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.

Too early for Guardiola to concede Premier League title?

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Pep Guardiola suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager on Sunday as Manchester City were hammered 4-0 at Everton in the Premier League.

Post-game he was understandably glum.

[ MORE: Klopp slams United ]

Guardiola even appeared to concede the Premier League title, as the preseason favorites for the crown have now fallen 10 points behind leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go.

When asked if City’s title hopes were over after a fifth defeat of the season, the Spaniard’s answer was emphatic.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

It seems like Guardiola has already decided that the title race is over for City, but has he thrown in the towel too early?

With just five points separating second-place Tottenham with sixth-place Manchester United, it appears City’s primary focus will now be to finish in the top four as a mammoth battle ensues in the final third of the season.

Yet, we have seen some miraculous comebacks from teams in the past to win the title. These stats could give Pep hope.

In the 1997-98 season, Arsenal were 12 points behind United after 21 games of the season (United had played a game more) but roared back to win the PL by one point. And of course, City’s two PL crowns came courtesy of stunning late surges in the season with thanks to Sergio Aguero’s magic on the final day in 2011-12 and then Liverpool’s collapse in the closing weeks of 2013-14.

Pep, don’t lost the faith. It can be done.

However, if City lose to Tottenham next weekend and Chelsea extend their lead over Pep’s boys to 13 points by beating Hull City, it is curtains.

Such is the dominance of the big boys this season, City pretty much have to go unbeaten for the rest of the season to have a shot at winning the PL. Given their recent defensive displays that seems unlikely.

We all know Pep is an idealist when it comes to how he wants his team to play but now we are seeing he is a realist too.

Conte urges players “money is not everything” amid Costa rumors

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 04: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on January 4, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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While new reports are suggesting that China will have to curb its massive spending, Antonio Conte has urged his players that they don’t have to be tempted by the Chinese Super League.

[ MORE: United, Liverpool finish level after late Ibrahimovic equalizer ]

Chelsea currently sits atop the Premier League — seven points clear of Tottenham and Liverpool — but the club has recently been at the center of controversy as star striker Diego Costa has been linked with a move away from the club.

[ MORE: CSL set to limit number of foreign players per team ]

Costa missed his side’s 3-0 win over Leicester City on Saturday after several outlets reported a rift between the Spaniard and Conte.

The Chelsea manager told reporters following the match that Costa wasn’t available due to a back injury he suffered in training, but there has been continued speculation that the 28-year-old could head to China.

Conte has made it clear to his squad though that the quality of competition in England supersedes the money offered abroad.

“The money is not everything,” Conte told reporters. “When you play for a great team like Chelsea, you must be pleased.

“I think we are a great club and it is a great honour to play for Chelsea. For this reason I don’t see [China] as a threat for my players.

The Blues have lost a number of high-profile players over recent seasons to the high spending of Chinese football, including Brazilian duo Oscar and Ramires, as well as John Obi Mikel.

Oscar departed Chelsea this month to join Shanghai SIPG for a reported $72 million.

“I have to look at the past,” Conte said. “Oscar played with us, had a good offer from China and he went.

“But this league is really competitive and every player wants to come and play in this league.

“This league is the first in the world because of a lot of positive things, so I don’t think these offers from China are a threat for our league.”

Report: Ian Harkes expected to sign with DC United

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D.C. United didn’t have a top 10 selection in the MLS SuperDraft, but the club is likely to end up with one of the most talented collegiate players in the game.

[ MORE: Robinson, Ebobisse headline latest U.S. U-20 roster ]

According to the Washington Post, D.C. United is expected to sign Wake Forest attacker Ian Harkes to a multi-year contract.

[ MORE: Galaxy keeper Rowe replaces Frei with USMNT ]

Harkes, 21, came up through D.C.’s academy system before playing all four years for the Demon Deacons. The midfielder has gained significant notoriety over his college career, which concluded with Hermann Trophy honors following his senior senior.

As a former member of the D.C. academy, Harkes didn’t have to declare for the SuperDraft and is expected to sign a Homegrown contract with D.C. United in the coming days.

Harkes has also been considering his options abroad, which included second-division sides in England, where he was born. Ian is the son of former U.S. Men’s National Team star John Harkes, who played both in the United States and England over his professional career.

Bayern Munich signs Suele and Rudy from Hoffenheim

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 15:  Sebastian Rudy of Germany controls the ball during the International Friendly Match between Italy and Germany at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on November 15, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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MUNICH (AP) German champion Bayern Munich has signed center half Niklas Suele and central midfielder Sebastian Rudy from Hoffenheim, with both players due to complete the season with their current club before joining on July 1.

[ MORE: Ibrahimovic rescues draw for United against Liverpool ]

Bayern said Sunday on its website that Rudy – who is out of contract in the summer – has signed a three-year deal until 2020 while Suele has agreed a five-year deal until June 2022.

[ MORE: Morata to Chelsea? Dybala staying put? ]

“Signing two Germany internationals is an investment in FC Bayern’s future,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. “Sebastian Rudy joins us on a free transfer. In the case of Niklas Suele we have reached a fair and serious agreement with Hoffenheim.”

The 26-year-old Rudy has played 177 league games for Hoffenheim since joining from Stuttgart in 2010, while the 21-year-old Suele is a homegrown talent and has made 90 league appearances with the club.

“In terms of it being a farewell I feel a little wistful,” Suele said on Bayern’s website, adding that the move gives him the chance of “maturing further with one of the best teams in the world.”

Suele’s signing appears to be linked to the form of long-serving Bayern defender Holger Badstuber, who has been sent on loan to Schalke to get more game time.

The long-serving center-back has struggled with injuries in recent years and is not in Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti’s plans, having played only three games this season, starting just once.