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.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.