MLS Preview: Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids

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• The Colorado Rapids (12-8-9, 45 points, third place in Western Conference) and Portland Timbers (10-5-14, 43 points, fifth place) are separated by the thinnest of margins in the Major League Soccer standings.

• Both teams explode in the second halves of games, with the Timbers scoring 30 out of 44 (including 14 in the last 15 minutes) and the Rapids putting away 24 out of 37 of their goals in the second period.

• Will Johnson has scored in both meetings between the clubs this year: a 2-2 tie in Denver on March 30 and a 3-0 Timbers win in Portland on June 23.

If the Portland Timbers defeat the Colorado Rapids on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN), they will vault back into third place in the MLS Western Conference, with a game in hand on the Rapids. With only two wins in its last 10 games, Portland has an opportunity to begin solidifying a playoff spot with less than 10 matches left.

As the Timbers get more players back from injury, they can begin to regain some early-season form that saw them rattle off 15 games without a loss. Will Johnson and Diego Chará are back to marshal the midfield, and Diego Valeri and Jack Jewsbury should be able to play some part on Friday, although head coach Caleb Porter would not say how much after training on Thursday.

Johnson and Chará have been able to rekindle their partnership in the last two games, completing a combined 226 of 255 passes against Chivas USA and Toronto FC.

On the flip side, Colorado has only lost once in its last 12 games, surging up the table after three previous losses in a row left it on the wrong side of the red playoff line in the standings. U.S. 2010 World Cup forward Edson Buddle (pictured) has scored in three of the last four games, taking over some of rookie Deshorn Brown’s burden.

Another rookie, Clint Irwin, has anchored the team in goal, tying the club’s single-season shutout record with 10 after an early injury to Matt Pickens caused a panic in the Mile High City. The Rapids have put together some impressive results during their hot streak, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy at home and on the road and the Montreal Impact away.

What they’re saying

Timbers midfielder Will Johnson on regaining the team’s form: “We have to be a little more clinical in and around the box — attacking, set pieces. We just don’t seem to have that hunger in front of goal right now, and if you’re going to make mistakes at the back and give up goals, you’re going to lose points.”

Rapids defender Drew Moor on the playoff push: “It’s coming down to the point of the season where we need to show our best because you don’t just want to scrape into the playoffs and not be playing well because the playoffs is a whole different picture. Even in our unbeaten run … I’ve walked off the field thinking we can do more.”

Portland head coach Caleb Porter on climbing the table: “You can be worried so much about what’s beneath you that it starts pulling you down, versus … looking at the teams above you and hunting them. I actually like the position we’re in. I wish we were in a better position, but the fact that we’re in position to make the playoffs — above the red line — and a couple points off the teams that are ahead of us, I think means we’ll be aggressive and hungry.”

Prediction

The MLS season is coming down to the wire, to the point where being in good form actually matters, and Portland and Colorado are heating up — especially the Rapids. Portland is a hostile environment, but if any team in the league right now has a chance to take points at JELD-WEN Field, it’s Oscar Pareja’s men. At the same time, the Timbers are starting to get players back and trying to rebuild its rhythm. However, it’s too soon for Portland to be firing on all cylinders, which Colorado has been doing for the past month.

Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.

World Cup hopes back on track: What next for USMNT?

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After a four-point haul over the past week in their two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. national team is back on track and heading in the right direction.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

Bruce Arena led the USMNT to a thumping 6-0 win over Honduras last Friday and then a gutsy 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, as the Hexagonal standings will now look a lot better to U.S. fans who saw their team sitting bottom of the pile for the past four months following defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

So, the “Road to Russia” is looking a little less daunting for the U.S. but there are still tough tests ahead in the months to come in World Cup qualifying as well as a Gold Cup campaign on home soil in July.

First let’s look at the standings in the Hex. Ah, that’s better but things are now very tight aside from Mexico running away with things.

With six games to go the U.S. currently occupies the play-off spot as the top three teams in the Hex standings will qualify automatically for the World Cup and the fourth-place team has to play against the fifth-place team from qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation region.


Mexico — 10 points (+4 GD)
Costa Rica — 7 points (+4)
Panama — 5 points (0)
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USA — 4 points (+1)
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Honduras — 4 points (-5)
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points (-4)


And these are the USA’s six remaining qualifiers as they aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

June 8: vs. Trinidad and Tobago
June 11: at Mexico
September 1: vs. Costa Rica
September 5: at Honduras
October 6: vs. Panama
October 10: at Trinidad and Tobago

The first three games at crucial. If the U.S. manages to get seven points from those three matches, that’s magical. Even six points by beating T&T and Costa Rica on home soil would be superb. Yet, if the U.S. drops points to one or both of T&T and Costa Rica, that puts so much pressure on themselves to pick up wins on the road at Honduras and T&T in two of their final three qualifiers. That would not be an ideal scenario.

Still, heading into the past week the aim for the U.S. was to get back on track in qualifying and give themselves a chance of making the 2018 World Cup. They’ve done that. Now, the hard work begins.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.