Caleb Porter (right), seen here with Timbers owner/president Merritt Paulson, see Seattle's use as a midfield diamond as helpful, given his team's lack of preparation time for Real Salt Lake. (Photo: AP.)

What We Learned from Portland’s Thursday night win over Seattle

  • Portland can still execute their Plan A

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Timbers’ performance in Seattle got so much attention for their change approach (one that actually happened two months ago), people may have forgotten: Portland’s still capable of playing that high-pressure, constantly moving brand of soccer that became associated with Caleb Porter as his name came to prominence. On Thursday, that style was Seattle’s undoing.

Initially, it looked like Portland was going to settle into Saturday’s approach, the match’s first 10 minutes seeing Seattle dominate possession. But then (and in hindsight, suddenly), Portland switched gears. Through the half’s final 30 minutes, Portland’s pressure created turnovers, breaks, and ultimately, goals. The passing and possession numbers were practically even at halftime, but Portland had monopolized the chances, with much of the game played in Seattle’s half.

Last month, Porter labeled his team’s reactive approach as Plan B – the one plan they used in Seattle. Tonight, the Timbers increased their lead to 5-1 because of Plan A. They’ve still got it in them.

  • Seattle’s attack just never gelled

Injuries and absences kept the Sounders’ big names from seeing much time together. Even tonight, the team only played 32 minutes with all of Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Obafemi Martins, and Mauro Rosales on the field. Arguably the most talented team in the league, Seattle never had time to gel.

The extent to which the team should have adapted can be debated, but the effects were evident in this series. The team scored three goals in two games, but two came on long throws, and all of them came decidedly after Sigi Schmid’s kitchen sink had been thrown onto the field.

It’s fair to expect a team with this much talent to be better, hardships be damned. It’s also fair to note more time together’s likely to produce better results. If the band’s back together in February, they’ll be more effective.

But if you’re a Sounders fan, it must be disturbing to note the team were outscored by five during this series while Mauro Rosales was on the bench. With him in the game, Seattle was +3.

  • And their defense wasn’t any better

Through 47 minutes, the defense looked just as bad as they did on Oct. 5 against Colorado (5-1 loss) and Oct. 9 against Vancouver (4-1 defeat). Almost any time Portland hit their line with momentum, the Timbers created a good chance, the one notable exception being Jhon Kennedy Hurtado’s last ditch tackle on Diego Chara in the 14th minute.

In years’ past, Seattle’s decent defensive talent had been protected by their midfield, saved by their goalkeeping. But the midfield shakeup necessitated by Clint Dempsey and Adam Moffat’s arrivals unsettled that protection, while Michael Gspurning’s dip in form meant more mistakes would result in goals.

  • You can’t overlook Jack Jewsbury

Quietly, Jack Jewsbury had a huge series. Though Portland’s right back was beaten on Eddie Johnson’s 76th minute goal (though really, who expects him to win an aerial duel with Eddie Johnson), Jewsbury had already played a part in four Timbers goals during the series:

    • Jewsbury assisted on Portland’s  opener on Saturday, beating Leo Gonzalez to get his cross in to Ryan Johnson.
    • On Portland’s second in Seattle, Jewsbury’s run up the right flank pulled Gonzalez wide, opening up space for Kalif Alhassan, who eventually found Darlington Nagbe.
    • On Thursday, Jewsbury drew the penalty that led to Will Johnson’s goal, his chip beyond Djimi Traoré tempting the Malian defender to raise his left arm to the ball.
    • And on Portland’s second goal, another run up the flank opened up space in Seattle’s defense, with Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace able to create the series-winning goal.

Some of these are just things right backs are supposed to do, but that’s the point. At the beginning of the season, Jewsbury was a central midfielder. When he moved to his new position, it was viewed as a way to get the former captain into the team. Now, the 32-year-old seems like an honest-to-goodness right back, even having an impact going forward.

  • Still some naivete left in these Timbers

If Caleb Porter needed something to keep his team grounded, conceding two goals in three minutes does the trick. That they were two eminently preventable goals will only add tension to the likely Friday film session.

The Sounders’ first came off the same type of long throw that produced the goal in Seattle. Surely the Timbers worked on that during the week? On the second goal, Michael Harrington gets beat by DeAndre Yedlin, the resulting cross seeing Eddie Johnson matched up on Jewsbury.

In both cases, it’s simple stuff, the exact type of mistakes you can point to and wonder if your team temporarily lost focus. In Seattle, it happened when the Timbers were up two. In Portland, they were up four.

Perhaps inexperience didn’t cost Portland against Seattle, but it was still evident in how they closed out the series’ two legs.

  • Sigi Schmid didn’t do himself any favors

Being down 3-0 would have felt too familiar to Sounders’ fans, who may have been asking themselves how many times the team has to be in this situation before they see change.  If Sigi Schmid had the benefit of the doubt before Thursday’s match, a resounding playoff loss to Seattle’s arch rivals (where Schmid elected to start Shalrie Joseph at forward) changed that. It’s going to be hard for the Sounders to justify retaining their coach.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.