Portland Timbers, New York Red Bulls learning to faithfully grind out results

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Playing with style in MLS gets you, well, “style points.”  That’s great and all, and there is plenty of value attached, although more in terms of fan and media acclaim and similarly intangible elements that probably don’t matter to the bottom-line biz of Ws and Ls.

On the other hand, regardless of the lesser aesthetic, the useful ability to faithfully grind out results is golden stuff at this time of year. Two prominent clubs are learning how to do so right now – and that’s code for “Watch out!”

Portland took MLS by storm earlier this year, earning acclaim for a stylized approach under first-year manager Caleb Porter. Indeed, the Timbers became a fun club to watch, forming an identity around the highly practical balance of tidy possession and precision counter attacking.

But the next step for Porter’s reconstruction project around Jeld-Wen was going to be tougher, this ability to instill a healthy dose of “find a way to win.” So when Portland outlasted Colorado a week back, claiming a 1-0 win over a Rapids club that out-played and out-passed the Timbers, evidence was mounting that Porter’s team had seen the light.

Sunday’s performance against the Galaxy in the Oregon rain and wind should remove any lingering doubt that “grind” is not just a rumor around Jeld-Wen. Yet another 1-0 victory against a quality Western Conference side says more good things yet about the team’s quick learning curve.

Will Johnson’s recent return to the field and even more recent return to form is such a big part of it. Go back and watch Sunday’s victory over Los Angeles; Johnson’s significant imprint is all over it. Johnson (pictured above) is winning balls in the midfield, drawing fouls, lobbying the referee, providing some snappy dead ball service. In short, he is getting involved in every way possible, willing the team toward results (no pun intended).

Teammates feed off that steely, unbending determination.

New York is another MLS club learning the ways of the grind. My favorite line of the MLS weekend came from ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, who said the Red Bulls “have no idea” how they have gotten to this place where they may claim Supporters Shield, the Eastern Conference crown or both.

(MORE: New York tops this week’s ProSoccerTalk MLS rankings)

They may not – but it may not matter. Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Seattle checks the box on “big accomplishment” for a club missing its top attacker (Thierry Henry) and top defender (Jamison Olave). A week earlier, New York needed an own goal to get past Dallas in New Jersey. No, it’s not pretty, but the three points count the same in the standings.

We can keep tracking back through the Red Bulls schedule, continuing to pick apart the team’s string of shaky achievement (and I did last week). But at some point you have to say, “Well, it doesn’t matter how they are arriving at these convenient results; they are getting the points they need.”

Whereas Johnson is the emotional fulcrum and veteran shepherd for Portland, Tim Cahill fills the same role for New York.

Credit to manager Mike Petke, a grinder himself back in the longtime MLS defender’s playing days. He cannot teach what Henry does on the field; that’s just special talent at work. But Petke can guide in the ways of fortitude and resolve. Apparently, he’s making progress there.

FOLLOW LIVE: Chelsea kicks off Champions League day

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There’s a Premier League side in action to kick off another day of UEFA Champions League action.

Chelsea is in Baku for a Noon ET match-up with Azerbaijan side Qarabag. A win boosts the Blues into the knockout rounds. CSKA Moscow and Benfica kickoff in Russia at the same time.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Here’s Antonio Conte‘s Starting XI: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Rudiger; Zappacosta, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Willian, Hazard, Pedro.

Manchester United is in Basel as one of six 2:45 p.m. ET kickoffs

Full schedule
Qarabag vs. Chelsea — Noon ET
CSKA Moscow vs. Benfica — Noon ET
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Celtic — 2:45 p.m. ET
Juventus vs. Barcelona — 2:45 p.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Roma — 2:45 p.m. ET
Sporting Lisbon vs. Olympiacos — 2:45 p.m. ET
Anderlecht vs. Bayern Munich — 2:45 p.m. ET
Basel vs. Manchester United — 2:45 p.m. ET

PST Survey results: Most exciting USMNT prospect

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The results of PST’s Big American Soccer Survey are in, and our staff will be walking through the results of thousands of votes in a series of posts this week.

We didn’t realize you could acronymize it to BASS, or else we would’ve done it sooner. Today’s question: Excluding Christian Pulisic, who’s no longer a prospect despite being just 19, who is the most exciting USMNT prospect.

[ MORE: All Big American Soccer Survey posts ]

Exciting performances in the U-20 and U-17 World Cups have given United States men’s national team fans plenty of hope for the future.

The most-mentioned write-in, collecting across all attempting spellings, was injured Arsenal playmaker Gedion Zelalem.

As for the serious contenders, Jonathan Gonzalez, Andrew Carleton Tyler Adams, and Lynden Gooch lagged behind this pack of four:

Cameron Carter-Vickers — 14 percent — He had a howling back pass in Sheffield United’s 5-4 loss to Fulham on Wednesday, but the on-loan Spurs 19-year-old center back is playing every minute for a club very much in the mix for Premier League promotion.

Weston McKennie — 18 percent — Another 19-year-old, McKennie was one of the Men of the Match as Schalke went second in the Bundesliga this weekend. He’s been a regular starter when healthy, and played advanced, central, and set back in Schalke’s midfield. Next up: a Revierderby meeting with Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund.

Josh Sargent — 21 percent — Off to Werder Bremen when he turns 18 in late February, Sargent has four goals in five matches for the U.S. U-20s, and 14 in 29 for the U-17s. That includes four goals and two assists in his last three outings, against Paraguay, England, and Hungary.

Tim Weah — 24 percent — The son of African legend George Weah, Tim turns 18 two days after Sargent. Unlike his countryman, Weah has been in Europe for some time. The Paris Saint-Germain prospect is slated to get his First Team bow some time soon, having scored four goals and added an assist for PSG in the UEFA Youth League.

Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training (video)

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Among my most quoted coaching lines comes from former University at Buffalo and current Canisius College men’s basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon (and pretty sure it didn’t originate with him).

“It’s more about Jims and Joes than x’s and o’s.”

[ MLS: Seattle wins | Stalemate in Ohio ]

So if Everton rebounds from its rough start to the season to reach its preseason potential, there’s a good chance we’ll credit the return of one of the most electric attackers in the game and not necessarily their new boss.

Yannick Bolasie returned to training on Wednesday, and not a moment too soon following a near one-year layoff due to an ACL tear.

There’s no guarantee the 28-year-old Bolasie will have the same burst, of course, but he has the potential to be a season-changer.

Everton was 5-4-4 when Bolasie went down with his injury last season, and improved on the mark the rest of the way, but are a moribund 3-3-6 this season.

Player faces unsporting conduct charges for shoving ball boy

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ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) Adelaide United defender Michael Marrone has been cited for unsporting conduct for shoving a ball boy during the late stages of his team’s 2-1 loss to Sydney FC in the FFA Cup final.

Football Federation Australia on Wednesday issued a disciplinary notice to Marrone for “engaging in serious unsporting conduct,” with a hearing date to be set.

[ MORE: Liverpool fan trouble in Sevilla ]

Marrone knocked over the ball boy, reported by local media to be aged 10, while trying to get the ball to take a throw-in during extra time in the Tuesday night match.

The ball boy and his father were later allowed to take part in the trophy presentation ceremony.

“Just thankful that nobody was hurt,” FFA chief executive David Gallop said at a news conference Wednesday. “Perhaps some lessons for a few people in that one. Glad that it didn’t detract too much from what was a really exciting finish to the game and glad that the boy and his father got to share in the celebration at the end.”

While there are no precedents in Australia for such charges, Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard was banned for three games for violent conduct after kicking out at a ball boy in 2013.

In other countries, clubs have been fined if their ball boys have been found to be deliberately slowing play.