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.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

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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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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