What We Learned from Portland’s first leg win at Seattle

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SEATTLE — The Sounders may have pulled one back late, but the Timbers will be happy with the result. After their 2-1 win Saturday at CenturyLink Field, the West’s top seed find themselves in the driver’s seat ahead of Thursday’s second leg in Portland.

Here’s what we learned after the match-up’s first 90 minutes.

  • 1. Seattle still has a first leg problem.

When the Sounders outplayed Real Salt Lake to open last year’s Western Conference semifinals, their first leg issues seemed to be solved. Though the game ended 0-0, Seattle had dominated, forcing Nick Rimando into one of the better goalkeeping performances in MLS history to keep the tie level. Even though Seattle still hadn’t scored in the opening leg of a playoff series, they’d now shown the ability to do.

But in last year’s Western Conference final, the Sounders were blitzed in Los Angeles, losing 3-0. On Saturday in Seattle, they were down 2-0 before Osvaldo Alonso pulled one back, bolstering what would have been faint hopes had they taken a two-goal deficit to JELD-WEN.

So maybe Seattle’s first leg syndrome’s still present? Portland’s a very good team, and against them, there’s no shame in being on the wrong side of a 2-1. But Seattle’s now faced Portland four times this season. They know what to expect. Only in the first leg of a playoff series did they fall behind by two goals.

  • 2. Inexperience? A non-issue for Portland.

We asked about it in the preview. For a team that had very few tested playoff performers, would inexperience be a factor? It seemed to affect Colorado on Wednesday. It seemed to affect Montréal on Thursday. In front of 38,507 in Seattle, would the Timbers’ be able to match Seattle’s intensity?

They did, but more so than merely bringing the right energy level, Portland brought the kind of poise that allowed them to be second-best for 15 minutes before scoring the opener. They brought the kind of focus that produced a second goal after halftime, a score that proved extremely valuable come the 90th minute.

The Timbers remain a relatively inexperienced side in terms of MLS’s playoffs, but on Saturday, that wasn’t a factor. They did not look like a team playing their first playoff game together.

  • 3. That diamond we heard so much about? It cost Seattle tonight.

If Seattle’s playing their normal, 4-4-2 — one that features traditional wide midfielders — they’re in a better position to prevent each goal. On the first score, Jack Jewsbury got too much time to create a chance down the right flank, with Adam Moffat unable to help Leo Gonzalez prevent the cross to Ryan Johnson. On the second, Portland wins a battle on the left, circulates a ball to the right, leaving Moffat little time to get out and contain Kalif Alhassen.

Post-game, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid hinted the formation may have been a factor in the goals. He also said Seattle may go back to their normal setup in Portland, one that’s a better fit for Mauro Rosales.

Of course, on JELD-WEN’s narrow field, the diamond may not be as much of an issue. (Author’s note: Whoops! See comments for factoid debunking this piece of speculation!)

  • 4. Portland’s shield proved stronger than Colorado’s.

Clint Dempsey had his best match of the season Wednesday against Colorado. On Saturday, however, the Seattle playmaker didn’t have as much influence. Although he continued to be a focal point in attack, he was almost always met by Diego Chara.

Whereas Seattle made life difficult for German Mera on Wednesday, Portland central defenders Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso were far less tested. Seattle’s only goal came from a ball flicked on in front of a deep defensive line. Of the rest of Seattle’s threats, very few originated in the middle of the park.

  • 5. Attrition will be a factor for Seattle.

DeAndre Yedlin will almost certainly play on Thursday (Schmid hinting tonight’s decision to withhold his right back was one of caution). Obafemi Martins may also play a role. Elsewhere, however, Seattle continues to lose players.

Zach Scott, Yedlin’s replacement, left in the 62nd minute after picking up a rib injury in the first half. If he can’t go, Yedlin’s health becomes even more important. But if the 20-year-old doesn’t continue to improve (or maybe it’s raining on Portland’s turf the day of the game), Seattle could be forced to move Brad Evans out of midfield.

The team also has to compensate for Lamar Neagle’s absence, the starting forward having picked up a second yellow card. If Martins isn’t able to start, Schmid may be forced into moving Clint Dempsey back up top. That will almost certainly lead to a change in formation.

If all does well, the Sounders should be able to choose a strong XI for Thursday’s game. Their bench, however, may be as thin as Saturday’s, leaving them little room to adjust should they encounter new misfortune.

Jesse Gonzalez completes one-time switch from Mexico to USA

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The U.S. national team has a new goalkeeper: Jesse Gonzalez.

U.S. Soccer confirmed Gonzalez, 22, has had his change of association approved by FIFA as the FC Dallas stopper has switched his international allegiance from Mexico to the U.S.

Born in North Carolina, Gonzalez grew up in Dallas but played for Mexico’s U-20 side in an official competition, meaning he needed a one-time switch from Mexico to the U.S. which was granted. Now, he cannot switch back and he will only be able to represent the U.S. at international level moving forward.

Other players to do this include Jermaine Jones who played for the German national team but switched to the U.S. in 2010, while just last week Gent midfielder Kenny Saief had his one-time switch from Israel to the U.S. approved by FIFA and he will feature in the upcoming Gold Cup tournament.

Gonzalez was on the preliminary U.S. roster for the 2017 Gold Cup which kicks off on July 7 but wasn’t included on the final roster, but he’s still seen as a leading contender to mind the net for the USMNT in the future. Bruce Arena wants added competition for veteran goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, with Nick Rimando, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid and Ethan Horvath the main contenders as things stand.

Given Gonzalez’s rapid rise from the FCD academy to starting goalkeeper in 2017, he could well be the USA’s future star with Howard likely to retire after the USMNT’s potential World Cup bid in Russia next summer and Guzan 32 years old.

Cincinnati boost MLS hopes with incredible crowd, victory

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32,287 fans packed into Nippert Stadium on Wednesday to see USL side FC Cincinnati beat the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer in U.S. Open Cup Round of 16.

It was the second-largest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history.

Second-tier FC Cincinnati is the hottest story in American soccer right now.

[ MORE: Full US Open Cup roundup ]

On Wednesday Cincinnati won on penalty kicks to embarrass Bastian Schweinsteiger and Co. as the red-hot MLS side came unstuck in front of Cincy’s incredible supporters, with Mitch Hildebrandt saving three penalties to send Cincinnati’s fans wild.

Since their USL debut in 2016 (that’s right, just over 12 months ago) the progress FC Cincinnati has made is startling, first under USMNT legend John Harkes as coach and now under Alan Koch.

With an average crowd of 17,296 for league games in 2016, Cincinnati had crowds of 35,061 for a preseason visit of Crystal Palace last July, 24,376 to watch them play Orlando City B in the USL in September and then 30,187 for a USL playoff defeat to Charleston Battery in October. Palace were blown away by Cincinnati’s support and ProSoccerTalk understands plenty of other Premier League clubs have been interested in including the Ohio city as a stop-off on U.S. tours of their own.

The old saying “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t ring true in Cincinnati. They’re already there.

These attendance numbers are unprecedented at this level, with Sacramento Republic and Orlando City the only two he can come close to the USL records Cincinnati has set over the past 22 months as a club.

With the Ohio city on a shortlist of 12 for the next round of MLS expansion for a $150 million fee, Don Garber and his expansion committee have to sit up and take notice of the incredible progress Cincinnati has made in such a short space of time.

Yes, other cities like Sacramento and San Antonio have now had a strong franchise for many years and the steady attendance figures suggest so, but Cincinnati is blowing all of their expansion competitors out of the water with the scenes witnessed at Nippert time and time again over the past 12 months.

Adding Cincy to MLS makes sense geographically too, as it will help link up Columbus Crew, Sporting KC and Chicago Fire in a mid-west square. Everything about having FC Cincinnati in MLS adds up.

However, the new stadium deal is a must and FC Cincinnati released those plans for a soccer-specific venue earlier this month. However, just like we’ve seen in Atlanta and in Seattle in the past, having an MLS team based at a larger stadium sometimes works. Why couldn’t FC Cincinnati stay at Nippert if they’re packing it out?

All of that remains to be seen but what we do know is that Cincinnati is backing soccer and FCC in a big way. With NASL and USL expanding, lower-league soccer in the U.S. has never been stronger than it is right now.

Goal-machine Jermain Defoe signs for Bournemouth

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Jermain Defoe is back where it all began.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Man City? ]

Bournemouth announced the 34-year-old striker has signed for them on a three-year contract after a release clause in his Sunderland deal was triggered, meaning he could leave for free following the Black Cats’ relegation from the Premier League last season.

Defoe spent a season on loan at Bournemouth as a teenager back in 2000-01 when he was coming through the ranks at West Ham and during his first season as a pro he played with current Cherries manager Eddie Howe, scoring 19 goals in 31 appearances (including a run of 12 goals in 10-straight games) for the then third-tier club.

The England international, who scored 15 times for Sunderland last season, returns with both himself and Bournemouth in a very different situation.

“It’s great to be back and I’m really looking forward to this challenge.” Defoe said. “When the opportunity came about to return to AFC Bournemouth I just knew it was the right one. It was an easy decision, joining a top team with a top manager. It’s a great place to be. The Bournemouth fans know that every time I pull the shirt on I will give 100 per cent, and the one thing I can guarantee is goals.”

Howe added that he was “delighted” that Defoe has returned and said it was a “huge moment” for the club as they continue their progression following a ninth-place finish in the PL last season.

During his distinguished career Defoe has scored goals by the bucket-load wherever he has played. He has 269 goals in 649 total career appearances and he has proven that he still has plenty left in the tank.

Playing for West Ham, Portsmouth, Tottenham, Toronto FC and Sunderland, he is a predator in the box and has kept himself in fine fettle over the years with a vegan diet just one of the ways he has elongated his career. Defoe’s form for Sunderland over the past two-and-a-half seasons has seen him recalled to the English national team in his mid-30s after scoring 37 goals in 93 goals.

He will not only add goals but will also help the development of young strikers Josh King, Benik Afobe and Lys Mousset at the Vitality Stadium.

This move was a no-brainer for both Bournemouth and Defoe as the Cherries continue to strengthen and add PL experience. Asmir Begovic has already arrived as their new starting goalkeeper and Chelsea’s promising defender Nathan Ake, who spent time on loan at Bournemouth last season, is expected to arrive later this week.

Heading into their third season as a PL club, Howe is addressing his needs early and impressively.

Alexis Sanchez to Man City reports gathering steam

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Alexis Sanchez’s future has still not been sorted out but Manchester City are increasingly optimistic he will be playing for them next season.

[ MORE: Ronaldo’s twin sons born

Sanchez, 28, is still on international duty with Chile who have reached the 2017 Confederations Cup final and his Arsenal future is no closer to being sorted with just one year remaining on his current contract with the Gunners.

The Guardian reports that Man City are expecting to seal the $64.7 million deal for Sanchez due to the Chilean’s desire to be reunited with his former boss at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola.

Sanchez and his agent had talks scheduled with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger at the end of the season but with the Gunners not qualifying for the UEFA Champions League next season it appears increasingly likely the oft-frustrated forward will move on this summer with a new contract offer of $324,000 per week reportedly turned down.

Each and every day new stories and snippets emerge on Sanchez’s future but the Chilean star (who scored 24 goals and added 10 assists in the PL last season) rarely gives interviews, leading to increased hype around his situation at Arsenal at every turn.

Previous reports in Chile quoted Sanchez as saying he wanted “to stay in London, but for a club that wins” so Chelsea was his next destination. When Danny Welbeck‘s name was above the No.7 shirt on Arsenal’s website for a brief moment during their new kit launch there was hysteria. Bayern Munich are now said to be out of a deal for Sanchez due to the high transfer price Arsenal is demanding. The list goes on and on and everyone wants to know one thing: will he stay or will he go?

Arsenal’s reluctance to sell to a direct PL rival — especially to City, once again, after they bought Sami Nasri, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna from the Gunners in the past — remains the main sticking point in this deal with the north London club preferring to sell Sanchez overseas to Bayern or PSG rather than see him inspire the attack of a rival in England.

From a pure playing standpoint, a move to City seems perfect for Sanchez.

He gets to play in a fluid front three system and can roam alongside Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and potentially Sergio Aguero. City, and Guardiola, also match his intense hunger to win trophies at any costs and challenge for titles in the PL and Europe, something he hasn’t been able to do at Arsenal. Yes, he has won the FA Cup twice during his three-season stint at the Emirates, but he wants more. He always wants more.

That’s why seeing Sanchez remain at Arsenal after scoring 72 goals in 145 games in all competitions seems highly unlikely.