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Football Focus: Portland Timbers tactically transform under Caleb Porter in 2013



PORTLAND, Ore. — In one of the most stunning turnarounds in Major League Soccer history, the Portland Timbers are tied atop the Supporters’ Shield standings one year after finishing third from bottom. First-year head coach Caleb Porter began instilling a unique philosophy, by MLS standards, at the start of the season, and the ascent since has been exponential.

The Timbers defeated Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday, perhaps turning the tables on a relationship in which the Sounders have been widely seen as the “big brother” to the Timbers, who work in a smaller town, with a smaller budget and without the backing of an NFL conglomerate.

While the Sounders exhibit a smash-and-grab style both on and off the field, playing a direct style and making big-name signings such as Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, Portland has relied on its coach’s tactical acumen and team-building ability to get to the top.

“A real soccer game, at a high level, is going to be a little bit more of a chess match, a little bit more of a probably slower tempo,” Porter said on the Soccer Made in Portland podcast in March. “I want control in a game. Control allows us to increase our chances of winning. Shape allows us to have control. Possession allows us to have control. Pressure allows us to have control because we’re deciding what’s happening in the game.”

Never shy about speaking to the press (his post-game talks regularly take well over 10 minutes), Porter has outlined his philosophy as a desire to dominate games through possession and pressure.

Attacking with numbers

Portland’s basic shape is best described as a 4-3-3. Players are encouraged to interchange and work within the framework of the system to express their creativity, depending on their technical ability and soccer IQ.
For example, Darlington Nagbe has more freedom than any other player because he plays best when he roams free. The others around him remain aware of his movement and fill in spaces as necessary. On Sunday, although Nagbe started as the left winger, he swapped positions with Kalif Alhassan in the middle very often.

The three biggest keys to the Timbers’ attack are:

(Chalkboard courtesy of MLS Matchcenter)

A1: The double pivot between Will Johnson and Diego Chará. They form the base of every attacking movement and defensive sequence, encouraged to get forward often and win balls high up the field. Porter has said that both players’ natural tendency is to press into the attack, and this system allows them to step into higher spaces.

For two months earlier this season, the two could not start the same match due to multiple injury concerns. Between July 7 and Sept. 7, Portland had its worst stretch of the season, winning just twice, while losing five games and tying two.

In their first game back together, the Timbers defeated Toronto FC, 4-0, and the two central players combined for 90 percent passing accuracy, including three key passes that led directly to shots, and one goal from Johnson. Since then, they have once again started every game as the double pivot points, and Portland is 4-0-2.

A2: Overloading the central channel. This is where Porter’s technical and tactical coaching ability comes out in the final product, as his players are comfortable playing in tight spaces and know when to move the ball out of the middle.

The most dangerous space on the field to attack is the area on top of the opponent’s penalty area, as the vast majority of goals created through the run of play find this space at some point during the build-up.


In this instance from Sunday’s game, Nagbe once again pulls inside and switches spots with Alhassan. Johnson and Chará push up, Maximiliano Urruti drops back as more of a false nine than a traditional target striker, and José Valencia also tucks in.

The move draws all five Sounders midfield players back, opening spaces for the Timbers to get wide and behind the back line.

(Chalkboard courtesy of MLS Matchcenter)

Nagbe’s movement causes trouble for opponents because he is so good on the ball and always aware of his surroundings. He knows when to overload, when to create space, when to pass and when to shoot. His finishing ability from distance has netted him nine goals in 2013, a franchise single-season record, as well as some of the best goals in MLS since he’s been in the league.

His overdrive work rate helps, too. Against Seattle, he completed all but four of his passes and made 12 loose-ball recoveries and two interceptions. His activity centered mainly on his left-sided starting position, but he covered ground all over the field.

Combined with Diego Valeri’s passing ability (although the Argentine Designated Player has been injured recently), Portland has the keys to unlock the central channel of any defense.

A3: Getting the outside backs involved. In the play above, Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington step into the attacking half and offer opportunities for width (as do Valencia and Alhassan). With so many players inside the width of the 18-yard box, the ball will eventually have to go wide to move out of pressure.

When that happens, Jewsbury and Harrington can either get to the end line and find service into the box, or they can combine with wide players to exploit isolation opportunities. For example, if Urruti turns and plays the ball into space for Jewsbury to run onto, the defender can play with Valencia to get past the lone Seattle defender on that side.

Those three points lead to a style that is especially difficult to defend when Portland goes up a goal, and one that is useful in coming from behind if the opponent scores first. The Timbers are 10-0-6 when scoring first, but they have also come back to take two wins and five ties in 12 games when conceding first.

“Every game, we’re going for three points,” Porter said after Sunday’s win. “Even though we’ve had draws, we’ve not gone into any game — home or away — trying for anything other than getting three points.”

The overriding principle throughout Portland’s attacking philosophy is having possession of the ball. From back to front, Porter stresses the importance of having the ball and keeping it on the floor, moving it to create unbalance in opponents’ shape. If a team has the ball, it can throw numbers forward.

“Everybody wants to have the ball,” Porter said in March. “Everybody wants to attack. If you ask anybody, even the center backs, they would rather have the ball and attack than defend all game.”

Winning possession high up the field

The other half of Porter’s philosophy, aside from possession, is defensive pressure. After some early-season rust that saw Portland concede eight goals in its first four games, the Timbers have four shutouts in their last six matches.

Some of it is down to goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts’ shot-stopping ability — he has won MLS Save of the Week nine times — but most of it is the knowledge of when and how to defend.

“The harder you work when you lose the ball, the quicker you get the ball back,” Porter said. “There are two ways to defend: you defend the goal, or you defend the ball. We defend the ball.”
When an opponent tries to build from the back, Portland’s defensive pressure can again be broken into three keys that are closely connected:

D1: Immediate chase and pressure. Without initial pressure on the ball from a first defender, the rest of the team’s work to get into position is rendered useless.

D2: Cutting the field in half to make play predictable. This falls onto the center forward. He has to be in position to cut off square passes through the middle of the field that would relieve the initial pressure.

D3: Funneling play into defensive numbers-up spaces or forcing a long, 50/50 ball. The first defender’s body shape on approach to pressure must discourage play into a teammate that would relieve pressure (usually wide because Portland’s numbers concentrate in the middle). The center forward, again, must cut off simple switches through the middle.

Finally, the central players have to bait opponents into playing the central pass. Instead of touch-tight marking, perhaps that means dropping off a couple steps and moving to pressure as the ball is in transit, then converging on the intended target so he has no outlet.


In real time, this is how high-pressure defending looks. Urruti both applies initial pressure (D1) and cuts the field in half (D2) with his body shape on approach — the red space is off-limits to the passer on the ball. Valencia bends his run to discourage the wide pass, Johnson moves to get goal-side of the weak-side central midfielder, and Nagbe and Chará are in position to converge on the ball in transit (D3).

(Chalkboards courtesy of MLS Matchcenter)

But at times, especially against the stronger teams in the league such as the Sounders, Portland cannot expect to win the ball high up the field every time. It did quite often, making 19 recoveries and six interceptions in the top half of the field, but Seattle put quite a bit of pressure on Ricketts’ goal throughout the game.

“We want to be a team in the front half. We want to be pressing and locking teams in, on the ball, but I’ve also prepared them to be in the back half as well. So basically, I’ve prepared them for Plan A and Plan B,” Porter said afterward. “I’ve tried to prepare these guys to be composed and mature when we’re playing with a lower block and not able to push the game. … I think that’s been a big reason why we’re grinding out results because earlier in the year, we were either up the field and pushing, playing well, or we’re just getting run through. So we’ve kind of downshifted just a little bit and balanced our team — just a little bit — so we’re a little bit more set up to win games. This time of year, it’s going to be tight games, most likely.”

The double pivot was again crucial in that aspect of the game on Sunday. In the defensive phase, it becomes a pair of traditional holding midfielders, shielding the back four. Johnson made 12 recoveries, while Chará had 10 and added six interceptions.

One aspect of Portland’s game that still needs work is defending set pieces, or “box defending,” as Porter calls it. Of the 33 goals the Timbers have conceded, 17 have been from dead balls: four penalty kicks, three direct free kicks, one long throw-in, three corner kicks and six free kicks served in.

The Sounders defeated Portland on an Eddie Johnson header from a Mauro Rosales free kick on Aug. 25, and Ricketts came up with another Save of the Week candidate Sunday before Dempsey hit the crossbar, both on set pieces. In the run-and-gun MLS style of play, that’s a weakness that could be exploited by opportunistic teams in the playoffs.

Buying in doesn’t cost a thing

One final aspect of Porter’s system that isn’t tactical, but it’s vital: buying in. Porter has gotten more out of every player on his roster than any coaches who have had those players before, with the possible exception of injured center back Mikael Silvestre.

In his press conference on Sunday, Porter spoke at length about how his players have bought into the philosophy of possession soccer, a sentiment that important players such as Johnson, Alhassan and Ricketts echoed afterward in the locker room. Their selflessness to the team cause has been the single biggest aspect of this team’s success.

“There have been so many guys that have just transformed as players,” Porter said. “The talent was always there. … They’re good guys, they’re talented, they have character, and you get them bought in, you get them together, you get them in the right roles, this is what can happen. … You look at the best teams in the world: teams that raise trophies are teams that have chemistry, teams that remain humble.”

In March, he tried to tamper expectations a little, while still clearly believing in what he was trying to build.

“We’re trying to change habits within guys that have never played consistently under pressure,” Porter told Soccer Made in Portland. “It’s a psychological thing, too. I mean, how many teams really play? Some say they do. So you’ve got guys that are used to, when they’re under pressure, hit the panic button and kick it. … I think the biggest challenge is, you get guys that just haven’t been encouraged to play enough, or haven’t been told how you play. That’s the toughest part. All of a sudden, you’re getting them at a certain age — and they want to learn, they really do — but if you’re 26 years old, and you’ve never done it, even if you want to learn, it’s hard to do it all of a sudden.”

As a college coach, Porter was used to reversing serious developmental flaws in the players he recruited. But at that level, coaches have closer control over their rosters. Rebuilding a professional team has to take contracts, ownership and a salary cap into consideration. Most of the Timbers’ important players were only role players last year, whether they played in Portland or elsewhere, and have stepped up into major areas of responsibility this season.

‘We play the way we play so we’re in a position to win’

From the players he brought in and the players who remained from last year’s disappointment of a season, Porter has built the most tactically sophisticated team in a doldrums of a league as far as soccer IQ goes. The Timbers have beaten direct teams with their active, evolving system of tactical problem solving, which allows them to win games in multiple ways.

“If there’s a fight, we’re up for a fight,” Porter said on Sunday. “There’s no problem with that. We can out-football teams, but also, we can outfight teams. This team’s not soft. … And yet, we still were able to mix in some good football, and you could still see — for periods — our way of playing, maybe not as much as I would like, but it’s hard to be disappointed to get that result.”

Portland’s ascent has been remarkable. Building a team to play an attractive, possession-based style takes time, but the club has shown patience from top to bottom since the start of the season. Comparing Porter’s quotes from just two months ago, when Seattle beat his team at CenturyLink Field, to quotes from Sunday shows the belief (and perhaps stubbornness) it takes to find success.

“We play the way we play so we’re in a position to win and, to some extent, to score the goal,” he said after the 1-0 loss on Aug. 25. “We’re right there. We were toe to toe with that team, and it was an even game. The difference was they found a goal in one moment.”

On Sunday: “When you believe that you can win games, you put yourself in position to win these games. … There’s no reason why we would be inferior [to Seattle]. There’s no reason why we should be the little brother. We should be a legitimate contender. We should be capable of beating the Sounders, and it not being a miracle. It’s very satisfying, a year later, that here we are … and I think it says everything about how far we’ve come as a club.”

Portland is at the top of the league, tied with the New York Red Bulls. The Timbers are one of the teams to beat in MLS, 12 months after being just a team that regularly got beat in MLS.

MLS Power Rankings: Going to the playoffs edition

Seattle Sounders' Nicolas Lodeiro (10), Herculez Gomez, center, and Jordan Morris, right, celebrate a goal by Lodeiro in the first half of an MLS soccer match against FC Dallas, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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As we prepare for the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, which kick off Wednesday night, we take one last shot at MLS power rankings, featuring only the 12 times still fighting in the postseason.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Which are the sides most likely to represent the East and the West in MLS Cup 2016? Let’s talk it out…

Eastern Conference

1. New York Red Bulls — Bradley Wright-Phillips scored 24 goals this season, including 14 in RBNY’s last 12 games. Sacha Kljestan finished the season with 19 assists, but should have had 20. Not to bury the lead here, but they haven’t lost a game since July 3 (9 wins, 6 draws). That’s an absurd run capped off with four straight wins to finish the regular season. Throw in the fact they’ll host the decisive second leg in every round up until MLS Cup, and it’s hard to see anyone else coming out of the East..

2a. D.C. United — Outside of Sunday’s finale in which Ben Olsen sat 10 of 11 regular staters — you’re not throwing me off your scent, buddy — DCU have destroyed everything and everyone in their path over the last month (four straight wins, by a combined score of 12-3). The strategy is simple: press high, win the ball, get it wide, get it in the box, Patrick Mullins will finish it. If they don’t win it early, they drop into a defensive shell that’ll frustrate you into a rage-quit.

2b. Toronto FC — Here’s my TFC theory: they’re better off playing in the knockout round, because Sebastian Giovinco, who’s only two games back from a month out with injuries, needs that extra bit of sharpness that’s still missing. Everything around the reigning MVP fell into place pretty well with him absent — the midfield diamond still ticks over best with Will Johnson on the field, and he should be back soon — and Jozy Altidore looks like a man possessed. They’re still TFC, though, and until they’re no longer “oh, that TFC,” it’s hard to totally trust them.

4. New York City FC — Is this team good? They won 54 points from 34 games, so of course they’re good on paper, but only three teams conceded more goals on the season (57). Of course, they outscored everyone (62). That’s rarely been the winning formula in the playoffs, though, and David Villa, for every wonderful thing he’s done his first two seasons in MLS, is still only one man.

5. Montreal Impact — Didier Drogba is still a member of this team, right? While he’s mostly inconsequential outside of the Impact lacking an impact forward off the bench, that’s just a bad omen to ride into the postseason, isn’t it? There’s not much to separate Montreal and Philadelphia other than if the Impact are to win a couple games in the playoffs, I know how they do it: Ignacio Piatti turns on video-game mode and draws 20,000 jaws to the floor.

6. Philadelphia Union — The Union, on the other hand, I have no idea what them winning a game looks like — theoretically or literally. It’s been two months since they’ve done it, they don’t remember what it’s like either. Bless Jim Curtin for trotting out a super-young defensive unit out there all season — they’ll be better for it next year — but they simply ran out of steam down the stretch (14 goals conceded in 7 games without a win).

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

Western Conference

1a. FC Dallas — I came really, really close — like, thisfreakingclose — to putting the Sounders at 1a, and FCD at 1b. The loss Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) last week and the transfer of Fabian Castillo in August would be season-ending blows to, quite literally, every other team in MLS. Yet, this is an FCD squad that is unbelievably deep, embarrassingly rich with talent all over the field, and motivated and prepared by the smartest coach in the league, Oscar Pareja. Papi will cook up a brand new scheme that’ll transform them into an impossible out in the playoffs, rather than the light-em-up attacking juggernaut they would have otherwise been. He is solely responsible for FCD at 1a.

1b. Seattle Sounders — Since Brian Schmetzer was named the interim head coach on July 26, the Sounders’ record is as follows: 8W, 4D, 2L. I could stop right there, and that’d be a solid enough case, but I’d be ignoring Nicolas Lodeiro, who has resurrected the a team that was truly dead when they quit on Sigi Schmid on July 24. Lodeiro’s numbers: 4 goals, 8 assists in 12 games played (all 1,080 minutes). Also of the utmost importance: the emergence of Cristian Roldan, a willing and able midfield runner who might just extend the career of Osvaldo Alonso by two or three years. You do not want to see this team in the playoffs.

3. Colorado Rapids — Speaking of teams you don’t want to see, purely from a standpoint of “they are annoyingly difficult to play against,” the Pablo Mastroeni’s Rapids conceded 32 goals in 34 games this season. If there’s one team in MLS 2016 that simply will not beat itself, it’s the Rapids. Their ceiling is mostly limited, but their bottom-out floor is higher than perhaps anyone else’s.

4. LA Galaxy — Saying the following goes against everything we’ve witnessed the last decade or so, but the Galaxy are something of a non-starter heading into these playoffs, from a standpoint of “we have absolutely no idea who or what this team is.” Robbie Keane played just 17 games all year (just six since the beginning of August), and it’s pretty undeniably Giovani dos Santos’ team now (14 goals, 12 assists). Gyasi Zardes hasn’t played since Aug. 27, and he may or may not come back to play in the playoffs after breaking his foot. Steven Gerrard has played 118 minutes in the last 10 games. That’s a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.

5. Sporting Kansas City — A shaky defensive team prone to costly mistakes at the most inopportune of times; no real focal point offensively, from a strategic standpoint. They do have a 16-goal-scorer in Dom Dwyer, and a dynamic playmaker (at his best) in Benny Feilhaber, but but the supporting cast has been mostly “meh” all season.

6. Real Salt Lake — The final seven games of the regular season is not a great time for your longest winless run of the campaign. Four losses, three draws in the months of September and October.

Combined rankings

2. FCD
3. Sounders
4. DCU
5. TFC
6. Rapids
8. Galaxy
9. Impact
10. SKC
11. RSL
12. Union

Serie A: Napoli end losing streak; Inter Milan beaten again

CROTONE, ITALY - OCTOBER 23:   Josè Maria Callejon (R) and Dries Mertens of Napoli celebrate the opening goal during the Serie A match between FC Crotone and SSC Napoli at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on October 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images
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ROME (AP) A visit to last-place Crotone was just what Napoli needed to end a three-match losing streak.

Roma also won against a lowly opponent, beating Palermo to reclaim second place from AC Milan.

Inter Milan, meanwhile, lost its third straight Serie A match to increase the pressure on coach Frank de Boer.

Despite losing center forward Manolo Gabbiadini to a red card, 10-man Napoli won 2-1 Sunday to spoil Crotone’s first top-division game in its home stadium.

Jose Callejon scored 17 minutes in and Nikola Maksimovic doubled the lead in the 33rd, shortly after Gabbiadini was sent off.

Aleandro Rosi pulled one back for Crotone in the 89th.

Gabbiadini was on the ground after being fouled by Gian Marco Ferrari and reacted by flicking his boot into the back of Ferrari’s leg.

It was Gabbiadini’s first red card in 153 career Serie A matches.

Ferrari was shown a yellow.

Both of Napoli’s goals were aided by poor defense.

Callejon redirected the ball in by the far post after a cross from Dries Mertens was deflected right toward him. Recently called up to Spain’s national team, Callejon has been involved in a league-best eight goals this season with six goals and two assists.

Maksimovic also scored near the far post, following a corner.

Napoli had lost two straight in Serie A and was also beaten by Besiktas in the Champions League this week.

Napoli is fourth, four points behind Juventus and two behind Roma and Milan, which beat Juve 1-0 on Saturday.

Promoted to the top division for the first time in its 106-year history, Crotone played its first three home matches 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in Pescara while its Ezio Scida stadium was expanded to meet league regulations.

The Calabrian club remained with one point.

“We did well in a situation that could have been very difficult, because Crotone was playing at home for the first time, the pitch wasn’t worthy of a professional match and we were down to 10 men after a half-hour,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said. “I’m happy that the lads will rediscover some confidence.”

Here’s a look at the rest of the action in the Italian league Sunday:

Mohamed Salah scored from a tight angle shortly after the half-hour mark after being set up by Edin Dzeko.

Leandro Paredes made it 2-0 in the 51st with a free kick that surprised Palermo goalkeeper Josip Posavec.

Dzeko added another in the 68th, finishing off a pretty series of passes with a low shot from the edge of the area for his league-best eighth of the season – the same number of goals he scored in his 31 appearances last season.

Robin Quaison pulled one back for Palermo in the 80th but Stephan El Shaarawy quickly restored Roma’s three-goal advantage.

Mauricio Pinilla scored the winner for Atalanta with a penalty two minutes from time.

After Davide Santon was whistled for a foul on Franck Kessie, Pinilla drilled the spot kick into the top left corner, leaving Samir Handanovic no chance even though the Inter goalkeeper guessed the right direction.

Andrea Masiello had put Atalanta in front with an early header and Eder equalized for Inter with a free kick after the break.

While Inter defeated Juventus in September, it’s been a difficult debut campaign in Italy for De Boer, who was hired when Roberto Mancini resigned less than two weeks before the season started.

“The only thing we can do is work hard to get out of this situation,” De Boer said. “I want to see the squad have more courage with the ball. … It’s a tough time for everyone.”

Inter captain Mauro Icardi failed to put a single shot on target after being punished by the club for his comments about the team’s hard-core “ultra” fans in his autobiography.

Atalanta, which extended its unbeaten streak to four matches, moved up to eighth while Inter dropped to 14th.

Torino and Lazio remained level on points, six points behind Juventus, after a draw that was determined with a penalty kick from Torino’s Adem Ljajic in added time.

After Iago Falque put Torino ahead midway through the first half, Ciro Immobile equalized for Lazio against his former club in the 71st with an acrobatic effort.

Substitute Alessandro Murgia scored his first Serie A goal in the 84th for Lazio before Marco Parolo was whistled for a questionable hand ball to set up Ljajic’s spot kick.

Nikola Kalinic scored a hat trick and Federico Bernardeschi added two more goals as Fiorentina won 5-3 at Cagliari.

Sassuolo and Bologna drew 1-1 in an Emilia-Romagna derby, Empoli and Chievo Verona played to a 0-0 draw in which Chievo protested for a goal even though goal-line technology showed that the ball wasn’t fully in; and French forward Cyril scored twice for Udinese in a 3-1 win over visiting Pescara.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

La Liga: Real Madrid win late, stay top; Atleti lose to Sevilla

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23: Alvaro Morata of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their second goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 23, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Coach Jorge Sampaoli felt Sevilla needed a big win against a top opponent to establish itself as a true contender in Spain.

He got just that on Sunday as his team defeated previously unbeaten Atletico Madrid 1-0 to stay near the top of the Spanish league.

French midfielder Steven N’Zonzi netted the winner in the 73rd minute at a packed Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to give the hosts their third straight win.

“It was an important game to consolidate ourselves against a team that looked unbeatable,” Sampaoli said. “We did well against one of the best teams in the world. This victory makes me proud.”

Sevilla, which has won six straight at home, reached 20 points from nine rounds, one point behind Real Madrid, which is top after a 2-1 home win against Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona, which defeated Valencia 3-2 Saturday thanks to an injury-time penalty kick converted by Lionel Messi, is third with 19 points.

“It’s going to be tight like this the entire season,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.

There had been some early doubts about Sampaoli as Sevilla lost in the Spanish Super Cup to Barcelona and the UEFA Super Cup to Real Madrid. But after the up-and-down start, the Argentine coach has finally been able to put Sevilla on track. As well as contending in Spain, the Andalusian club is also in a good position to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Atletico, which had the lead coming into the weekend, dropped to fifth place, three points behind Madrid.

Diego Simeone’s team played with 10 men from the 77th on Sunday because of a second yellow card shown to midfielder Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion.

Sampaoli made key adjustments at halftime, allowing his team to take control of the game and earn the hard-fought victory under pouring rain in Seville.

N’Zonzi scored the winner on a fast breakaway, speeding past two defenders after receiving a great throughball from striker Luciano Vietto. The Frenchman entered the area and calmly sent a low shot into the far corner as Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak charged from the net.

Real Madrid needed an 83rd-minute winner by substitute Alvaro Morata to earn a hard-fought win against Athletic Bilbao.

Karim Benzema put Madrid ahead just seven minutes into the game at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Sabin Merino equalized in the 27th and held on for most of the match.

Morata, celebrating his 24th birthday, scored from close range less than 10 minutes after replacing Benzema. Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz made the initial save but Morata persisted and found the open net off the rebound.

“I feel like a 10-year-old,” Morata said. “We won and we are in the lead, it couldn’t have been better.”

It was Madrid’s second straight win after three consecutive draws in the league.

Madrid and Villarreal are the only unbeaten clubs in the league after nine rounds.

Athletic is sixth on 15 points, six behind Madrid.

French striker Cedric Bakambu scored the winner in second-half injury time for Villarreal, but it was Las Palmas’ Kevin-Prince Boateng who attracted all the attention with a remarkable goal before halftime.

Boateng’s side volley from inside the area came after a mid-air, back-heel pass by Pedro Tana, who flicked the ball across the area for Boateng to shoot firmly into the corner.

Still unbeaten in the league this season, Villarreal has won three of its last four games and is in fourth place with 19 points.

Celta Vigo rebounded from two consecutive losses with a comfortable home win over Deportivo La Coruna behind a pair of goals by striker Iago Aspas.

After a 4-3 loss to Barcelona and a 5-0 defeat against Villarreal, Celta cruised to victory against struggling Deportivo to move to eighth place with 13 points.

The teams were tied 1-1 when Aspas converted a 60th-minute penalty kick. Chilean midfielder Fabian Orellana added to the lead in the 78th and Aspas closed the scoring in the 83rd at the Balaidos Stadium.

Deportivo, which has lost four of its last five games, dropped to 17th in the 20-team standings.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

MLS Decision Day: New York goes 1-2; RBNY kings of the East again

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Final scores

Philadelphia Union 0-2 New York Red Bulls
New York City FC 4-1 Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC 3-2 Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC 4-2 D.C. United
New England Revolution 3-0 Montreal Impact

Final standings

1. New York Red Bulls
2. New York City FC
3. Toronto FC
4. D.C. United
5. Montreal Impact
6. Philadelphia Union

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

The moments that mattered

4:33 p.m. ET — Fagundez curls one in, keeps the Revs’ heart beating — It’s going to take a lot more of these from the Revs, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

4:33 p.m. ET — DCU give one up to Molino, still 4th — Ben Olsen’s reserve side got off to a rocky start.

4:41 p.m. ET — Kaka puts ORL 2-0 up against DCU’s reserves — Fortunately for DCU, MTL don’t seem to want to finish 4th either.

4:38 p.m. ET — De Leeuw puts CHI 1-0 up on TOR — Losing to the worst team in the league on the final day of the season with a chance to secure a bye in the knockout round… it would be so TFC.

4:48 p.m. ET — BWP puts RBNY up, seals the Golden Boot — Anything but a loss, and RBNY finish top of the East. Bradley Wright-Phillips is doing what he does.

5:03 p.m. ET — Saborio pulls one back for DCU, still in 4th — ORL gifted DCU a way back into the game.

5:05 p.m. ET — Giovinco brings TFC level, back into the race for 2nd — A little late to the party, but TFC have awoken.

5:05 p.m. ET — Villa puts NYCFC 1-0 up, still stuck in 2nd — NYCFC keeping the pressure on RBNY, and keeping TFC at arm’s length.

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5:28 p.m. ET — Higuita restores ORL’s two-goal lead — Top shelf, far post. DCU not afraid of playing on the road in the knockout round, apparently.

5:34 p.m. ET — Giovinco sets up Morrow for 2-1, a point off 2nd — All TFC need now is a CLB equalizer, and they’d take the second knockout-round bye.

5:36 p.m. ET — Muyl wraps up the top spot for RBNY — That’ll just about do it for RBNY, the undisputed kings of the East.

5:39 p.m. ET — Kamara heads CLB to 1-1; NYCFC drop to 3rd — The best five minutes of TFC’s season? Might just be.

5:43 p.m. ET — Osorio makes it 3-1 for TFC — Nine minutes change the outlook of TFC’s entire season.

5:55 p.m. ET — Harrison puts NYCFC back in front, back in 2nd — TFC can score all the goals they want, but NYCFC only need to win to finish 2nd.

5:57 p.m. ET — Shelton makes it 3-1 NYCFC; safe in 2nd — The worst three minutes of TFC’s season? Might just be.