Jack Jewsbury, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri

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.

WATCH: Leicester’s Mahrez picks up where he left off with splendid goal

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Don’t stab at the ball!

It’s a cry that echoes from youth matches to the upper reaches of the game, but Riyad Mahrez has a tendency to force defenders into forgetting fundamentals.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

The Leicester man, linked to Arsenal, danced through the Celtic defense in Saturday’s International Champions Cup action to whip a shot home and give the Foxes a 1-0 lead in Glasgow (The Bhoys have since tied it up).

We’ve seen this so many times from the Algerian, who hopefully sticks around Leicester for the club’s UEFA Champions League run and Premier League title defense.

What does Sunderland managerial change mean for USMNT’s, Spurs’ Yedlin?

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 11: DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick van Aanholt of Sunderland celebrate staying in the Premier League after the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Everton at the Stadium of Light on May 11, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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DeAndre Yedlin left the United States for England in January 2015, the latest step in a career trajectory simply described as “Up”.

Yedlin, now 23, acclimated to life in the Premier League before making a late season appearance with Tottenham to close the 2014-15 season.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

The next year saw him force into Sam Allardyce‘s Sunderland lineup, transforming his defensive acumen in a way that few USMTN fans could deny during this summer’s Copa America Centenario (That pesky red card aside).

But not only is Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League, but Yedlin’s manager at Sunderland is gone. What does this mean for Yedlin? Let’s consider three primary options:

Sunderland still buys him — New manager David Moyes loves him a mobile fullback with offensive capabilities. Not that Yedlin is Leighton Baines, but a starting right back slot in the Premier League could still be in the cards.

Tottenham keeps him around — Mauricio Pochettino likes to rotate his defenders and will have a heavy schedule on his plate. Kieran Trippier was unable to unseat Kyle Walker last season, so the No. 2 chair could be open for Yedlin (although Trippier showed he’s on the level while at Burnley, leading the league in crosses during 2014-15).

Tottenham loans him out — Speedy right backs will be in demand at several spots, and Sunderland is just one destination where fans are clamoring for reinforcements. Lack of purchases is one big reason Steve Bruce just left Hull City, and clubs like that will be aiming for relatively proven players on loan.

Clichy, Delph rave about education under Pep at Man City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 08: Manchester City's manager Pep Guardiola poses for photographs outside the Etihad Stadium on July 8, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images)
Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images
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Fabian Delph means no offense to Martin O’Neill, Paul Lambert, and Manuel Pellegrini, but he’s never seen anything like the management of Man City boss Pep Guardiola.

“The first three weeks have been amazing. I’ve learned more than I have throughout my whole career,” he said to the BBC. “It is a big statement but it is the truth.”

[ MORE: Wenger open to big spending ]

He’s not alone in his praise for Guardiola, as defender Gael Clichy is thrilled at what’s transpiring in front of him at training.

From MCFC.com:

“That’s something new as before we were quite open and if you look at our games from last year we were conceding a lot of goals on the counter-attack because we were an offensive team and open. I guess he’s trying to make us as offensive as previous years but just as solid at the back.”

Later in the article, Clichy talked about his friendship with Delph (which really ties our post together). City’s site even used the term “bromance”. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Arsenal’s Wenger: “We will spend big” on the right players

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who is working for French TV prior to the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images
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While Manchester United and Liverpool have been the clubs grabbing headlines with transfers this summer, Arsene Wenger would like to remind you that:

A) There’s plenty of time left in the window.

B) Arsenal has a lot of money.

C) They did sign Granit Xhaka for big dollars.

[ RUMOR ROUNDUP: Mahrez to Arsenal ]

The Premier League’s longest-tenured manager opened up about the Gunners’ plans to keep looking for the right targets, and said the club is still “very active” and working with a month-and-a-half to go in the window.

From Arsenal.com:

“We are very active and if we find the right candidates, we will spend the big money. We have already spent big and, until now, nobody has made a bigger transfer than we have in the country.

He was also asked about Mauro Icardi, Arda Turan, and Alexandre Lacazette:

“I wouldn’t like to come out on names because if you don’t get them afterwards, people ask why. We are active, very active every day and it’s not over. Today we are on July 22 and the transfer market finishes on August 31. You know that a lot happens in the last week, so it’s a long time to go, but we are active and we are working.”

Arsenal could use a star striker, or at least depth behind Olivier Giroud, and have added young English back Rob Holding to go with scooping up Xhaka.

Do you think Wenger will dig into the bank again this summer for a big signing? If so, who?