Eddie Johnson, Jack Jewsbury

MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Portland Timbers, first leg

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  • First Cascadia Cup rivalry playoff matchup in MLS history. Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers split three regular-season games in 2013, each winning one and one ending in a tie.
  • Seattle will be on short rest, having played Wednesday in the play-in game and defeated the Colorado Rapids, 2-0. The Sounders won’t have to travel, but they’ll be without starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who was sent off.
  • This is Portland’s first MLS playoff game in franchise history, while Seattle looks to avoid a heavy loss in the first leg similar to those that led to elimination the past two seasons.

Major League Soccer has its dream playoff matchup, as Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers get set to face off over two legs. More than 50,000 fans will pass through the turnstiles across those two games, providing a good advertisement for the league to fans watching the MLS playoffs.

The teams met three times in three different leagues’ playoffs throughout the years. Portland won in the 1975 North American Soccer league quarterfinals, while Seattle won both the 2004 A-League conference semifinals and the 2005 USL First Division first round. The first two series went to extra time, while the USL-1 series ended 3-0.

Watch Sounders-Timbers (Sat., 10 pm ET) on NBC Sports Live Extra

Based on the last regular-season meeting between these teams, the fireworks on the field shouldn’t be far behind. Timbers midfielder Kalif Alhassan scored the only goal of the game just before halftime, and Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso saw a straight red card for an elbow to Will Johnson’s face behind the play.

It was another moment of bad blood between two bitter rivals. Last year, Fredy Montero and Lovel Palmer both received red cards in the same match. Not to mention the words and trash talk that have flown back and forth down Interstate-5 among the years.

source: AP
The Timbers’ Caleb Porter is an MLS Coach of the Year candidate after leading one of the biggest turnarounds in league history between 2012 and 2013. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

Home-field advantage has proven to be huge in this matchup the last couple seasons, especially if the Sounders draw a large crowd. The Timbers escaped with a point in an early season game this year, then lost by a single goal in their second visit to CenturyLink Field in front of 67,385. Likewise, Portland won by Alhassan’s lone marker three weeks ago at JELD-WEN Field.

On only five occasions throughout the season have Caleb Porter’s men failed to get at least a tie on the road and all three points at home, which bodes well for the rookie coach in his club’s debut playoff series. However, that season of consistency is only a memory in the playoffs, when a single mistake, injury or red card could cost a team its season.

Meanwhile, the Sounders have finally started to figure out how to be effective with Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson on the field at the same time. A change to a diamond midfield formation a couple games ago has given Seattle two of its best recent performances, with Dempsey scoring once and assisting once and Johnson adding a goal of his own.

Obafemi Martins could still be out for the first leg with a groin injury, though, giving Lamar Neagle another chance at the forward spot next to Johnson. In goal, Marcus Hahnemann will take over for Gspurning, as he did before the loss earlier this month against the Timbers.

For Portland, Maximiliano Urruti and Diego Valeri continue to manage their injuries. Urruti hasn’t played since leaving the Seattle game with a hamstring strain, while Valeri has played through some pain caused by an adductor strain through the last couple weeks of the season.

As it happens with all rivalry games, the team that can rise above the emotion and intensity to play its best soccer will win. And any team that survives a Cascadia playoff series will be dangerous to play in the rest of the post-season.

(MORE: Goalkeeping drama leaves hometown hero between pipes for rivalry match)

(MORE: Seattle Sounders’ new system allows star attackers to shine)

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

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.