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.

WATCH: Video Assistant calls back Griezmann goal

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France and Spain used the Video Assistant Referee program on Tuesday in a friendly, and the French likely rue that decision.

Antoine Griezmann had an incorrectly allowed goal reverse for offside, while Gerard Deulofeu saw an initially ruled offside goal allowed upon review in Spain’s 2-0 win over France.

[ MORE: Bolivia stuns Messi-less Argentina ]

Here’s an example, as Griezmann’s barely offside goal was overturned in less than a minute (Both calls took less than a minute to decide):

At the risk of sounding like a caveman, I really don’t like these razor thin offside calls being subject to review.

When you consider the improbability of timing the moment of contact with the ball — how many times have you seen a freeze frame conveniently used to make a case? — it just seems to mess with the spirit of sport.

What do you think?

Bolivia stuns Messi-less Argentina in World Cup qualifying

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Argentina took steps backward Tuesday in its pursuit of a 2018 World Cup berth, on and off the field.

It started as Lionel Messi was suspended four matches for verbally abusing a referee in Argentina’s Friday win over Chile.

Then La Albiceleste made another move in reverse with a shocking 2-0 loss to Bolivia in La Paz. Argentina started Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, and Ezequiel Lavezzi on the bench in what many presumed to be an easy win.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

Juan Carlos Arce and Marcelo Martins scored as ninth-place La Verde picked up its third win of qualifying with a win over powerful Argentina.

The bad news kept coming for Argentina (and Everton), as Ramiro Funes Mori left the match in the 36th minute with injury.

Bolivia will finish the international break at least 10 points back of the playoff spot, while Argentina could finish as low as that fifth-place spot.

STREAM: CONCACAF tripleheader concludes with USMNT

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
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CONCACAF’s bottom three sides in the Hex standings look to make the table incredibly tight as World Cup qualifying finds three-straight matches on the docket beginning at 5 p.m. EDT.

Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Los Catrachos were creamed 6-0 by the U.S. on Friday, and return home hoping a wounded Costa Rica remains vulnerable. Honduras is dead last on goal differential, but three points would be huge and put them level with Los Ticos. Costa Rica won its first two matches before falling to Mexico on Friday.

Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico

El Tri has two wins and a draw from their first three Hex matches, and will be without Rafa Marquez on Tuesday. A win guarantees Mexico the top spot heading into the next round of matches in June. The Soca Warriors surprised some with their 1-0 win over visiting Panama on Tuesday. Mexico is a different class.

Panama vs. USMNT

Despite its miserable start, the U.S. can find itself as high as second with a win and help from Honduras. The injuries remain plenty for the Yanks, who are without Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget, and John Brooks. Panama has allowed just a single goal through three Hex matches, but also has only managed one.

AFC and Oceania wrap: Iran, New Zealand take next steps

Photo by Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images
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With CONMEBOL and CONCACAF serving as the main course later Tuesday, the morning and afternoon saw big World Cup qualifiers on the other side of the world.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

Asian qualifying

Iran is on the verge of qualification for Russia 2018 after Persepolis star Mehdi Taremi bagged his ninth international goal in a 1-0 home win over China.

Iran leads Group A by four points, but second-place South Korea and third-place Uzbekistan kept pace with 1-0 home wins of their own. Hong Jeong-ho scored in South Korea’s win over Syria, while Odil Ahmendov’s 65th minute free kick was enough to push Uzbekistan past Qatar.

The goalkeeping was… less than ideal.

Over in Group B, shutouts were the name of the game for high-powered hosts as well.

Japan stayed atop the group with a 4-0 win over Thailand, as a trio of players with Premier League experience — Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki — joined Gent’s Yuya Kubo on the scoreboard.

Saudi Arabia is level with Japan on points thanks to Yahya Al-Shehri’s post-halftime goal in a 1-0 win over Iraq, while Australia saw off United Arab Emirates thanks to goals from Burton Albion’s Jackson Irvine and Ingolstadt’s Mathew Leckie.

That leaves Australia three points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the race for two of three automatic spots. The Socceroos hosts the Green Falcons in June before an August trip to Saitama in a pair of matches which will decide who goes directly to Russia and who has to win a pair of playoffs: One against the Group A’s third-place team and another against CONCACAF’s fourth place side.

Oceania qualifying

New Zealand took the next step in collecting Oceania’s berth in the intercontinental playoff with a 2-0 win over Fiji in Wellington. PEC Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas bagged a brace for the All Whites.

New Zealand will next face either Tahiti, Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea over two legs in late August and early September for the right to battle the fifth place CONMEBOL team for a World Cup berth. That could be Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, or even Colombia.

Tahiti hosts Papua New Guinea at 1 a.m. EDT Wednesday, and will be the odds-on favorite to face New Zealand with a win.