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.

Mbappe wins Golden Boy over Rashford, Pulisic, Gabriel Jesus

AP Photo/Christophe Ena
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Paris Saint-Germain, France, and (former) Monaco starlet Kylian Mbappe has claimed the Golden Boy Award over Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic, and others.

[ MORE: TFC sets MLS record ]

The Golden Boy is chosen from the top Under-21 players in Europe, and the short list had the above names and 22 more including Gabriel Jesus, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and Marcus Rashford.

Mbappe, still 18 until Dec. 20, has four goals and four assists this season for PSG after scoring 26 goals with 14 assists for Monaco last season. He also has a goal for France.

The teenager likely played the biggest role at the biggest club last season, though Donnarumma was exceptional at Milan, Jesus’ injury conspired against him at Man City, and Marcus Rashford was very good for United.

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Ligue 1: Neymar sent off, Cavani saves PSG in draw with Marseille

AP Photo/Claude Paris
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ARIS (AP) Neymar was sent off shortly before Edinson Cavani rescued league leader Paris Saint-Germain with an injury-time free kick in a 2-2 draw at rival Marseille on Sunday.

Cavani won the foul after being knocked over by forward Bouna Sarr, and stepped up to curl the ball in off the underside of the crossbar with goalkeeper Steve Mandanda slightly slow to cover.

“It’s an important goal,” said Cavani, after netting his ninth of the campaign. “It was difficult to play here in a tough atmosphere.”

It was down to Cavani to take the free kick because Neymar, the world’s most expensive player when he joined from Barcelona for $260 million, was sent off after picking up a second yellow card in the 87th minute.

The Brazil striker reacted angrily to a cheap challenge from behind from Lucas Ocampos, and sent the Argentine winger tumbling to the ground at Stade Velodrome in retribution.

Shortly before, winger Florian Thauvin acrobatically volleyed home in the 78th minute from substitute Clinton Njie’s pass from the byline to put host Marseille ahead.

“You always have to make the run to the front post,” Thauvin said. “It was a great pass from him.”

Despite conceding the late goal, it was a confidence boost for Marseille after being routed 5-1 at home by PSG last season.

Marseille is fifth, four points behind second-place Monaco and eight behind PSG — which needed an injury-time goal to win 2-1 at Dijon in its previous league game.

“It’s bitterly disappointing, because we thought we’d done enough to win,” Mandanda said. “By the time I saw Cavani’s shot coming it was too late. But we should be happy and proud of our performance.”

PSG was heavy favorite, but Marseille twice took the lead.

Roared on by 60,000 home fans, Marseille scored in the 16th minute. Holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo was given too much room, and the former Bayern Munich midfielder advanced to hit a swerving 30-meter shot into the bottom left corner.

After Cavani missed a chance immediately after, Neymar collected a pass from midfielder Adrien Rabiot just inside the penalty area and drilled a low shot in off the right post in the 33rd.

There were no PSG fans present due to security concerns but Marseille fans clashed with riot police before the game.

La Liga: Asensio leads Madrid past Eibar; Atleti end slump

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Marco Asensio scored and helped force an own-goal to lead Real Madrid to a 3-0 win at home over Eibar in the Spanish league on Sunday.

The 21-year-old forward got Madrid going in the 18th minute when his well-placed cross meant for Sergio Ramos was headed into the net by Eibar defender Paulo Oliveira.

Asensio put the result beyond doubt 10 minutes later at the Santiago Bernabeu when he drove Francisco “Isco” Alarcon’s cross under goalkeeper Marco Dmitrovic.

Marcelo rounded off the victory in the 82nd after substitute Karim Benzema set him up.

Following a rocky start with only two wins in the first five rounds, Zinedine Zidane’s team has now won four straight in the league as it remained in third place. Barcelona leads by four points over Valencia, with Madrid another point behind.

“Not everything went perfectly, but we are happy for the win,” Zidane said. “It was important to get the three points and to score that many goals.”

The goal was Asensio’s fifth of the season, and his third in the league to go with two from the Spanish Super Cup.

Dmitrovic could have done more to keep out Asensio’s goal, but the Eibar `keeper also denied Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo their chances to add to the lead.


Atletico Madrid broke a four-game winless streak across all competitions after eking out a 1-0 win at Celta Vigo. Diego Simeone’s side is fourth – a point behind Real Madrid.

Striker Kevin Gameiro scored his first goal of the season in the 28th when he swept home a poor clearance of a corner kick by Celta’s Sergi Gomez.

The much-needed victory came after back-to-back draws in the league along with a 2-1 loss to Chelsea and a 0-0 draw at Qarabag in Azerbaijan in the Champions League.

Atletico did little more than cling to the advantage as Celta tried to equalize.

“They made us wait a long time to get this win, and that was why we worked as hard as we did today,” Simeone said. “The team showed that it can dig in, and that it doesn’t mind holding up in its area if it has to protect a result.”

Celta played with a large section of its Balaidos Stadium closed due to safety concerns regarding the structure of the stands. Club president Carlos Mourino said that Celta will refund the cost of the tickets for the seats that had to be left empty.

MLS: FCD really missed the playoffs; LA finish dead last

Photo credit: Houston Dynamo / Twitter: @HoustonDynamo
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FC Dallas 5-1 LA Galaxy

The standings: FC Dallas finish 7th in the West; LA Galaxy finish bottom of the West, and all of MLS

The game: It was too little, too late for FC Dallas, who on Sunday managed just their second win during the months of August, September and October. That’s a stretch of 15 games which saw last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners tumble out of the West’s playoff places and ultimately finish seventh, behind the San Jose Earthquakes on the wins tiebreaker. Roland Lamah scored twice on the day, to go with single tallies from Mauro Diaz, Matt Hedges and Michael Barrios. Oscar Pareja’s side began the season with treble aspirations for a second straight season (the Hoops also won the U.S. Open Cup in 2016), but will be watching this year’s playoffs from the comfort of their own couches. On the other hand, 2017 could have been worse — say, FCD could have been LA, who finished last in MLS for the first time ever. Sigi Schmid, should he remain in the job next season, has quite the rebuilding task on his hands. Let us not forget: LAFC arrive in March.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

2′ — Cian heads home an early opener Things started brightly for LA.

37′ — Lamah gets a lucky bounce, pulls FCD level — Right place, right time for Lamah, who’s endured quite the rough first season in MLS.

41′ — Hedges cleans up the mess, and it’s 2-1 — Clement Diop couldn’t hold on after making the initial save, and Matt Hedges was more than ready for the rebound.

49′ — Lamah makes it 3-1 — The rout has officially begun.

68′ — Barrios adds to LA’s misery with a fourth — LA’s 2017 season was over in May (maybe June, if we’re being kind). Every one of these defenders is on a beach right now.

73′ — Diaz makes it 5-1 from the spot — The season just will not end for LA.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Roland Lamah

Goalscorers: Cian (2′), Lamah (37′, 49′), Hedges (41′), Barrios (68′) Diaz (73′ – PK)


Houston Dynamo 3-0 Chicago Fire

The standings: Dynamo clinch the West’s 4-seed; Fire clinch the East’s 3-seed

The game: No one wanted to win the West, just like no one ever really wanted to claim a home game in the knockout round. In the end, the Houston Dynamo beat Sporting Kansas City to the 4-seed and the right to host the two sides’ opening-round game this week. Leonardo, Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas bagged the goals for Wilmer Cabrera’s side which finishes the regular season unbeaten in its last six game (three wins). Chicago, recently resurgent, lose for just the second time in eight games, but in doing so fail to take advantage of New York City FC’s Decision Day draw with Columbus Crew SC. A win would have sent Chicago second in the East, allowing them a week’s rest and preparation before the start of the conference semifinals. Instead, they’ll host the New York Red Bulls this week.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

2′ — Leonardo heads home from a long throw — They don’t have to be pretty (especially on Decision Day), which is good, because this one was anything but.

68′ — Quioto goes it alone to make it 2-0 — At some point, someone should probably drag Quioto to the ground rather than let him carry the ball 40 yards into the penalty area. It never happened, and Richard Sanchez couldn’t make the save.

75′ — Manotas adds the insurance a few minutes later — Andrew Wenger’s cross found Manotas at the back post, and the finish was easy for the Colombian.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Leonardo

Goalscorers: Leonardo (2′), Quioto (68′), Manotas (75′)