MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Portland ahead of Saturday’s trip to Seattle

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Ahead of Saturdays’ first-leg of this conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about the Portland Timbers: (Saturday’s match kicks off at 10 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN):

  • Valeri and Nagbe: Different peas in the same pod

They’re playmakers of different types, though calling Darlington Nagbe that would be a stretch. In three Major League Soccer seasons, Portland’s attacking midfielder has eight assists, yet as somebody who can operate in a number 10’s space, he’s shockingly reliable with his passes. Eschewing risk for accuracy, Nagbe’s pass completion rate of 85.4 percent was the highest among Major League Soccer’s attackers in 2013.

Contrast that with Diego Valeri, who only completed 73.1 percent of his passes (ranking 185th among all players in Major League Soccer). Willing to take the chances Nagbe won’t, Valeri led the league in assists (13). In Opta’s key pass stat (passes that lead to chances), he averaged 2.3 per 90 minutes. Nagbe? 1.4.

Together, each provides something the other does not, but there’s one playmaker here, even if both can drop into that role. And as Portland fans found out throughout the last two months of the season, if there’s one player that’s more likely to decide a match, it’s Diego Valeri.

[WATCH: Sounders-Timbers will be available on NBC Sports Live Extra]

  • The four-headed monster

The Timbers starting lineup is utterly predictable with one exception: The team’s number nine. At the point of their attack, the team has four options, with Caleb Porter’s choice potentially telling us how he plans to approach Saturday’s game:

    • Maxi Urruti, the late-season acquisition from Toronto, has been battling a hamstring injury and is unlikely to play. If he’s chosen, Porter will be selecting the group’s best goal poacher, Urruti’s positioning able to exploit the hole Valeri and Nagbe create. His pressing is also seen as a virtue.
    • Jose Valencia has started the team’s last three games and would be the option Porter chooses if he wants to test Djimi Traoré and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado with pace. That pace can also be used wide, to take on fullbacks Leo González, DeAndre Yedlin or Brad Evans.
    • Frederic Piquionne is the direct option. If Portland wants to test Marcus Hahnemann’s willingness to come out and challenge balls sent into his area, the 34-year-old is their best option.
    • Then there’s Ryan Johnson, the one-time first choice whose minutes have dwindled as the season’s progressed. In addition to experience, he offers a little bit of every of everything, though his tenacity distinguishes him from the others. He might be Saturday’s ‘play it safe’ option.

Going four deep at striker can be seen as special of frightening. Either your the U.S. Women’s National Team and have an enviable army, or the lack of a stand-out contributes to your indecisiveness. Caleb Porter has talked up the virtues of having four solid options, but at striker, quality may be better than quantity. Particularly when you’re playing with only one up top.

  • What does playoff experience mean?

When you see how Colorado and Montréal performed mid-week, you can’t help but notice teams light on playoff experience being controlled by more tested squads. Perhaps that was coincidence, or maybe we’re biased toward seeing what we want, but Houston and Seattle seemed more intense than their regular season selves. For Colorado and Montréal, it might as well have been game 34.

Portland’s in the same boat. Donovan Ricketts and Will Johnson have won MLS Cups, and Jack Jewsbury has been here before, but the rest of Saturday’s potential starters have only smatterings of playoff experience (at most). If that experience is important, Portland’s at a huge disadvantage against Seattle.

  • The importance of Will Johnson

That’s where Portland’s captain comes into play. If you could only have two experienced players, you’d probably want them in goal (or, maybe central defense) and central midfield. And although Diego Valeri has been Portland’s best player in 2013, Will Johnson has been their heartbeat. It’s hard to overestimate the value his vitality has brought to the team, something that translated into his numbers (nine regular season goals) and the team’s success.

Seattle may see Johnson in a different light. In last year’s playoffs, he was the subject of a homophobic slur from Marc Burch that saw the Seattle defender subsequently suspended. In this year’s last regular season meeting between the clubs, Johnson drew an elbow from Osvaldo Alonso that saw the Sounders’ midfielder ejected from the game. As Sigi Schmid put it after that game, “whenever things happen, Will Johnson always seems to be at the other end of things.”

Unless the unexpected happens again, Johnson’s most important role should bea  less controversial one: That of helping Diego Chará protect a vulnerable central defense. That two-man shield has helped Portland survive the season with their third and fourth choice central defenders (Futty Danso, Pa Modou Kah). Protecting that Gambia duo by cutting off access to opposing forwards is more crucial in Portland games than most.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-1 New England Revolution (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): For nearly 75 minutes, NYCFC couldn’t muster up any chances in the attacking third, but thankfully their captain did what he does best. David Villa scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday night to pull out a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution, but it was rookie Jonathan Lewis that notched the winner. The visitors took the lead 20 minutes prior after Sean Johnson spilled a shot in front of his own goal, allowing Teal Bunbury to pounce on the rebound. NYCFC now moves to within four points of Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC with nine matches remaining in the regular season.

Three four moments that mattered

16′ — Harrison breaks ankles, but Villa can’t finish — This might be the only time all see you’ll see David Villa miss a chance like this…

38′ — Johnson gets a finger tip to Rowe’s blast — Sean Johnson had no work to do in the first half, at least until Kelyn Rowe decided to rip a shot from distance just before halftime.

57′ — Johnson’s error grants Bunbury, Revs the lead — Look away, NYCFC fans.

77′ — Villa find the back of the net — When you need a goal, who you gonna call? That’s right. David Villa. The NYCFC captain is now up to 19 this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Teal Bunbury (57′), David Villa (77′), Jonathan Lewis (90+4′)

Honoring victims of attacks, Barcelona wins league opener

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Wearing shirts honoring victims of the recent attacks in Spain, Barcelona opened its Spanish league season with a comfortable 2-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Neymar double helps PSG cruise past Toulouse ]

Players had the word “Barcelona” instead of their names on the back of their shirts, and the Catalan hashtag “TOTSSOMBARCELONA” (We are all Barcelona) was on display around the Camp Nou stadium. The message was also shown on the stadium’s large screens, as well as on many banners carried by fans.

An emotional minute’s silence was held before the game as the music of Catalan cellist Pau Casals played in the background.

Before the minute was up, the more than 55,000 fans at the stadium broke into a round of applause and began chanting “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid), a chant which has become a symbol of people’s reactions to the attacks that killed 14 people and injured more than 120 in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.

Extra security was implemented in and around Camp Nou.

There was a minute’s silence before every Spanish league match this weekend.

Without Neymar and the injured Luis Suarez, Barcelona got off to a winning start in the league after consecutive losses to rival Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

It scored two goals three minutes apart near the end of the first half – an own-goal by Betis defender Alin Tosca and a close-range shot by Sergi Roberto. Both goals came after plays started by Gerard Deulofeu, one of the players expected to try to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

“We lost depth with Neymar’s departure and we have to find a way to overcome that,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Lionel Messi looked lively but wasn’t able to score his 350th goal in La Liga. He came close, though, being denied by the woodwork three different times.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Brighton breaks club record with signing of winger Jose Izquierdo

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Brighton hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start in its debut season in the Premier League, but a key reinforcement is on the way.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Spurs at Wembley behind Alonso’s brace ]

After starting the 2017/18 campaign with back-to-back defeats, the Seagulls announced on Sunday the signing of Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge in Belgium for a record fee.

The 25-year-old spent three seasons in Belgium’s top flight and totaled 38 goals across all competitions for Brugge, prior to making the move to England.

Additionally, Izquierdo has worked his way into the Colombia squad as of late, and scored his first international goal for his country in June 2017 in a friendly against Cameroon.

MLS Follow Live — NYCFC hosts Revs, Minnesota meets Sounders

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Only two matches will feature on the MLS docket Sunday evening, but luckily two of the league’s most exciting teams will take to the pitch.

[ MORE: Toronto tops Fire as East leaders reach 50 points on season ]

First, New York City FC will attempt to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder when they host Kei Kamara and the New England Revolution.

In the night cap, the Seattle Sounders look to extend their unbeaten streak to nine matches when they welcome newcomers Minnesota United to CenturyLink Field.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Here’s the schedule and kick-off times for Sunday’s two MLS fixtures.

New York City FC vs. New England Revolution — 6 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 10 p.m. ET