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.

Where does Zlatan rank in MLS superstar signings?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has announced his arrival in Major League Soccer in a typically understated fashion…

The big question surrounding Zlatan’s arrival at the LA GAlaxy on a two-year deal is if he can still produce goals on a regular basis following his serious knee injury last year which kept him out for eight months and continued to hamper him this season at Manchester United.

Yet another question is intriguing to many: where does the 36-year-old stack up in terms of the biggest signings in MLS’ 23-year history?

It’s an intriguing question to ponder and despite Zlatan’s status as one of the most recognizable players on the planet, the impact he will have on MLS will be determined on what he produces on the pitch. Some of the other star names who previously arrived haven’t produced star moments, even if they remained stars after their retirement.

With the Designated Player era ushered in by David Beckham in 2007 (Zlatan reportedly won’t be a DP and will received close to $3 million per year via TAM) many stars have come and gone in MLS with varying degrees of success. It isn’t an exact science as you need big name players to buy into the different challenges MLS brings up and, in essence, almost adapt their own games and reinvent themselves a little.

Some of the biggest names have struggled massively, while others have excelled and even elevated their previous status among the U.S. and global soccer community due to their play in MLS.

Below is a look where Zlatan’s arrival currently ranks in terms of the superstars to come to the U.S., with his ranking no doubt set to rise if he bangs in goals and keeps up his impressive artistry of the English language off the pitch.

Remember: below is a ranking of the top overseas stars to arrive in MLS during the DP era, so there are no U.S. national team or Canadian national team players because Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and others would all be in this list otherwise.

Let’s be clear, we are talking about big-name overseas stars who have arrived as much for their superstar status off the pitch as well as their obvious playing talent to help the status of the league grow. We are focusing on the star power in the list below, with current MLS players in bold.

  1. David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
  2. Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
  3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
  4. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
  5. David Villa (New York City FC)
  6. Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
  7. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
  8. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
  9. Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
  10. Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact)
  11. Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA, LA Galaxy)
  12. Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire)
  13. Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United)
  14. Carlos Vela (LAFC)
  15. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire)
  16. Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew SC)
  17. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
  18. Frank Lampard (New York City FC)
  19. Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps)
  20. Kaka (Orlando City SC)
  21. Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC)
  22. Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy)
  23. Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
  24. Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)
  25. Rafael Marquez (New York Red Bulls)

USWNT tops world rankings, England No. 2

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ZURICH (AP) The United States remains at the top of the FIFA women’s rankings after winning the SheBelieves Cup, and England moved ahead of Germany into second.

The Americans went unbeaten in the four-team round-robin tournament they hosted this month.

England, which lost the final game 1-0 to the Americans, finished runner-up and climbed one ranking place Friday.

Germany dropped to No. 3 after a last-place finish that cost coach Steffi Jones her job. The Germans were ranked in the top two for almost 10 years.

Canada and 2019 World Cup host France each rose one place to Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. Australia fell two to No. 6.

North Korea climbed one place to No. 10, and No. 11 Japan fell out of the top 10 for the first time since 2007.

Zlatan announces LA, MLS arrival in bizarre fashion

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has arrived in Major League Soccer.

The veteran striker terminated his contract at Manchester United earlier this week and the 36-year-old Swede will reportedly signed a two-year deal worth over $3 million per season with the LA Galaxy.

He confirmed that the Galaxy will be his club on Friday by taking out a full page advert in the LA Times in typically sarcastic fashion.

Zlatan kept it short and sweet, as the Galaxy’s new No. 9 will certainly be a blast in MLS, just for his off-the-field antics alone.

VIDEO: Usain Bolt trains with Borussia Dortmund

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Usain Bolt has taken part in his first proper training session with Borussia Dortmund’s first team as he continues to chase his dream of being a professional soccer player.

The eight-time Olympic champion, who retired as a sprinter earlier in 2017 after the World Championships, is on a two-day tryout with Dortmund which many are merely saying is a publicly stunt.

Yet with Dortmund allowing Bolt, 31, the chance to train with first team stars on Friday it may be a little more than just a chance for media members to flock to watch Dortmund in an open training session. Given the fact that Dortmund are sponsored by Puma, the same sponsor Bolt has, many are connecting the dots and it was a laid back training session on Friday as Bolt spent plenty of time signing autographs after scoring a header and a penalty kick.

Remember: Bolt is a lifelong Manchester United and has mentioned many times over the years that he would like to turn to professional soccer.

Earlier this month he announced he will captain a World XI at Old Trafford in a UNICEF charity game in June 2018, with Bolt teasing the planet on social media by saying he had signed for a soccer team. With his speed, power and size, is it really that far-fetched to think he could be a good targetman if he can sort out his hold up play and work on his endurance to last 90 minutes?

Watch the videos below as the Jamaican superstar scored a pretty solid PK, took part in training and obviously had most of Dortmund’s star players, such as Mario Gotze and Nuri Sahin, in awe.

Let’s see what the future holds for Bolt, but this is probably little more than Peter Stoeger and Dortmund having a longstanding offer accepted by Bolt to train with them. Maybe he could turn out for Dortmund’s reserve squad in a scrimmage and go from there?