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.

Daly collapses during match, treated for heat illness

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HOUSTON (AP) Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly collapsed during the final minute of a National Women’s Soccer League match against the Seattle Reign as temperatures climbed into the 90s.

The 25-year-old Daly was stretchered off the field and taken to the hospital, where the team said she was being treated for heat illness.

The temperature at BBVA Compass Stadium was 92 degrees at the 3 p.m. kickoff. The Reign won 2-0.

[ MORE: Perisic talking with Man Utd? ]

The NWSL issued a statement that said the league had worked with the Dash before the season to schedule any afternoon games early in the year to help avoid heat issues. The teams took a hydration break late in the match.

“We will immediately review these measures to prevent this situation from occurring in the future,” the statement said.

Reign coach Laura Harvey posted to Twitter: “Proud of the team today. Some of the hottest conditions I’ve seen. Road games are tough but that was crazy.”

MLS roundup: Outrageous dive, posts doom ‘Caps; Ramirez stays red hot

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Six matches are in the books on a busy Saturday in Major League Soccer, and five of them finished 1-0.

How they got there? Much different stories. With the Cali Clasico still to play, let’s dig into the five that followed Seattle 1-0 Portland.

[ MORE: Perisic to Man Utd? ]


Vancouver Whitecaps 0-1 DC United

It’s especially difficult to win on the road in Major League Soccer, unless the hosts fritter away four good chances off the woodwork — including a Cristian Techera PK — and give away a spot kick of their own. Lamar Neagle converted the 61st offering after a sinister dive from Jose Guillermo Ortiz. He was taken off soon after, and is probably going to miss sometime when the DisCo is done with him. Outrageous.

New York Red Bulls 2-1 New England Revolution

Not one, not two, nor three, but four New England players saw a low cross slide by them for Daniel Royer to finish as New York came from behind to take all three points at Red Bull Arena. Cody Cropper committed a gaffe that allowed Bradley Wright-Phillips to equalize after a Lee Nguyen PK had put the Revs ahead early.

Colorado Rapids 1-0 Sporting KC

Homegrown defender and University of Denver product Kortne Ford has his first MLS goal, as the Rapids surprised the Western Conference leaders on Saturday. SKC outshot Colorado by nearly 20 attempts (Shoulder shrug emoji).

Minnesota United 1-0 Orlando City

There were questions as to whether NASL superstar Christian Ramirez could translate his game to Major League Soccer.

Yes. The answer is yes.

Ramirez has eight goals in 13 MLS matches, and should be hearing his name from a certain Bruce Arena around Gold Cup time. Those USMNT dreams of last season should come true.

Bobby Shuttleworth made six saves for his third shutout of the season. All have come at home.

Real Salt Lake 1-0 Philadelphia Union

Joao Plata keeps shooting, and the tiny Ecuadorian menace keeps scoring, too. His 36th minute goal was enough for the hosts at Rio Tinto.

Raiola: Zlatan to “100 percent” stay in Europe for two seasons

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be 35 and coming off major knee surgery, but that isn’t stopping suitors from lining up across Europe.

[ MORE: Perisic to Man Utd? ]

Ibrahimovic’s agent, Mino Raiola, says that MLS is not an option for the Swede over the next two seasons. From Sky Sports:

“Many clubs have asked for Zlatan. He can play two more years and will stay in Europe, 100 per cent.”

It would make sense for Ibrahimovic to stay around Manchester United, where he is admired by Jose Mourinho and coming off a season that showed he’s still capable of contributing at a high level.

But he remains beloved in Italy, and would be effective for most clubs in the Top 5 leagues should he return at even 75 percent of the Zlatan we’ve seen regularly.

Report: Manchester United, Inter Milan keen on Perisic deal

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Manchester United wants Ivan Perisic, and both the player and his current club are all about it.

Perisic, 28, is ready to leave Inter Milan, and the Serie A mainstays are happy to accept $46 million for his services according to Sky Sports.

[ MORE: No China for Costa ]

Primarily a left winger, Perisic moved to Inter from Wolfsburg at the start of the 2015-16 season. He scored 10 goals and added nine assists in Serie A play this season, and has kept up his production pace since moving from the Bundesliga to Italy.

United needs stars and depth for its Champions League campaign, and Perisic would buttress an attack with Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan amongst others. He was a difference maker for Croatia at EURO 2016, and can do the same at Old Trafford.