who stepped away from the position after Saturday’s Copa del Rey victory.

[ JPW: Huddersfield completes the dream ]

Valverde, 53, played two seasons with Barca in the late 1980s, and previously coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia. His spent most of his playing career at Athletic and began as their manager in 2013.

Here’s what Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu said about Valverde:

“Valverde has the ability, the knowledge and the experience. He promotes players from the youth teams and he has a style and a way of working like ours. He has a philosophy of the game that is very Barça and he is a hard worker. Also, he is passionate about applying technology to both training and matches.”

Valverde becomes the fourth manager to take charge of Barcelona since Pep Guardiola left in 2012 (Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, and Enrique are the others).

Huddersfield seal fairytale promotion to Premier League

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LONDON — Huddersfield Town have been promoted to the Premier League.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to “fairytale” ]

The Terriers, for the first time in their history, will play in the PL and for the first time since 1972 they will be in the top-flight of English soccer.

German-American manager David Wagner has worked a miracle to turnaround a team who finished in 19th place in the Championship last season. They beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks on Monday after a tight, tense 120 minutes of action at Wembley Stadium, holding their nerve to seal an estimated windfall of $218 million next season and up to $372 million if they survive in the PL for another season.

All day long, and perhaps all season long, it has felt like Huddersfield were destined for promotion.

Huddersfield sold out their full allocation of tickets, 39,150, and their fans made the most noise all day long. There was no contest.

In central London Huddersfield’s fans piled on to the tube heading to Wembley for their day of reckoning.

“It’s his first full season as a fan!” said a proud mother decked out in a Huddersfield shirt as she hugged her five-year-old son proudly. “What a time to start!” replied a stranger, also a Huddersfield fan.

Excited chatter filled the 15 minute tube ride from Baker Street to Wembley Park as fans “I can’t believe it,” said one fan to another, quietly. “It will hit home when we get into the stadium,” his friend replied.

Steven Sunderland stood outside Wembley with his wife Melanie and their daughter Megan.

He summed up the surprise that Huddersfield were even one game away from the Premier League to start with.

“It would be amazing to play all of the big clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, clubs like that,” Sunderland said. “I never thought we would make it. No chance. I just thought if we make midtable, it would be an improvement on last season because we’ve been struggling with relegation the last few seasons. This season, David Wagner has got the team playing really well, best team spirit I’ve ever seen for a long, long time. The fans are really connected. It shows today, there are nearly 40,000 Huddersfield fans here today and they are up for it.”

Oh yes. Yes they were.

Amid dissecting the struggles of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, talk of just going up to the PL for one year and then enjoying it “no matter how we do” was rife among the Huddersfield fans. One Terriers supporter puffed out his cheeks, gripping his can of cider nervously as he walked up Wembley Way.

Tense was the word of the day.

With the future of both clubs on the line, the game itself didn’t deliver end-to-end excitement. With an estimated $218 million on the line for next season and $370 million if they manage to stay up one year in the PL, the economic benefit for Huddersfield the club, and the town, will be huge.

When Michael Hefele headed wide and Isaiah Brown missed a glorious chance early on, you began to wonder if it was Huddersfield’s day. In the end none of that mattered.

Christopher Schindler stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty kick after Danny Ward saved from Jordan Obita as Huddersfield had reached the promised land.

Huddersfield chairman Dean Hoyle summed up his emotions after taking over the club and putting in a prudent plan for promotion involving loan players and a budget less than $12 million this season.

“I’m so emotional. To say I’ve been supporting this club since 1969, to be a Premier League team now – dreams come true,” Hoyle said. “It’s huge what it means for Huddersfield, we’re on the big stage. It proves you don’t have to blow your brains to get promoted. We’ve done it the right way.”

What impact will this have on the Yorkshire town?

Sunderland and his family summed it up perfectly as yet another underdog, just like Bournemouth, Blackpool and Burnley before them, has risen to the promised land.

“It is massive. It is the land of milk and honey if you like, the place where everybody wants to be,” Sunderland said. “It will be brilliant, for the town. Just that little bit of success makes a big difference. We’ve been on TV this season more times than we have been the last 10 seasons. Next year it will be high profile very week. Match of the Day, on TV… Champions League the year after!? You never know.”

What did Wagner have to say? He told ProSoccerTalk he wants Huddersfield to keep the identity he has helped build and nurture.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves. This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They certainly are. Even if their fans can’t quite believe it.

As some posed for photos outside the electronic board at Wembley which said “congratulations Huddersfield!” others stood around in disbelief.

A group of three young Yorkshiremen sat on the tube back to Baker Street in stunned silence.

“We are going to be on Match of the Day!” said one fan, rubbing his hands in glee as he recites an intro to next years show which, of course, features Huddersfield top of the bill.

Discussion then switches to which games they’re most looking forward to. Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United away tops the list.

“We can’t believe it. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said one fan as they looked at each other with dropped jaws.

Believe it, lads.

Watch out, Premier League. Huddersfield are on their way.

David Wagner reacts to Huddersfield’s promotion

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LONDON — There will be an American coach in the Premier League next season.

David Wagner, 45, led Huddersfield Town to its first-ever promotion to the Premier League as the Terriers beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks after a tense Championship Playoff Final at Wembley which ended 0-0 after 120 minutes.

Speaking after the nail-biting win, Wagner was delighted that his team proved everyone wrong and came from nowhere to reach the top-flight for the first time since 1972.

“A lot of the pundits wrote us off before the season,” Wagner told Sky Sports. “Over the season I thought we could do a little bit more, I thought around Christmas when we’d played everyone we had a chance. What happened is an unbelievable story – a fairytale.”

The former U.S. national team forward has galvanized the club, linking the team and fans together with passion and a plethora of loan players from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.

What he has achieved this season has left Huddersfield fans stunned as the former Borussia Dortmund II boss, who left the German giants in November 2015, has built a hardworking, organized team.

ProSoccerTalk asked Wagner if he will look at any of the smaller teams who have been recently promoted to the PL — the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley et al. — to follow a blueprint of how to plan ahead.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves,” Wagner said. “This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They are certainly on their way and we will be hearing a lot about the Terriers in the days and weeks to come.