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.

VIDEO: Sporting KC’s Medranda scores wonder goal in win over Vancouver

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Sporting KC showed again on Friday night why they’re the rightful leaders at the top of the Western Conference, pulling four points ahead of the LA Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps with a dominating 6-0 win over the Whitecaps at home.

Scottish forward Johnny Russell bagged a hat-trick in the game, all by the 48th minute, but the highlight of the night came off the foot of 24-year-old Jimmy Medranda. The Colombian scored an absolute worldie from a ridiculous angle, taking the space given to him outside the top-left corner of the box and sailing it over the head of Vancouver goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic and into the back of the net.

It was, of course, massively beneficial to Sporting KC that Vancouver went two men down in the 40th minute after a huge skirmish that saw Yordy Reyna and Efrain Juarez both sent off. Reyna earned his marching orders for throwing Russell to the ground, while Juarez reportedly used unacceptable language.

Still, KC was already up 3-0 when the incident occurred, and credit must go to teams that take advantage of what has been handed to them. Sporting KC certainly did that as Russell becomes the first Scotsman to score an MLS hat-trick since Colorado’s John Spencer in 2001, and Medranda’s wonder goal sealed the deal past the half-hour mark.

Jurgen Klopp already wants a piece of Man City next season

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Manchester City may have run away with the Premier League title this year, but Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can’t wait for a clean slate to try and challenge City’s title defense next season.

The Reds are into the Champions League semifinals and also looking to finish the Premier League season strong in a battle for positioning in the top four, but when asked about next year, Klopp was giddy.

“Of course I don’t fear the challenge,” Klopp said in his prematch press conference ahead of Liverpool’s Premier League visit to West Brom on Saturday morning.

The German made it clear he wants a piece of Manchester City next season. “This year, if City plays a normal season – which they didn’t do – then it would have been really close until the end because we are now all close together.”

“United is four points ahead [of Liverpool], Tottenham is two points behind. It’s a real fight for these positions. All big six pretty much delivered this year but City delivered the best. We will see. It’s difficult to deal with success as it is difficult to deal with other things in football but I’m pretty sure they will be strong again.”

Liverpool is one of only two teams to beat City in league play this year, with Manchester United being the other. Klopp and company torched the City back line in a wild 4-3 victory that ended City’s 22-match unbeaten run. Ultimately, though, Klopp knows they have to look at the entire season as a whole to best the defending champs next year, not just their matches against each other.

“It’s not important how good City will be, it’s about how we can get all the other points, plus the points we got so far again,” he said. “That’s the job to do. That is why it is always possible that it is closer. But are they able to dominate? They don’t have a limit to spending and all that stuff so I don’t know.”

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.