A few things we learned from Portland’s win Friday over Colorado

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Diego Valeri’s early goal was enough as Portland earned a big three points, 1-0, over visiting Colorado in the opener of MLS Round 30 on Friday. A few take-aways from the contest, which had a bit of that playoff feel. (We are only about six weeks away from the first post-season contest, you know.)

Timbers’ newcomer Maximiliano Urruti is already contributing for Portland

Maximiliano Urruti, who hasn’t even been in Portland long enough to map out the best food trucks in his new town, made his first Timbers start. And the former Toronto FC man, who came to the Timbers two weeks ago in exchange for forward Bright Dike, a first-round draft pick in 2015 and allocation money, is already making an impact.

Diego Valeri’s early goal was a classy finish, but do not overlook Urruti’s role in it. Moments before Valeri’s steady 13th minute chip, Urruti had pressured Rapids’ veteran center back Drew Moor, probably even fouling the Rapids’ defender in the hurry-hurry of it all. So the next time Urruti pressured Colorado’s back line, Moor rushed his clearing pass. It was intercepted, played right back into Valeri and … 1-0 Timbers.

Urruti had a meanness and menace all night, even collecting an early yellow card for too much of it. But it seems to come with good instincts, too, and a feel for making things happen. He needs to tone down the theatrics just a bit, but the Timbers may have located a truly useful part.

The turf at Jeld-Wen can still provide an edge

The artificial turf at Jeld-Wen Field, generally recognized as better than other turf fields in MLS but still hardly ideal, remains an advantage that Portland can exploit. Case in point: the Rapids controlled matters for long stretches. But passing and crossing is just a little different off the fake stuff, and that includes restarts.

Colorado had six corner kicks and three free kicks in dangerous places before the break, but just could not do enough to create consistent danger off those potential opportunities. The visitors got the feel of it, or closer to it, in the second 45, but still couldn’t make it work.

Sometimes the advantage isn’t in what the Timbers can do, but what the other guys cannot. (Or, better said, what the other guys cannot do well enough.)

Shane O’Neill continues to shine

Rapids youngsters Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown have gotten their rookie props. Chris Klute, too. And who knew how well Clint Irwin would perform when he had to take over in goal for Colorado after Matt Pickens’ long-term injury?

But more and more, we have to wonder whether young center back Shane O’Neill will be the best of the Rapids’ young bunch? The U.S. under-20 was positionally perfect Friday and ever sure on the clearances. Not bad in a high-pressure match, in the Jeld-Wen cauldron, no less.

Portland scored early … then hung on

You could look at the Jeld-Wen glass as half-empty, noting (correctly) that Caleb Porter’s team scored early and then … didn’t do much else except to sit deep, hang in there and escape with the three points.

But there is some value to doing so. The playoffs are coming, and the ability to grind out results, to be “gritty-not-pretty,” can be useful. Porter had the passing game going early in his first year with the Timbers, then got the counter attack working efficiently. If they can find the grind, so to speak, the Timbers have found a pretty good place heading into the post-season.

FYI, the Rapids haven’t been shut out since July 7. So this was one “grind” with some real muscle behind it.

Playback: What is going on in the Premier League?

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CITY UNSTOPPABLE

15 wins on the spin in the Premier League. 52 goals scored in 17 games. Unbeaten so far this season with 16 wins from 17.

This record-breaking Manchester City side shows no signs of slowing down as they made English top-flight history on Wednesday.

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Pep Guardiola‘s side sealed 15 consecutive wins by beating Swansea City to do what no other team had done in English top-flight history. With an 11-point lead over second-place Manchester United, the focus is now switching to when City will win the league rather than if.

And rightly so. Pep believes complacency will not set in and says he takes great joy from others appreciating his team play. Swansea’s fans routinely applauded City on Wednesday such was their sterling play in attack and on the ball.

Will City get complacent?

“That is not going to happen. We are so demanding for our players. We can lose, we can drop points but complacency, never happened in the past, the present or the future,” Guardiola said. “Winning 15 games in a row gives us a lot of confidence. If people are happy watching us that is the best gift.”

The Spanish coach now holds the record for most consecutive league wins in the Spanish, German and English top flights. He is not someone who will allow his team to get complacent and seeing the embarrassment of riches he has, he can switch his starting lineup whenever he believes someone isn’t pulling their weight.

In Guardiola’s second season in England he has improved every single player who is still around from their third-place finish in 2016-17 and has tweaked his team to perfection.

David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne set the tempo of the team in central areas together, while Kyle Walker has been a revelation at right back and Ederson a rock in goal with City having the joint-best defensive record in the PL. Guardiola is proving all of his doubters wrong after many believed his soccer philosophy would not be possible to replicate in the hustle and bustle of the PL.

Yes, they’ve been pushed close in recent 2-1 wins late on against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, but Guardiola has pointed to their mental ability to drag themselves through and win games even when they’re not at their best.

Even when City aren’t quite at their best they’re still superior to every other team in the PL.

Their toughest challenge was supposed to be away at Man United last weekend in the Manchester derby but Pep’s boys cantered past their crosstown rivals and opened up what now looks like an unassailable lead atop the PL table.

This weekend they face Tottenham Hotspur at home and if Spurs are at their best and City’s levels drop, they could well be the first PL team to beat City this season. But, in all honesty, this City team looks unbeatable right now and unless something changes drastically they look set to match Arsenal’s “Invincibles” who went the entire 2002-03 Premier League season undefeated.

Saying that after 17 games of the season may be a bold statement but for anyone who has watched Man City this season, it isn’t.

Looking at their remaining schedule, City still have to travel to Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool in what look like their


TOP FOUR RACE WIDE-OPEN

With Man City running away with the title, it appears the top four race will be the main talking point this season.

Arsenal and Liverpool both dropped points in midweek, while Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea all picked up wins to solidify their top four ambitions.

There are just five points behind third-place Chelsea and seventh-place Arsenal, with Burnley’s incredible start to the season seeing them nestled into sixth in the table as things stand. Sean Dyche‘s men will surely drop off in the second half of the campaign and that would then leave a similar scenario to last season where the final two top four spots went down to the wire.

United currently sit seven points above fourth-place Tottenham and Jose Mourinho’s men are looking set for a top four finish, at least, even if their title hopes seem to be fading drastically.

When it comes to the rest, Arsenal and Liverpool look the most vulnerable when it comes to finishing in the top four, but both Chelsea and Tottenham haven’t been short of their issues this season.

Spurs went four games without a win in the PL but have won two-straight against Stoke and Brighton, with Mauricio Pochettino hoping a big win away at Man City could spark new life into Tottenham’s season. Chelsea keep plodding along and, like Spurs, they will have one eye on the UEFA Champions League last 16 with both clubs handing tough tests against Barcelona and Juventus respectively.

That could play into the hands of Liverpool (who face FC Porto in the UCL last 16) and Arsenal (who will play a weakened team in their Europa League knockout exploits). That said, two draws on the spin for Liverpool and Arsenal in the past few days have very damaging and Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp look agitated and frustrated as their title hopes are not only over but they now realize that they’ll likely be the outsiders in the top four race.

This top four race will go down to the wire this season, once again, and there seems to be plenty of slip ups left in the quartet of Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal.


‘TIS THE SEASON FOR RE-INVIGORATION

Leicester City is leading the pack of reinvigorated Premier League teams.

Since Claude Puel took charge of the Foxes in October they have only lost to Manchester City and they’ve won four-straight PL games to rise to eighth in the table and are five points off the top four.

Riyad Mahrez has led the charge up the table and some would argue this Leicester squad is deeper and more talented than the team which won the title in 2015-16. Yes, they’ve lose N'Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater to Chelsea but they have a younger core to this squad with Ben Chilwell, Harry Maguire and Demarai Gray all impressing.

Puel will have enjoyed Leicester’s 4-1 win at his former club Southampton on Wednesday, as Saints’ decision to fire the Frenchman after just one season in charge continues to look like on of the biggest managerial blunders in recent years.

Many believed David Moyes‘ appointment at West Ham United would also be a big blunder but in recent weeks it has worked out pretty well for the Hammers.

They pushed Man City all the way, then beat Chelsea at the weekend and they drew with Arsenal on Wednesday and could’ve easily made it two big London derby wins on the spin. With a more favorable schedule coming up, it appears Moyes’ men could climb out of the bottom three very soon. The West Ham players have a clear idea of what they’re doing and now seem tougher to break down and dangerous on the break with Marko Arnautovic and Michail Antonio in attack. It appears Moyes has the defensive structure Slaven Bilic‘s approach lacked and it makes the Hammers look like a completely different team.

As well as the resurgence of Leicester and West Ham, Roy Hodgson is also turning around the ship at Crystal Palace.

The Eagles have scored late goals in each of their last two home games and beat Watford 2-1 on Tuesday thanks to two late goals when they trailed 1-0. Hodgson’s men have quietly gone six games unbeaten and have drawn four of those encounters. Palace have now given themselves a chance of survival after seven-straight defeats to start the season.

And the tide is also turning at Everton with three wins in their last four Premier League games since Sam Allardyce arrived and the Toffees looking to Wayne Rooney to deliver with the Englishman scoring five goals in his last four PL appearances. The latest was a gutsy 1-0 win away at Newcastle, a few days after they fought back to draw at Liverpool in the Merseyside derby. Big Sam is working his magic and Everton are now primed for a push for seventh place.

With just four points separating West Ham in 19th place and Southampton in 11th, there will be an almighty scrap to stay out of the bottom three this season. The relegation picture may look a lot less hectic when the festive season is over and the four aforementioned in-form teams will be hoping to make the most of the busy period ahead.


ANOTHER BUSY WEEKEND PROMISES PLENTY

There’s no doubting that Manchester City against Tottenham Hotspur is the big game this weekend in the Premier League but more than the individual matchups this weekend it is all about setting the tone for the festive season on the horizon.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

In the next two weeks we have four PL matchdays coming up and this time of year can really make or break a season.

With two midweek slates of games already in the tank in recent weeks, plus seven PL teams also in European action, rotating squads will be key if teams are to navigate the festive period successfully.

Expected the unexpected. Oh, and Happy Holidays!


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Mourinho update on Bailly’s injury, Mkhitaryan’s absence

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Jose Mourinho has given an update on Eric Bailly‘s injury situation and it is not good news for Manchester United.

The Ivorian center back has been out since early November when he picked up an ankle injury on international duty. He last played for United in their 1-0 defeat at Chelsea on Nov. 5.

Speaking to the media after United’s 1-0 win against Bournemouth at Old Trafford on Wednesday, Mourinho confirmed that Bailly’s injury is more serious than they had hoped.

“I think it’s serious. We are trying a conservative treatment but if the conservative treatment is not resulting (in recovery), he will probably have a surgery procedure. But let’s wait a little bit more,” Mourinho said, before adding that he “didn’t want to be so pessimistic” when asked if the injury was season ending.

Bailly has been United’s most consistent center back since Mourinho has arrived at the club with the likes of Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo guilty of making mistakes, while Phil Jones has stepped up his game this season but has once again been struggling with injuries.

The absence of Bailly at the heart of United’s defense has been understated of late, given the fact that the Red Devils have the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League alongside Man City. Bailly not being around is a big deal and he’s been a rock since his $40 million arrival from Villarreal in the summer of 2016.

There is also not good news for Henrikh Mkhitaryan as his time at United appears to be all but over with reports linking him with a move back to Borussia Dortmund in January.

The Armenian playmaker wasn’t in United’s 18-man squad for the win against Bournemouth and hasn’t be in seven of their last eight matchday squads in all competitions.

“I can only have six players on the bench and I try to have some balance on the bench,” Mkhitaryan said. “I had two defenders that can play in different areas, I have Ashley Young to cover the wing and wing backs position. [Ander] Herrera is a midfield player, Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] is a striker, [Marcus] Rashford is a second striker and a winger. To have Mkhitaryan means I don’t have one of them and I believe the others deserve.”

Mkhitaryan started the season on fire with five assists in his first three games of the Premier League season, but since then he has fallen way down the pecking order at United with Mourinho criticizing the man he left out during the early stages of last season too before Mkhitaryan came flying back in the second half of the campaign.

The former Dortmund man hasn’t played since coming on for 19 minutes in the 1-0 win against Brighton on Nov. 25 and it seems likely his future is elsewhere.

Pep Guardiola praises Man City’s “animals”

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Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City have set a new English top-flight record with 15 consecutive wins and, of course, comparisons are already being made as to just how good this City side are.

Runaway leaders of the Premier League with an 11-point lead heading into the busy festive period, City are being compared to the great teams in PL history.

Their winning run means they’ve accomplished something none of the other great PL teams have, and it seems like there is no stopping City.

Speaking to the media after the 4-0 win at Swansea on Wednesday which clinched the record, Guardiola praised his players for breaking the record but also their ability to not only excel when they have the ball but to hunt in packs to win it back.

“In history there have been some amazing teams – Liverpool, [Manchester] United with Sir Alex Ferguson, Chelsea with Jose Mourinho. A lot of good, good teams and we are the first ones to win 15 games in a row,” Mourinho said. “Of course that will not make sense if we do not win the title, if we don’t win the title it will just be a record. This record will be broken but it will not be easy. When (my players) don’t have the ball they go to win it like animals. At this level it’s so competitive. That means we are strong in the head.”

Guardiola’s team have made the best start in Premier League history to a season with 49 points from their opening 17 games and 16 wins from those matches.

They’ve scored 52 goals and the duo of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are controlling the tempo of each and every game they play in, but not much has been said about the tenacity in City’s play to win the ball back.

That quality has always been a hallmark of Guardiola’s teams at Barcelona and Bayern Munich with the fabled “six second rule” mentioned time and time again as he set his players a target of six seconds to win back possession of the ball.

City did that time and time again against Swansea on Wednesday with Silva regaining possession on multiple occasions in midfield and releasing the likes of Sterling and Sergio Aguero to attack.

There is a lot more behind this ruthless City side than just breaking winning and scoring records. Their extreme hunger for success and doing the dirty work was duly noted by Guardiola.

USSF says nominations submitted for 8 president candidates

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CHICAGO (AP) The U.S. Soccer Federation says it received the required three letters of nomination for eight candidates in its presidential election, one fewer than the total of people who announced their intention to run.

The USSF is conducting background checks on the candidates whose nominations were received by Tuesday night’s deadline. The governing body said the check is to ascertain that a candidate has “no conviction or no contest plea to a felony or crime of moral turpitude” and it will announce the candidate slate after completing the process.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Sunil Gulati, the USSF president since 2006, decided after the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup that he will not seek a fourth four-year term.

The nine people who announced they are running include former men’s national team players Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino; U.S. women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo; Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter; USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro; Boston lawyer Steve Gans; New York lawyer Michael Winograd; and Paul LaPointe, Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League.

The election will be held in February.