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.

Antonio Conte admits he misses Italy, plans to return home

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This is not exactly what Chelsea’s fans will want to hear on a Monday morning after a resounding 4-0 win at Stoke as the Blues moved up to third in the Premier League table.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Antonio Conte, who delivered the Premier League title in his first season in charge of the Blues, and his first season in England, in 2016-17, has been speaking of his desire to return to his homeland.

Conte, 48, spoke to Italian radio station RadioUno about his experience in the Premier League and left the door wide-open for a return to Serie A in the coming months as he admitted he misses Italy.

“I miss it, that’s beyond doubt,” Conte said. “Italy is my homeland, so once I have had some good experiences, formative experiences, important and life-changing experiences, I’ll be back. I don’t know when but that’s the aim.

“It’s always difficult to predict the future. Us managers have the most precarious job of all. Today you’re working, tomorrow you’re out. I want to succeed, to finish one project and make the right decision about the next. This experience has given me so much, has improved me so much, but perhaps in the future I won’t be a manager. Perhaps I’ll work as a director of football. I don’t know.”

Conte has been linked with the managers job at Inter Milan and with comments like this, those links will not go away.

Adding further fuel to the fire was his decision to only signed an improved contract over the summer rather than extending his stay at Stamford Bridge. Conte’s current deal is due to expire at the end of the 2018-19 season.

After a tough summer and a tough start to the season which saw a feud with Diego Costa dominate the talk surrounding Chelsea, a loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield, an opening day defeat at home to Burnley, plus some questionable dealings in the transfer market, the pressure was piling on Conte.

His team have responded with five wins in their next six games in all competitions and are right up there with the early pacesetters in the Premier League.

That said, the fact that Conte was under any pressure whatsoever was a joke considering what he had achieved last season when nobody expected Chelsea to seriously challenge for the title. Therein lies why he could want out when his current deal at Chelsea is up, or maybe even sooner than that.

In situations like this I often think about what Eric Cantona did: leave before anybody else expects you to and you’ll go out, and remain, a hero.

Mourinho escapes ban after sending off

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Jose Mourinho will face no further action from the English Football Association after he was sent off at Southampton on Saturday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Towards the end of United’s 1-0 win — which keeps them unbeaten and in second-place in the standings — Mourinho encroached slightly onto the pitch (we are talking half a yard here) and referee Craig Pawson sent him to the stands after being called over by fourth official Mike Jones who pulled Mourinho back into his technical area.

Mourinho, in true fashion, then delayed his sending off by shaking the hands of every member of Southampton’s coaching staff before he took his place in the stands for the final few seconds of the game.

After being sent off nine times in his career for various discrepancies over the years, Mourinho is no stranger to having the FA’s rule book thrown at him.

However there is an argument out there, and a credible one, that due to his high profile and history of misdemeanors Mourinho is treated rather differently than most managers.

In his long list of previous incidents where he has stepped out of line, stepping slightly over the touchline at Southampton was incredibly minor.

Common sense has prevailed.

MLS Snapshot: POR carve up 9-man ORL, keep pace with VAN, SKC

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The game in 100 words (or less): All of a sudden, the Western Conference has sprung to life as the 2017 regular season winds down — Vancouver Whitecaps, winners of five of their last seven games (unbeaten); Portland Timbers, winners of four of their last six following Sunday’s 3-0 victory over 10-man nine-man Orlando City SC at Providence Park; Sporting Kansas City, losers of just two of their last 15 games; Seattle Sounders, who had their 13-game unbeaten run snapped on Saturday; and Real Salt Lake, winners of four of their last five. With fewer than a handful of games remaining, Vancouver’s lead on Portland and Sporting KC remains one point after all three sides won this weekend; RSL and Seattle are separated by just three points, three points back of second and third. As for Saturday’s game, Diego Valeri is now a top-two candidate for MVP after scoring two more goals (his 19th and 20th, to go with 9 assists) against 10-man Orlando.

[ MORE: TFC’s Shield celebration delayed | RSL end Seattle’s run at 13 ]

Three moments that mattered

15′ — Valeri extends his streak, makes it 1-0 — The last time Valeri failed to score in a game, the date was July 23.

29′ — Mattocks taps it home after Asprilla’s cross — Huge credit to Diego Chara for the through ball to spring Dairon Asprilla into acres of space. The ball to Mattocks was simple, and he got it right.

59′ — Valeri gets no. 20, makes it 3-0 — Joe Bendik managed to deny Mattocks’ initial effort, but Valeri followed up when everyone in white had already quit on the play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Valeri (15′ – PK, 59′), Mattocks (29′)

The 2 Robbies: City Sparkle, Chelsea Shine, Liverpool Hold On

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe take a look at some of the weekend’s biggest storylines, including Liverpool’s thrilling victory over Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur’s frantic win away to West Ham United and Manchester City’s demolition of Crystal Palace.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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