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.

AT HALF: Chelsea strikes twice to build 2-1 lead over Saints

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Gary Cahill‘s stoppage time goal has Chelsea leading Southampton 2-1 after 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge.

Eden Hazard scored the match’s first goal, with Saints’ Oriol Romeu equalizing in the 24th minute.

A win would send Chelsea seven points clear of second place Spurs, which has played one less match than the Blues.

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There were early lively moments for both sides, as Saints’ Manolo Gabbiadini attempted to back up Antonio Conte‘s pre-match praise as one of the best left foots in the world.

Chelsea found the opener through Hazard, as Costa held possession into the right of the box before cutting back to find Belgian. Fraser Forster couldn’t get low quick enough to stop Hazard’s low shot, and it was 1-0.

Romeu, clearly buoyed by JPW’s feature piece earlier this week, bagged an equalized off a corner kick. Gabbiadini sidled up to the ball at the back post, and pushed it off Thibaut Courtois into the path of the former Chelsea man.

Sofiane Boufal was also dangerous for Saints, and won a free for James Ward-Prowse that amounted to a corner kick from the edge of the 16. Courtois flew forward to put the ball free.

N'Golo Kante had his turn to start a threat, and Forster’s block of his cross only queued up a pair of opportunities between Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic.

Cahill made it 2-1 in stoppage time, darting in front of Costa’s scissor kick attempt to nod Marcos Alonso‘s headed pass into the goal.

Ajax’s home stadium to be named after Johan Cruyff

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AMSTERDAM (AP) On the day Johan Cruyff would have turned 70, his home city has agreed to name Ajax’s stadium after the Dutch football great.

Amsterdam Municipality says it has agreed with the stadium and Ajax to change the name of the Amsterdam Arena to the Johan Cruijff Arena – using the Dutch spelling of the Ajax and Barcelona star, who died last year.

[ MORE: JPW’s Midweek Premier League picks ]

Ajax, the stadium’s board and Amsterdam say they “want to pay a worthy tribute to the best footballer Amsterdam and the Netherlands have ever known.”

The agreement announced Tuesday is expected to be finalized within six months.

Born in Amsterdam, Cruyff was the mercurial driving force behind Ajax and Dutch “total football” in the early 1970s. He went on to become a highly successful player and coach at Barcelona.

STREAM LIVE: Leaders Chelsea host Southampton

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Chelsea look to extend their lead atop the Premier League to seven points as they host Southampton on Tuesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at Stamford Bridge.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Antonio Conte‘s men can momentarily pull further away from second-place Tottenham, who play on Wednesday at Crystal Palace, and following their FA Cup semifinal victory over Spurs at Wembley on Saturday it would be another huge psychological boost in the title race for the west London club.

As for Southampton, well, they are pushing hard to finish in eighth place and secure a fourth-straight season in the top eight of the PL. Claude Puel‘s men have the quality to cause a big upset and could be tough to break down.

In team news Chelsea have Gary Cahill back from fitness, while Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas all come back into the starting lineup.

Southampton bring back Oriol Romeu from suspension and he replaces Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, wile Sofiane Boufal comes in for Nathan Redmond out wide.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Fabregas, Hazard, Costa. Subs: Begovic, Ake, Terry, Willian, Pedro, Chalobah, Batshuayi

Southampton: Forster; Cedric, Stephens, Yoshida, Bertrand; Romeu, Davis; Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Boufal; Gabbiadini. Subs: Hassen, Caceres, Clasie, Hojbjerg, Redmond, Long, Rodriguez

Premier League Playback: Projecting the top four

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You should’ve seen my face when I worked out the points totals for the four teams in the running for the two remaining UEFA Champions League spots…

Mind. Blown.

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Let’s make an outrageous assumption (it’s basically fact at this point) that Chelsea and Tottenham will finish in the top two places in the Premier League and that Everton, who have played up to three more games than their nearest contenders, are out of this battle for the top four.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule

So it’s down to Man City, Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal for the final two places and it could not be tighter as we enter the final weeks of the season.

Judging by the projection below, it could all go down to the final day of the season and none of the four teams below are playing each other. Say no more.


LIVERPOOL
The Reds are wobbling again. Following the 2-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace, their first defeat in eight games, Jurgen Klopp‘s men are under intense pressure in their final four games of the season. They’ve played two more than Man City and Man United below them but the gap to United is now just three points. Without Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana, this ridiculously easy run-in is looking arduous. Liverpool have four cup finals to win and hope for the best. All season long they’ve struggled against the smaller teams and that could cost them dear in the final weeks with bitter rivals United in form.

Toughest game remaining: vs. Southampton (May 7)
Predicted final points total: 74 points (5th place finish, on goal difference)

MAN CITY
It’s all about this Thursday for Man City. Pep Guardiola‘s men have to pick themselves up after the disappointment of losing to Arsenal after extra time in the FA Cup semifinal. After the derby against Man United (who sit one point and one place below City) they finish with three home games in their final five and face teams in eighth or below. Should be easy for City but Guardiola’s men have made life more difficult for themselves than it should be. Expect them to win four of their final six games to seal UCL action next season.

Toughest games remaining: vs. Manchester United (Thursday)
Predicted final points total: 77 points (3rd place finish)

MAN UNITED
Ander Herrera is right when he said that the Manchester derby was the “game of the season” on Thursday. It is a match which United have to win and if they do then their destiny is in their own hands. With long-term injuries to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo, plus so many other injury issues as the toll of a run to the Europa League semifinal hits home, Mourinho’s men have surprised everyone to get their top four hopes back on track. If they lose at City then United may just focus on winning the Europa League to get their Champions League spot next season. United have the toughest remaining schedule in the top four battle but it will be close between themselves and Liverpool for the final spot. Having a 23-game unbeaten run in the PL is no mean feat.

Toughest games remaining: at Manchester City (Thursday), at Arsenal (May 6), at Tottenham (May 13)
Predicted final points total: 74 points (4th place finish, on goal difference)

ARSENAL
The Gunners will get plenty of confidence from that FA Cup semifinal win over Man City and it will also give their players plenty to play for in the final weeks of the season as they aim to be in the starting lineup at Wembley. With a trip to Tottenham followed by a home game against Man United in the space of a week, their season will come down to those two games. They have seven matches to play, more than any other team in the PL, and Arsene Wenger may be feeling confident of sneaking into the top four.

Toughest games remaining: at Tottenham (Apr. 29), vs. Manchester United (May 6)
Predicted final points total: 74 points (6th place finish, on goal difference)


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here