Timbers Real Salt Lake Soccer

Western or Eastern Conference final: Which series will showcase MLS best?


Okay, so after all the craziness of the last few nights, it’s safe to say that this seasons MLS Cup playoffs have been the most dramatic in recent history.

Extra-time goals, comebacks galore and intense rivalries have all played out so far during the play-in games and the Conference semis. Now we’re down to four.

The Eastern Conference finals will be played out between Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo, while the Western crown will go to either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake.

But the question I’m asking you guys, yeah you, which game will best show what MLS is all about?

(MORE: Portland beat Seattle 3-2, make Conference final after dominant display)

Well for starters, I’m slightly glad these four teams made it to the final four because it proves that with draft parity, salary caps and strong management you can succeed in this league. Portland, SKC, RSL and Houston all have fantastic soccer-specific stadiums that are fairly new, they have strong owners who lead from the front and put their fans first and they also haven’t got any massive DPs who draw the crowds.

RSL beat LA Galaxy’s superstars to make the Western Conference final.

They’re proper MLS teams, more about the collective unit than individuals. Look, I love Seattle, LA and the New York Red Bulls and all the razzmatazz and glamor they bring to the league. But that’s not really what MLS is about. The league is about being sustainable, being smart with cash, using what you have and growing the fanbase in the cities and markets you’re in. All four conference finalists do that fantastically well.

When I think of MLS, I think back to discussions I’ve had with many journalists who say, “it’s so hard to predict this league, harder than any other league in the world.” This seasons playoffs has already proven that. The three biggest spending franchise have been knocked off in the Conference semis and teams like Portland and RSL, who’ve had complete rebuilds and rely on a mix of youth, smart draft picks and inspired signings, are prevailing.

But back to that question… which Conference final showcases what MLS is all about?

I could argue many reasons for both, but given the large number of USMNT players on SKC and Houston’s squads and the fact that they’ve met at this stage in the playoffs many times before, I’m going to plump for the Western Conference.

What Jason Kreis has done at RSL has been miraculous. The vision, leadership and cohesive bond he’s fostered at all levels of the club is fantastic. When they shipped out the likes of Fabian Espindola, Jameson Olave, Jonny Steele and Will Johnson last season, many were thinking “what the heck is going on?” But the main man knew what was going on. The clear out worked a treat as Kreis made room for talented youngsters like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velazquez, Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval and many others to break into the team and show just how good the club is at fostering young talent. That’s a true MLS hallmark and shows how sustainable Real Salt Lake are, not only this season but for many years. Kreis has done that, but the players, management and ownership have bought into it massively. The approach is paying off.

(MORE: RSL down LA Galaxy in extra-time, make Conference finals)

Then we have Portland, who like RSL underwent a huge transformation on the field over the last offseason. In came former U.S. Olympic men’s soccer head coach and Akron University pioneer Caleb Porter, and well, as they say the rest is history. The Timbers already won the regular-season crown for the Western Conference by playing attractive attacking soccer that pins the opposition into their own half, and now look like the favorites to make their first-ever MLS Cup appearance in just their third season in MLS. Young players like Darlington Nagbe, Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Kalif Alhassan have flourished under Porter and the opportunity to give a college coach the chance to shine on the big-stage, then seeing him do so, must give Timbers owner Merritt Paulsson a huge smile.

source: AP
Portland’s players salute their fanatical support as they defeat big spending Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders.

Both sides haven’t spent much on transfer fees and have passionate fanbases that have been staunch supporters of the USMNT, having hosted internationals both at JELD-WEN Field and the Rio Tinto. Portland and RSL have made it to the Conference final the hard way. When everyone was talking about LA Galaxy’s three DPs and the millions of dollars Seattle were spending, many dismissed that the Timbers and RSL could stick with the big boys out West. But they have… and they’ve surpassed them.

RSL were at the forefront when Portland finally changed their ways of bringing in expensive veteran foreign imports, as former head coach John Spencer lost his job following a 3-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake in July 2012. The penny had dropped as to how an MLS club should be run. Over a year later, can the Timbers go full circle and announce themselves as the model all MLS clubs should follow when they face RSL in the Western Conference final?

All four teams left in the MLS playoffs epitomize exactly what the league is all about. But Portland and RSL take the biscuit.

Cisse arrested in sex tape investigation

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Former Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse is embroiled in a bizarre investigation into the extortion of a sex tape.

The 34-year-old French striker has been arrested by French police who have confirmed that are investigating attempts to bribe another international footballer.

[ MORE: Klinsmann sends Johnson home ]

Unconfirmed reports from France claim that the individual in question is France and Lyon midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, a former teammate of Cisse at both Marseille and with the French national team.

According to Reuters news agency, Cisse was questioned because he was familiar with the people involved and in total four individuals were arrested as it is alleged they plotted to ask for money from Valbuena for the sex tape to not be released. It is unclear if the tape is of Valbeuna and his partner Fanny Lafon, or if other individuals are involved.

[ MORE: Dust settles, questions remain for USMNT future ]

Cisse won the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool and scored 24 goals in 79 games during his three-year stay at Anfield until 2007. He also had spells with Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League, while he is currently out of contract after being released by Ligue 1 side Bastia following nine goals in 41 appearances. Cisse is due to appear on the French version of “Dancing with the Stars” in the coming months.

Further reports from France say that Cisse is expected to be “exonerated” and that the existence of the video is “not proven” at this point.

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?