MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of their visit from Seattle

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  • All things trending Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Yesterday, I was asked a couple of times: “Who do you have on Thursday? Timbers? Or Sounders?” I generally said the Timbers are up 2-1, so they’re most likely to win, but the Sounders have a better change than most people think.

But once I sat down to write my preview and looked at the bigger picture — a picture my narrow-minded, try to balance all aspects of Cascadia focus seemed to be missing — things looked horrible for Seattle.

Consider:

    • The Timbers carry a nine-match unbeaten run into tonight’s second leg. Two of those games were wins over Seattle.
    • In 38 all-competiton games (regular season, U.S. Open Cup, playoffs), the Timbers have only lost only six times. Every other MLS team has at least 11 all-competition losses.
    • At home, the Timbers have only lost once all season: all the way back on March 9 to the good version of Montréal.
    • The Timbers have the league’s best goal difference and the league’s second-best difference at home (Seattle was -14 this year away from CenturyLink).
    • In four games against Seattle, Portland’s lost once: a 1-0 at CenturyLink on August 25.
    • Portland has no new injuries, no new suspensions. The team that build all these trends will be on the field tonight.

The one qualm about Portland’s 2013: 15 ties. But draw tonight, and the Timbers are in the conference finals.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers]

  • You know what you’re going to get

With no absences, Portland’s lineup’s easy to predict – a rarity in the 2013 postseason. With the exception of the Dynamo, every team has tweaked (or is expected to tweak) their teams between games. Even the now-eliminated Supporters’ Shield winners (New York) made significant changes after their draw in Houston.

But with Portland, there’s no reason to change. Donovan Ricketts will be protected by Jack Jewsbury, Fatty Danso, Pa Modou Kah and Michael Harrington, a defensive foursome who will be shielded by Will Johnson and Diego Chara. Rodney Wallace will man the left wing, with Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe providing the connections in the middle.

The only question headed into game one was at striker, where Caleb Porter has four players (three healthy) who’ve started this season. But Ryan Johnson was always the most-likely choice, and while Porter was coy before kickoff, he went back to the Jamaican international in Seattle. Having espoused his virtues against Seattle’s central defenders (Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traoré), Porter’s likely to stick with his most-prolific forward, Johnson now up to 10 goals on the season.

[WATCH  the game tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN or watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra]

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Diego Valeri led Major League Soccer in assists this season but was pulled after 60 minutes in Seattle on Saturday.
  • Do they need the real Diego Valeri to step up?

Saturday was one of Diego Valeri’s least influential performances since coming to Portland, and shortly after he was brought off in favor of Kalif Alhassan, the Timbers scored, the Ghanaian midfielder setting up Darlington Nagbe on the game-winning goal. For somebody who garnered fringe MVP consideration this season, Valeri was a relative non-factor on Saturday.

Relative is the key term. The attention he demands still influences the game. As Diego Chara found early room to burst forward and Darlington Nagbe had more space to choose from, you couldn’t help but wonder how much Osvaldo Alonso, Adam Moffat, and Brad Evans were prioritizing the Argentine creator. Even though he was quiet, Valeri’s team still scored two goals on the road.

So no, Portland doesn’t need the real Diego Valeri to step up. Still possibly slowed by a groin injury, the real Diego Valeri may not be back until next season. But as we saw on Saturday, this version of the Portland’s maestro can still influence games, if subtly so.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers]

  • Playing with fire on set pieces

Caleb Porter may have been happy with how Saturday’s game went, but giving up so many set pieces to Seattle, Portland is playing with fire. The Timbers have been better defending restarts since the Kah-Danso partnership took hold, but they gave up 11 corners on Saturday (earning one). Of the 21 fouls they committed, 15 were in their own half. Even if you are the better team on set pieces (and on most of the Saturday’s, Portland was in control), you’re going to give up chances. Eddie Johnson had one early, heading wide of the right post. Clint Dempsey had one late, redirecting a corner kick off the cross bar.

The easy answer here is fewer fouls, right? Of course, but that’s easier said than done. You give up possession, you play in your own half, you’re going to commit more fouls. You’re going to give up more corners. You’re going to increase the chances that a missed assignment, a whistle that doesn’t go your way, or just penalty area randomness bites you.

Perhaps this is the lesser of evils for Caleb Porter, but it is a consequence of his shift in approach. The possession-based, play-in-their half style that’d he advocated earlier in the year? They’re now allowing their opponents to bring it to them. These are the drawbacks.

[MORE: Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’]

  • If inexperience will be an issue in this series, it’s now or never

It wasn’t a factor on Saturday. Portland made all the right decisions, never wavering while letting Seattle dictated the match. They turned 15 minutes of Sounder control into an early, 1-0 lead, and their poise on the second goal betrayed the fact most of their team has no meaningful postseason experience. If CenturyLink is supposed to be one of MLS’s biggest challenges, it didn’t show on Saturday. If anything, Seattle’s failure to take their chances could be seen as home crowd expectations getting to them.

But that’s not what happened. If anything, the crowd was a non-factor, both teams so used to playing in that atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean the same will hold true on Thursday. It’s an elimination game, JELD-WEN is not CenturyLink, and again, these Timbers have never been here before. Potentially 90 minutes from the end of their season, how will they handle these heightened expectations?

Last year, the West’s first place team (San Jose) won on the road, returned home, and lost in front of their own fans. Whether history repeats itself will come down to Portland’s ability to play as they have the last eight months. If they let the occasion get to them, Seattle’s capable of going what they did last year in Salt Lake: Advancing on the road.

PL Preview: Manchester City vs. Newcastle

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  • Newcastle has lost 8 PL away matches in a row
  • Man City last lost at home in PL play to Chelsea in Dec 2016
  • Newcastle has picked up 1 of a possible 30 points vs. PL top half this season

Manchester City has a great chance to rebound from its first loss of the season as they host struggling Newcastle at the Etihad on Saturday, live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, HERE

The Magpies have picked up their terrible mid-season form of late, but still remain just three points above the drop. They are unbeaten in three, with a win and two draws, and have lost just once in their last five.

Through Newcastle’s losing streak, the Magpies struggled to keep the ball out of their own net, with defensive issues all over the place. They suffered through a nine-game winless run where they conceded 19 goals. However, of late, the roles have reversed, and suddenly they can’t score. In their last four games, they have just two goals.

City, meanwhile, have a few injuries to deal with on the defensive side of things, where they cannot afford them. Fabian Delph went down in the last match and could be out for significant time, along with Vincent Kompany who continues to show his age and history of fitness issues.

INJURIES: Manchester City – OUT: Fabian Delph (knee), Benjamin Mendy (knee). QUESTIONABLE: David Silva (illness), Vincent Kompany (fitness). Newcastle – OUT: Jesus Gamez (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: Dwight Gayle (knock).


What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on build-up of injuries: “In these situations, it always depends on the mentality of the players, if they can make a step forward. If they can they play in positions that are not natural positions and the other guys help them, everything is going well.”

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez on not having a full squad: “When you have a short blanket, if you pull it to your face, your feet are cold, if you cover your feet, your top half is cold.”

Prediction

Newcastle has been ok of late, but not nearly enough to keep Manchester City out of the back of the net. This could get ugly, with the Citizens looking to rebound from their season’s first loss. 3-0 Man City with the possibility that it could get much worse if Newcastle gives up.

PL Preview: Burnley vs. Manchester United

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  • Burnley has 1 win vs. Man United in last 23 meetings
  • Manchester United has not conceded a goal in 2018
  • Paul Pogba is joint-top of the league with 9 assists

A critical top of the table battle comes our way from Turf Moor (!!) on Saturday as Manchester United travels to Burnley live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, HERE

Since losing at Chelsea back in early November, Manchester United in unbeaten away from home and has won four of the five road matches. Burnley, meanwhile, has lost three matches in a row to start the new year and has not won in Premier League play since December 12th against Stoke City.

The goalscoring form of each team is also in stark contrast. Manchester United has not allowed a goal in any competition in 2018, and last conceded back on Boxing Day in a 2-2 draw with this Burnley side. The Clarets, meanwhile, have just one goal in their last three Premier League games and just three goals in their last six.

INJURIES: Burnley – OUT: Chris Wood (knee), Stephen Ward (knee), Jonathan Walters (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Chris Taylor (ribs). Manchester United – OUT: Daley Blind (undisclosed), Eric Bailly (ankle), Michael Carrick (heart), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Burnley manager Sean Dyche on the gap in riches between clubs: “I don’t think any of us are surprised by the gap in the Premier League – I think it’s been there a long time and it’s getting harder year on year since the business model of football has changed.”

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho on focusing despite transfer rumors: “In this moment, [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan our player, [Alexis] Sanchez an Arsenal player and with a match tomorrow, I want to switch off and focus on the most important thing, which is the match.”

Prediction

Burnley may be coming back down to Earth, but they are still a formidable team with great organization, and Manchester United will be once again held to a draw, this time 1-1.

Alexis Sanchez in Arsenal squad, could play vs Crystal Palace

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Ahead of his nearly imminent move away from the Emirates, Alexis Sanchez could make an appearance for Arsenal against Crystal Palace this weekend as he was with the squad at the team hotel on Friday night, according to reports in England.

According to the reports, Arsene Wenger has not decided if he will play Sanchez against Palace or not, as any potential injury could seriously jeopardize any outgoing transfer in the works. However, naming him to the bench and allowing Sanchez to make one last appearance in front of the home fans would be a nice touch before he leaves, likely for Manchester United.

It probably doesn’t help Wenger’s selection that oft-injured Danny Welbeck will miss the match after picking up a muscle problem in training.

Sanchez did not travel with the team to Bournemouth last weekend as Arsenal lost 2-1 in stunning fashion. Sanchez has missed four Premier League games this season, and Arsenal has lost three of them.

The reports state Sanchez trained with the Arsenal first team on Friday, but only because the youth team he trained with the day before had left for a road trip.

Reports: LA Galaxy trades Gyasi Zardes to Columbus for Ola Kamara

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According to a reports by the LA Times and by ESPN, the LA Galaxy have traded US international Gyasi Zardes along with allocation money to the Columbus Crew for striker Ola Kamara.

Both reports state that Columbus will receive $400,000 in guaranteed allocation money in the deal, plus another $100,000 should Kamara score 12 goals next season to trigger the incentive.

Zardes was once a force along the wing for Bruce Arena and the Galaxy, but the 26-year-old has declined heavily in the last two seasons as injuries and poor form have held him to just eight goals over the last two seasons, including just two last campaign. Meanwhile, Kamara has been a star for Columbus in his first two years in Major League Soccer, scoring 16 goals in 2016 before netting another 18 last season, leaving him third in the league in goals scored over those two seasons.

The LA Times report states that Kamara will earn a new contract after the trade, giving him a raise over his current $482,500 yearly salary.

Zardes is an interesting case who shouldn’t be given up on just yet. A homegrown player for the Galaxy, he scored 17 goals in the 2014 season, including on in the MLS Cup Finals as the Galaxy won it all. He earned a seemingly permanent place on the USMNT as a result, and has 37 caps to this date. However, his goalscoring form has since evaporated, leaving him with no more than six goals in an MLS season since, and has just six goals in those 37 caps for the national team.

The Galaxy will need to acquire an additional international roster spot in order to activate Kamara for the season opener on March 4th against Portland, as they have filled up their seven spots as of now.