MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of Sunday’s visit to RSL

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Previewing the first left of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final (Sunday, 9 p.m. Eastern), here are the must-knows about the Portland Timbers ahead of their trip to Real Salt Lake:

  • Portland’s reached another level

The Timbers will go into Sunday’s match unbeaten in 10 — their second double-digit run of that type this season — but if you need something more concrete to measure their progress, consider their season series with Seattle. Portland played their Cascadia rivals five times this year, the first three games playing out as low scoring coin flips: two 1-0s (split between the teams) and a 1-1. In the playoffs, though? Portland was up 2-0 into the 90th minute in Seattle (2-1 final) and 3-0 at one point at JELD-WEN (3-2 final).

In that sense, Portland seems to be improving. Or peaking. Whatever you want to call it, their improvement makes sense. This is a team that was remade in the offseason. Most of their players have yet to complete their first year under their new coach. If Portland’s results have improved at the end of the season, it’s because the team’s taken a natural course. The more they know each other (and what each other’s capable of), the better they perform.

  • So how relevant is their history with Salt Lake?

Back in 2011, Portland won their first meeting with Real Salt Lake, a 1-0 victory that snapped RSL’s 18-game regular-season unbeaten run. Since, the Timbers are 0-5-3 against Jason Kreis’s team, swept in 2011 before going 0-2-2 this year under Caleb Porter.

Given Portland may be at “another level” (as we claim, above), how relevant is that past? Well, the frequency with which the sides played is hard to ignore. Three hundred sixty minutes isn’t meaningless, even if the final scoreline (9-6, RSL) sees the teams closer than the record may hint.

source: AP
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.)

At a minimum, the results provide a baseline. With the exception of the team’s last regular season meeting in Sandy (4-2, RSL), the games were always close, but even in that game, injuries, absences, and suspensions let to Porter trying a 3-6-1 formation – the only time all year he’d do so. That result can  go out the window.

If Portland truly has stepped up this postseason, RSL is close enough for them to catch.

  • But for that matter, how relevant is Seattle?

The big takeaway from the Seattle series (beyond the final result) is how the Sounders set up. They played a diamond midfield, a shape Portland will also see against RSL.

Caleb Porter:

“So we’re really in a rhythm playing basically (against) a similar system. I think that’s a real key in a quick turnaround.

There’s not a ton of tactical changes that we’re going to have to make. A lot of the same things we will want to exploit against Salt Lake are things we wanted to exploit against Seattle.

I think our guys will have a lot of confidence knowing we just faced a really talented team in Seattle, playing a diamond and now we go face another really talented team playing a diamond.”

The main difference, though: Seattle had been playing the diamond for a matter of weeks. For them, it was the formation that slowed their October collapse. For Real Salt Lake, it’s the formation they’ve mastered. With it, they’ve never finished lower than third in the West over the last four seasons.

  • Travel; turnaround; altitude

As Saturday’s match in Houston showed, this turnaround is ridiculous. All four conference finalists played mid-week, had two days rest, and are expected to play conference final legs this weekend. On Saturday, the result was a bunch of rubber legs. Don’t expect Sunday’s match to be much different.

Portland and Kansas City have (or, had) the extra challenge of travel, taking a big chunk out of their preparation and recovery time. Add in the fact that the just-above-sea-level Timbers are traveling to Salt Lake — around 4,200 feet high — and Portland had to overcome on more small wrinkle.

The question for Porter is how he manages his squad. At forward, does Max Uruiti or José Valencia get the call over Ryan Johnson? Or was bringing Urruti on for Johnson in Thursday’s second half enough? How long can Diego Valeri go? To what extent are players like Diego Chara, Will Johnson, and Jack Jewsbury going to slow come minute 75? And does the whole team adopt a different approach knowing they’ll be more susceptible to being spent come full time?

Another small factor: Both of Portland’s semifinal legs were played on turf. The recovery time coming off the fake stuff just isn’t the same. Anecdotes about injury frequency or how terrible some turf plays may have become apocryphal, but recovery time on turf versus grass can still be a real issue.

By the end of this match, the Timbers could be dead, flatted by a series of small factors that have stacked up against them.

  • source: Getty Images
    In his first year in Portland, Will Johnson set career highs in goals, assists, shots, and minutes played. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    A different Will Johnson

One year ago, Johnson had just played his last game with Real Salt Lake, his team eliminated in the conference semifinals by the Seattle Sounders. Now the former RSL midfielder, who spent five years in Utah, returns as captain of the team trying to keep the hosts from their second MLS Cup final.

But the change of uniform isn’t the only difference with Will Johnson. The 26-year-old Canadian international set career highs in goals (nine), assists (five), and shots (55). Perhaps not coincidentally, he also played more minutes (2520) than he ever has before.

Yet look around, see all the other players having their best MLS seasons in Portland, and Johnson seems to be one of many players in the right place at the right time. All of Darlington Nagbe (nine) and Rodney Wallace (seven) set career highs in goals, Ryan Johnson (nine goals) was more productive than he’s been since 2009, while Diego Chará was more influential than he was throughout his first two MLS seasons.

So maybe Will Johnson hasn’t changed that much. Maybe his surroundings are bringing the best out of him. Regardless, Johnson (like many of his teammates) is the best year of his career. And in that light, he’s not the same player RSL sent to Portland this winter.

Premier League player Power Rankings – Week 2

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For the second time in the 2017-18 Premier League season we rank the form players and, somewhat predictably, there are plenty of new entries and lots of chopping and changing in our rankings.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Paul Pogba (Man United) – New entry
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – Down 1
  3. David Luiz (Chelsea) – New entry
  4. Javier Hernandez (West Ham) – New entry
  5. Wayne Rooney (Everton) – New entry
  6. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Up 2
  7. David Silva (Man City) – Down 3
  8. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Man United) – New entry
  9. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield) – Up 7
  10. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City) – New entry
  11. Marcos Alonso (Chelsea) – New entry
  12. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) – Down 7
  13. Willian (Chelsea) – New entry
  14. Steve Mounie (Huddersfield) – Down 12
  15. Manolo Gabbiadini (Southampton) – New entry
  16. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – Down 9
  17. Jordan Pickford (Everton) – New entry
  18. Harry Maguire (Leicester City) – New entry
  19. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Down 9
  20. Anthony Martial (Man United) – New entry

Men In Blazers pod: Chelsea, Man United, Rooney all feature

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Rog and Davo break down Chelsea’s win at Tottenham’s footballing Airbnb, Wembley. Plus, another 4-0 win for Manchester United. And Wayne Rooney scores in Everton’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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VIDEO: A sneak peek of Everton’s Europa League journey – Part 1

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Everton’s UEFA Europa League adventure continues on Thursday as Ronald Koeman‘s side travel to Croatia to face Hajduk Split in the second leg of their playoff.

[ MORE: Live Europa League scores

Leading 2-0 from the first leg at Goodison Park last week the Toffees are one game away from returning to the Europa League group stage for the first time since 2014-15.

In 2017-18 Everton have already had a home and away series against MFK Ruzomberok which they negotiated easily with two 1-0 wins, and Everton have shared behind-the-scenes footage with us from those two encounters in late July and early August.

Click play on the video above to get a taste of what Everton faced in the tiny Slovakian town of Ruzomberok in Part 1 of this videos series.

Part 2 will arrive at Pro Soccer Talk later on Wednesday.

Wayne Rooney’s England retirement tinged with regret

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Wayne Rooney is England’s all-time leading goalscorer with 53 goals and he played for the Three Lions 119 times, more than any other outfield player in history.

[ MORE: Rooney retires from England ]

Rooney’s legacy will live on for decades but when the 31-year-old announced his international retirement on Wednesday, one sentence in his statement will likely stick in your mind.

“One of my very few regrets is not to have been part of a successful England tournament side,” Rooney said.

After 14 years of the hopes and dreams of every English fan being placed on his shoulders at major tournaments as the attacking leader of the so-called “golden generation” perhaps constant failure at the main events are the biggest reason why Rooney has decided to bow out earlier than many expected.

[ VIDEO: Rooney’s top five England goals ]

Rooney hadn’t played for England since November 2016 against Scotland in a 2018 World Cup qualifier, so this wasn’t too much of a surprise, especially after Gareth Southgate left Rooney out of his last two England squads. There is no doubt that his powers have been waning but it appeared Rooney was set for a recall for England’s final batch of qualifiers in the next few months and the captain of the Three Lions would lead the team to Russia next summer.

Yet with less than 10 months until the 2018 World Cup, the tournament Rooney previously stated would be his last for England, why did he now feel the need to step down?

With his fine form for Everton to start this season following 12 months on the fringes at Manchester United (where he became their all-time leading goalscorer last season too) it appeared Rooney was fitter and sharper than he has been for the past four or five years. Fitness does not appear to be the issue.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a year old than Rooney. Lionel Messi is one year younger than Rooney. Like Ronaldo and Messi he has won everything he can in the domestic game, and still that is not enough. All three have the weight of their respective nations on their shoulders but now only Ronaldo and Messi are continuing to lead their nations. Yet in Messi’s case, he too walked away from the national team after they lost to Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, only to be persuaded to return soon after.

Like Rooney, Messi has yet to win a major title with his nation, but Argentina have certainly come much closer (four defeats in major finals, two on penalty kicks and one in extra time during his career with La Albiceleste) than England and Rooney every came. It appears that Rooney will not make a dramatic return for England a la Messi, but never say never.

Of course, one player cannot make a team but you can argue that the England teams Rooney was the focal point of were the greatest to never reach the semifinal of a major tournament, let alone win the damn thing.

Scoring just once in 11 World Cup games for England over three tournaments, Rooney’s finest moments in tournament play came in his first major competition: EURO 2004. In Portugal a young, bullish, teenage Rooney scored twice against Croatia and led England to the quarterfinals before he broke a dreaded metatarsal and England, as they would in the next two tournaments, lost on penalty kicks to Portugal in the quarters.

After that flurry of four goals and an assist in his first four tournament games, Rooney would go on to score just three goals from 47 shots in his next 17 games in major competitions.

More misery in major tournaments arrived as he snapped in the 2006 World Cup quarters, being sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, then responded to England fans booing the team in South Africa in 2010 by ranting into TV cameras about their criticism. Rooney was banned for the opening two games of EURO 2012 and returned only for England to exit in the quarterfinals, again, this time to Italy. He finally scored at a World Cup in 2014 but England crashed out at the group stage and he then captained England at EURO 2016 but they bowed out in embarrassing fashion to Iceland in the Round of 16.

That, somewhat poetically, was to be his last appearance for England at a major tournament.

There’s no doubting that Rooney was the most talented striker England ever possessed with his ability to score sublime goals and create chances for his teammates. Yet, the greatest players on the planet are always judged by what they won on their international stage, mostly by dragging the team around them to new levels.

Pele won three World Cups with Brazil. Diego Maradona won one with Argentina. Ronaldo has won a European Championship with Portugal. Rooney won nothing.

That remains the only regret in a storybook international career which saw a lad from Liverpool put on a pedestal at the age of 17 and handed the keys to a nations success.

It didn’t work out how Rooney, and everyone else, had hoped when it came to ending England’s now 51-year wait for a major trophy, but he delivered goals, guile and commitment which the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford will try to replicate in the next few decades.

Rooney’s international career will always be celebrated and his achievements are unlikely to be surpassed, but there were always be a tinge of regret he could never lead the Three Lions to international glory.