Injuries finally catching up to Portland as Timbers fall in Salt Lake (Video)

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pPua2w-SRo]

Mikeal Silvestre and David Horst are slowly working their way back, but for most of the season, Portland has been without their two best central defenders. Futty Danso, next in line, has been out for the better part of a month, leaving Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Pa-Modou Kah to hold down Caleb Porter’s defense. One is a hyper-athletic, promising, but inconsistent player in his second professional season. The other is an experienced stop-gap whose mistakes are adding up. It’s not the ideal duo for a team that found itself competing for silverware, especially when Will Johnson, the team’s linchpin in central midfield, can’t get back on the field, either.

Factor in Jack Jewsbury’s absence and the suspension of Kah (yellow card accumulation) and you can see why Porter went to a three-man defense Friday night at Real Salt Lake. Unfortunately for the him, it only took Jason Kreis’s team nine minutes to exploit the experimental set up, with left-center back Michael Harrington vacating his position, allowing Luis Gil to get in behind midfielder Rodney Wallace for the opening goal.

Six minutes later, Joao Plata, beating Baptiste before a surgical finish from left of goal, doubled RSL’s lead, and although Darlington Nagbe cut that lead in half near the half-hour mark, Portland spent the rest of the night chasing the game. Diego Valeri left early with an injury, Alvas Powell’s introduction switching Portland back to a four-man defense. Ben Zemanski saw straight red just before half time, reducing the visitors to 10. By the time Javi Morales scored with a bicycle kick in the 55th minute, Portland’s formation looked more frenzy than function. Just keep going, play hard, and hope to get the goals back seemed to be the approach, but at that point, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Unfortunately, they were playing the best team in the league. Eventually winning 4-2, RSL extended their lead in the West to eight points (although second place LA have three games in hand). Their 52 goals are 11 more than the league’s next most-prolific attack, already claiming a franchise record with six games to play. And with two wins and a draw from their three August meetings with Portland, RSL won the Admiration Cup the two clubs seemed to create with their effusive praise of each others’ approaches. Be it on results, goals, or style points, RSL is proving themselves the team to beat.

They may not have been the best team for Caleb Porter to try a 3-6-1 against — Salt Lake seemingly blinking only once before pulling the defense apart — but given the Timbers’ fitness, Porter may have felt he had no other choice. With Kah suspended, former RSL defender Rauwshan McKenzie was pressed into his Timbers debut. There was no Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury, leaving Portland with limited options to protect their defense and match RSL’s midfield. Why not try an approach that overloads in the middle with the hope (albeit slim hope) that you can strangle the game from your hosts?

Of course, that didn’t happen, the result being Portland’s worst performance of the season, one that gives Porter his first two-game losing “streak” since jumping to MLS. Depending on results in Columbus and Vancouver, the Timbers could find themselves in sixth by the end of the weekend, left wondering if their injury woes will cost them the postseason spot many assumed they’d claim.

Before Portland hosts Toronto next Saturday, things should improve. Johnson, Jewsbury, and Frederic Piquionne aren’t that far away. Bright Dike, the linebacker-esque striker out all year recovering from an ACL tear, dressed for the first time on Friday. Danso and Horst’s returns can be charted in weeks, not months.

Every team seems to hit a rough patch, and between injuries, suspensions, and schedule, this is Portland’s. It’s the first rough spell of the Caleb Porter era, one that’s cost them shots at the U.S. Open Cup and (likely) the Supporters’ Shield. But for Portland, the goal this season should have always been making the playoffs, so while more grandiose achievements were briefly in view, if the injury bug leaves in time for the Timbers to claim a top-five spot, the season can still be seen as a successful one.

AT HALF: Lukaku, Lingard have Man Utd up at West Brom (video)

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Romelu Lukaku didn’t celebrate much more than a fist pump following his match-opening goal against former teammates West Bromwich Albion.

[ MORE: Watch via NBCSports.com).

No one said anything about celebrating teammates’ goals, though.

Lukaku scored to give the Red Devils a 1-0 lead, then watched as Jesse Lingard‘s deflected lash left Ben Foster high and dry as United cruised into the break up two goals.

It’s 10th PL goal of the season for Lukaku, who has 15 in all competitions. For Lingard, it’s four and seven.

Here’s Lingard’s marker:

Celtic’s record unbeaten run ends at 69 matches

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Celtic’s unbeaten domestic run has ended at 69 matches, and it ended with a thud.

Tynecastle Park was the scene for a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Hearts, a defeat started by a 16-year-old’s first Scottish Premiership goal.

[ REPORT: Luiz done at Chelsea? ]

Harry Cochrane’s his name, and his 26th minute goal gave Hearts the lead, and it was 2-0 by halftime through Kyle Lafferty, the ex-Burnley and Norwich player.

David Milinkovic scored three minutes after halftime, as the wake-up call didn’t arrive at the break, and added a penalty kick late in the match.

Celtic has a two-point lead on second-place Aberdeen with a match-in-hand. Rangers sit five-points back.

Sixty-nine games! Remarkable in any league. Here’s what Rodgers had to say:

“But I also want to congratulate my players. To have gone through 69 games and this to be their first defeat; of course it’s a sore one when you are beaten like that but they can hold their heads up. They have been absolutely amazing over those 18 months.”

WATCH LIVE: West Brom vs. Manchester United

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The Hawthorns is the scene as Manchester United attempts to pull back into sole possession of second place on the Premier League table with a visit to West Bromwich Albion (Watch live at 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Baggies have several regular starters on the bench, with Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, and Gareth McAuley (Allllll the Gareths!) getting a rest.

United will hand starts to Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, with Anthony Martial on the bench with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion: Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs, Krychowiak, Yacob, Livermore, Burke, McClean, Rondon. Subs: Myhill, Robson-Kanu, Brunt, Barry, Rodriguez, McAuley, Field.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Young, Herrera, Matic, Mata, Lingard, Rashford, Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Rojo, Shaw, McTominay, Ibrahimovic, Martial.

Report: Luiz done at Chelsea, perhaps as soon as January

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A report out of England says Chelsea defender David Luiz could be out the door in January.

Luiz, 30, has a knee injury and has played in just one match for Chelsea since a Halloween loss to Roma in the Champions League, one that supposedly culminated in a blow-up between the defender and manager Antonio Conte.

He was sold once before by Chelsea, shipped to Paris Saint-Germain for $66 million in 2014 before returning to Stamford Bridge in 2016 for $45 million.

[ MAN CITY-SPURS: 3 things |  Studs and duds ]

Luiz has made just one appearance, a Nov. 22 match in Qarabag, since that Roma loss. He returned to the bench against Liverpool before being diagnosed with a knee injury.

The report says Juventus is a possible destination for Luiz, though the Champions League could be a problem for both sides. Luiz is Cup-tied to Chelsea, and Juventus remains in the UCL as well.

And Chelsea would need reinforcements at the back. It’s back three has operated with Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Gary Cahill. Other options are Antonio Rudiger and 20-year-old Jake Clarke-Salter, which would be fine were Chelsea not alive in four competitions (The League Cup quarterfinals have the Blues hosting Bournemouth on Wednesday).

The power seems a bit more in Luiz’s hands thanks to some of Conte’s sanctioned loans. Kurt Zouma has arguably been Stoke City’s most consistent performer in an under siege unit, one of 10 backs on season-long loans. The most sense is to find reconciliation, presuming the dust-up is real, and move on in the summer if necessary.