MLS Playoff Preview: Timbers look to finish off rival Sounders

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  • Portland won series opener in Seattle, 2-1
  • Timbers are unbeaten at home since March
  • Sounders expect injured Yedlin, Martins to be available

PORTLAND, Ore. — Maybe we’re over-thinking this. Seattle has been a consistent postseason participant and have an absolutely loaded squad, but they’ve also won one of their last nine games, and traveling to JELD-WEN Field on Thursday, they’re facing a Portland team with all the indicators in their favor: nine games unbeaten; two straight wins over Seattle; 15 games unbeaten at home; the league’s best goal difference; only five losses in 35 games. Between two teams tending in opposite directions, is there any reason to believe Seattle can knock off the Timbers on Thursday?

Of course there is. Seattle shouldn’t be considered favorites, but with weapons like Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey, they certainly have a puncher’s chance. A clicking Osvaldo Alonso is the best defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer, Brad Evans has gone from massively underrated to finally appreciated, and on Saturday, Mauro Rosales showed he can still influence a game. The Sounders have enough weapons to land a punch, especially if an inexperienced Timbers team proves willing to expose their chin.

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

There are, however, a few reasons to think Seattle will be better than Saturday and, by inference (they only lost by one), capable of getting a result in Portland:

  • Seattle should be significantly healthier. Right back DeAndre Yedlin, who turned his ankle in the Sounders’ first round game against Colorado, will almost certainly play, and the team is optimistic Obafemi Martins will return from a groin injury. Each could provide an upgrade on Thursday, be it as a starter (Yedlin’s most likely role) or off the bench (Martins, who could yet start).
  • The Sounders could switch formations, going away from the narrow diamond midfield that cost them on Saturday. A move back to their typical 4-4-2 could allow them to move Rosales into the starting lineup, moving Evans to the left and Clint Dempsey up top. With Lamar Neagle suspended (yellow card accumulation), the decision could come down to whether Martins is able to start.
  • Seattle will have also learned from Portland’s tactics, with people now starting to realize the possession-dependent Timbers that’d been adored throughout the season disappeared two months ago. Against a Timber team willing to cede possession, the Sounders must be willing to play the extra pass and try to create better chances. On Saturday, they should have chosen quality over quantity.

But whereas Seattle will institute some of those tweaks, Portland’s not hard to predict. The only lineup question ahead of Saturday’s game was who would start at striker. But with Ryan Johnson getting on the scoresheet in Seattle, the Jamaica international seems likely to get the call on Thursday, particularly given the Sounders are unlikely to make any changes in central defense.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Seattle Sounders ahead of Thursday’s visit to Portland]

“We felt his strength in the air, his physicality, ability to hold the ball up, his athleticism, his pace and power was a good matchup against [Sounders defenders Jhon Kennedy] Hurtado and [Djimi] Traore,” Caleb Porter explained, asked for the reasons he selected Johnson Saturday night.

source:  Even if Portland stays with the same XI, one change is guaranteed: The crowd. The over-20,000 who’ll sellout JELD-WEN will strive to impress against their regional rivals, Seattle’s fans having had their chance to do the same on Saturday. Then, the Sounders’ Emerald City Supporters’ weekend tifo featured a large skull beneath a banner reading “WELCOME TO YOUR NIGHTMARE” (right). The Timbers Army will certainly try to outdo their rivals in support.

But beyond personnel and lineup choices, changing tactics or shifting venues, the implicit question people seem to be asking is whether Portland’s for real. Their final standing in the West says one thing, as do all the underlying numbers, but having never made it this far before (and having undergone such a steep and unexpected rise to get here), people are understandably incredulous. Not only has Portland never won before, but we’ve never really see a team like this — a collection of disparate parts assembled under a neophyte boss — succeed in MLS. Until that happens, people will compare them to the Los Angeleses, Real Salt Lakes, and Seattles of the world, teams they’re used to seeing in the postseason, and wonder whether they can get it done.

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

On Thursday, Portland will either continue all the trends or justify the doubts, but given those doubts have been proven wrong throughout the season, it might be best to acknowledge the data, see a team that’s lost only five times this year, and recognize Portland are probably much bigger favorites than we’re giving them credit for.

MLS Snapshot: Jozy double downs Dynamo, Toronto wins 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): Toronto FC had too much firepower for defensively challenged Houston, and the hosts carved up the Dynamo for a 2-0 win north of the border. Giovinco was creative and flashy if not sharp, and Jozy Altidore was the benefactor as the American bagged both goals. After an early spell of Houston possession off the opening whistle, Toronto dominated from start to finish, with the midfield bossing the game.

Three moments that mattered

16′ – Raheem Edwards on the ball out wide, he burst into the box and – seeing Giovinco draw 2 defenders in an offside position – he cut back for Altidore who finished cooly from the spot. Too easy for the opener.

32′– Jozy doubled his lead as he played an absolutely brilliant one-two with Giovinco. The Italian popped it over the top as Altidore slipped through the line, and the USMNT star had the simplest of finishes.

85′ – Houston looked to get back into things by pouring men forward, but to no avail. The closest they came was off a corner as Alex ripped off a shot that sailed over the bar.

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

Man of the match: Victor Vazquez/Marco Delgado

Goalscorers: Jozy Altidore (16′, 32′)

Juventus bumped by Atalanta at the death

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Juventus is still in firm control of the Serie A title race, but they were dealt a slight setback as Atalanta secured a 2-2 draw with a dramatic 89th minute equalizer in Bergamo.

Dani Alves had given Juventus the lead in the 83rd minute on a header after a brilliant far-post cross by Miralem Pjanic, but Remo Freuler answered late as he grabbed a point.

The goal came on a fortunate bounce as Pjanic and substitute Stephen Lichtensteiner got tangled up on the ball and failed to clear, and the ball squirted to Freuler who suddenly found himself free in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus keeper came off his line to smother the chance, but he failed to completely collect, and the ball again popped free. Freuler followed up the loose ball, and with a trio of Juventus defenders flying in, the 25-year-old Swiss attacker knocked it in.

The draw was deserving for Atalanta, who had controlled the game for much of the first half, and went ahead just seconds before the break on a goal by Andrea Conti. Atalanta outshot Juventus 7-4 in the first half, 3-1 on shots on target. Juventus took over control in the second half, and got back on level terms just five minutes after the break as Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola put one in his own net.

Alves’ goal put Juventus in front, but that lead only lasted six minutes. Juventus goes nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with the draw, but Roma has the chance to cut that to six if they can beat Lazio at home on Sunday.

MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.