In his first year in Portland, Will Johnson set career highs in goals and assists. The skipper is the Timbers' heartbeat.

Johnson, Valeri, Danso goals vault Portland Timbers into MLS’s Western Conference finals

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Vancouver Whitecaps may have won this year’s Cup, but after Thursday night at JELD-WEN Field, the Portland Timbers are the kings of Cascadia – and until two late, desperation goals, it wasn’t particularly close. After carrying a 2-1 lead out of Saturday’s first leg in Seattle, Portland saw goals from Will Johnson, Diego Valeri and Futty Danso give them a 5-1 lead by the 47th minute. Late Seattle goals from DeAndre Yedlin and Eddie Johnson closed the gap, but come full time, Portland had seen their Pacific Northwest rivals out of Major League Soccer’s playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference final with a 3-2 (5-3, aggregate) win.

There the Timbers will face Real Salt Lake, with Jason Kreis’s team eliminating the two-time defending champions Los Angeles Galaxy earlier Thursday evening. Goals from Sebastian Velazquez and Chris Schuler gave RSL a 2-0 win after extra time, setting up a conference final between the Western Conference’s top two seeds.

For Seattle, it is the third year in a row the team has suffered a road collapse in the playoffs. In 2011, the Sounders opened the conference semifinals with a 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake. Last year, the opening leg of their Western Conference final against Los Angeles also ended 3-0. Although this year’s final result looks better on the surface, at one point in the teams’ two-legged match, Seattle was down four goals, a fact that will not be easily forgotten by a fanbase growing wary of postseason disappointment.

source: AP
Left to right, Diego Valeri, Futty Danso, and Will Johnson were Portland’s goal scorers in the Timbers’ 3-2 win over Seattle. (Photo: AP.)

The start was an ominous one for Seattle, who gave up a an open chance to Rodney Wallace to in the third minute. The Costa Rican international, left open after work from Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri collapsed the Sounder defense, put his shot into the side netting.

As the half continued, Portland was consistently able to find attackers running through Seattle’s defense, the Sounders play reminiscent of their 5-1 and 4-1 October losses to Colorado and Vancouver. In the 14th minute, Diego Chara was sent through on goal only to see Jhon Kennedy Hurtado’s last ditch challenge prevent a chance, and in the 19th minute, a poor attempted clearance at the back allowed Wallace another crack from near the penalty spot. An aggressive move off his line allowed Michael Gspurning to block the try.

In the 28th minute, however, Portland broke through. Play off a throw-in deep on Seattle’s left saw Jack Jewsbury draw a penalty on Sounders’ left-center back Djimi Traoré. Running onto a ball laid off by Wallace at the edge of the penalty area, Jewsbury’s attempted chip behind the defense saw Traoré make contact with his left arm, leading to Will Johnson’s opener from the spot.

Fifteen minutes later, Portland broke through the left side of defense again, this time taking advantage of a turnover by Adam Moffat to eventually put Diego Valeri into the six-yard box. His sliding right-footer beat Gspurning into the left side netting, giving Portland a 2-0 (4-1) lead at halftime.

Lethargic coming out of halftime, Seattle gave up a third goal within 90 seconds of kickoff, with their slow reaction to a quick restart allowing Futty Danso to get in front of Traoré on a Wallace cross. The central defender’s header into the left of goal gave Gspurning no chance to prevent Portland going up four.

source: AP
Sigi Schmid saw his team give up three goals in 47 minutes on Thursday, the Sounders down 5-1 on aggregate shortly after halftime. (Photo: AP.)

After bringing Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales off the bench (surprise starter at forward Shalrie Joseph brought off before Adam Moffat), Seattle was able to cash in on their desperate pursuit. In the 74th minute, a long throw from the left by Brad Evans was flicked through the six-yard box to Yedlin, who slammed home Seattle’s first goal. Two minutes later, a cross from Yedlin found Eddie Johnson even was the far post, the U.S. international’s header bringing Seattle within two.

Ultimately, Johnson’s goal was a wake-up call, the Timbers’ intensity picking up after near-30 minutes of playing with a four-goal lead. Brought back into the match by Seattle’s late surge, Portland was able to kill off the game, recording their first playoff series win in franchise history.

The result allows their dream season to continue, the eighth-place finisher in last year’s Western Conference now one series away from an improbable MLS Cup final. It’s a level the rival Sounders have never attained, and a season that started with great expectations concluded with one win in 10, big changes may be in store.

Goals

Portland – 29′ Will Johnson, 44′ Diego Valeri, 47′ Futty Danso

Seattle – 74′ DeAndre Yedlin, 76′ Eddie Johnson

Lineups

Portland: Donovan Ricketts; Jack Jewsbury, Futty Danso, Pa Modou Kah, Michael Harrington; Diego Chara, Will Johnson; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace

Seattle: Michael Gspurning; DeAndre Yedlin, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traoré, Marc Burch; Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Adam Moffat, Clint Dempsey; Shalri Joseph, Eddie Johnson

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks: Big boys to turn up

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Week 26 of the Premier League season is here. This will be a lot of fun with massive games at both ends of the table.

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live online ]

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Arsenal 3-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Norwich City 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA) –  [STREAM]

Man City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Everton 2-1 West Brom  – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Swansea 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Chelsea 3-2 Newcastle – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Bournemouth 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Aston Villa 2-1 Liverpool – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Ranieri on Leicester City’s dream season: “Nobody wake us up please!”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.
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There’s plenty to like about Leicester City’s run to the top of the Premier League, but perhaps nothing is more enjoyable that its manager’s musings.

Claudio Ranieri, the Tinkerman himself, has provided some of the best quips of the season.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

From “I want to be the crazy man in the Premier League” to “It’s like nobody wants to win the league“, the 64-year-old Italian has offered plenty of beauties.

Make way for some more gems, from LCFC.com:

“I think we work so hard to achieve this level. We want to stay at this level. It’s no pressure for us. The pressure was at the beginning to start well, to carry on and maintain the standard of our performance.
“Now we are safe and we want to fight with respect with all our opponents. Face to face, we play with our strength and they play with theirs. If we win, fantastic. If we lose, next match.
“I think the pressure is on the other teams. We have pressure for our little gap. We continue to dream with our fans and we want to continue to dream. Nobody wake us up please!”
We love this man. To go from a short-lived run in Euro qualifying with Greece to this remarkable roll with Leicester has to be a bit dream-like. We get it. And we love that he’s going with it.