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 Snapshot: Orlando City 2-1 New York City FC

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 15:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC gives directions to his teammates during an International friendly soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on July 15, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. Orlando won the match 3-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: The game started amid pouring rain, seemingly a foreshadow for the home side. Yet another lead at halftime, yet another lead squandered. Then, Kaka decided he didn’t want to go home disappointed again. The Brazilian bagged a penalty – his second goal of the match – to see Orlando City back on top of Eastern Conference powers NYCFC, and the back line held under pressure through the final 20 minutes to keep Orlando’s playoff hopes very much alive.

Three Four moments that mattered:

 

32′ – Kaka did it all himself, and Orlando snatched a 1-0 lead. Bursting down the right flank, Kaka cut inside, weaved around a poor attempt by Jefferson Mena to wall him off, and took two shots on goal. The first was saved by Saunders, but the second snuck in past the goalkeeper spread-eagle on the ground.

55′ – Orlando had a glorious opportunity to putting NYCFC out of reach four minutes later as Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino isolated Mena two-on-one, but Molino’s touch was poor and the ball skittered away from Larin. With the missed chance, Orlando squandered yet another lead a minute later. A shot by Frank Lampard just outside the six-yard box forced a save by Bendik, and the rebound fell to Stiven Mendoza who crashed the equalizer into the back of the net.

62′ – The home side having coughed up yet another lead, Orlando City restored their advantage. Julio Baptista snatched the ball off Jason Hernandez on the left flank deep in NYCFC territory, and he fed Kaka who was felled by Maxine Chanot, forcing the referee to point to the spot. The Brazilian deposited the ensuing penalty past a wrong-footed Saunders, and Orlando went back on top.

70′ – Desperate to stay in the match, NYCFC’s defense caved, then saved the match. Molino beat the offside trap and ended up one-on-one with Saunders, but when he rounded the keeper, it allowed time for Ronald Matarrita to race back and make a desperate clearance at the very last moment. He paid the price, slamming into the post as he slid to clear the ball, but he would return with the game still 2-1.

Man of the Match: Kaka

Goalscorers: Kaka (32′, 63′), Mendoza (55′)

Serie A roundup: Fiorentina edges Chievo, Roma coughs up lead, Inter held

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 20:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma in action during the Serie A match between AS Roma and Udinese Calcio at Olimpico Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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An early header by Aston Villa loanee Carlos Sanchez gave Fiorentina its first win of the season in their home opener, a 1-0 result over Chievo Verona.

The Villa midfielder rose high above Dario Dainello to smash home the only goal of the match. Unfortunately, there was a catch as starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu was forced off just before halftime with an injury. The 30-year-old Romanian international took a kick to the head and could not continue.

Roma was left highly disappointed after coughing up a 2-0 lead, finishing 2-2 on the road at Cagliari. Diego Pierotti gave the visitors the lead at Stadio Sant’Elia just six minutes in by slotting home a penalty. Just after halftime, Kevin Strootman doubled Roma’s lead with his first goal since February of 2014 by poking in Edin Dzeko‘s headed assist from point-blank range.

However, it would come undone. Marco Borriello would pull Cagliari back within one just 10 minutes after Strootman’s score by tapping in a rebound, and Marco Sau poked one in at the far post to equalize in the 87th minute, sending Roma back with just a point.

Frank de Boer’s debut at the San Siro ended in a 1-1 draw with Palermo as Mauro Icardi headed home completely unmarked in in the 72nd minute to cancel out Andrea Rispoli’s opener just after halftime.

Torino pummeled Bologna at home 5-1 behind a hat-trick from Andrea Belotti. The trio is the first hat-trick of the 22-year-old’s professional career. Josef Martinez and Daniele Baselli also found the scoresheet for Torino who earned their first points of the season.

Elsewhere, Udinese used a goal in the first five minutes and another late in stoppage time to beat 10-man Empoli 2-0. Genoa scored three goals in an 11-minute span early in the second half to top Crotone 3-1. Sassuolo grabbed all three points at home with a 2-1 defeat of Pescara. Finally, Sampdoria came back from an early deficit to top 10-man Atalanta 2-1. Fabio Quagliarella scored from the spot to level things up and Sampdoria grabbed the winner a minute before halftime behind Paraguayan Edgar Barreto.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona squeaks out win, Villarreal and Sevilla ends scoreless

SEVILLE, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona in action during the match between Sevilla FC vs FC Barcelona as part of the Spanish Super Cup Final 1st Leg  at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on August 14, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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Barcelona rode a first-half header by Ivan Rakitic the whole way to their second win in two league matches with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Arda Turan delivered the all-important assist, lofting the ball in from the left as Rakitic came streaking in to trail the play and climb high to meet the ball. Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood tall in goal for the visitors to San Mames, making four saves including one off his face to keep a powerful shot by Benat out of net following an embarrassing mistake from the German that opened up the chance.

Sevilla failed to keep pace with Barcelona and the rest of the teams at the top, slumping to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal. The Rojiblancos couldn’t even muster a shot on target, weathering five from the hosts among 12 overall attempts on net. Both sides wasted chances with sloppy crosses and missed shots, with Villarreal coming closest on a goal called back for offsides just before halftime. A Mateo Musacchio header found substitute Rafael Borre at the back post but the young Colombian was just past his defender.

Nabil El Zhar scored a double and Kevin-Prince Boateng found the scoresheet as well as Las Palmas hammered Granada 5-1 at Estadio Gran Canaria. The 2015 promoted side has now won two games in two after finishing 11th last season.

Deportivo Alaves and Sporting Gijon played to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Mendizorrotza in a match that featured just three combined shots on target.

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 4-2 Seattle Sounders

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 6: Darlington Nagbe #6 of Portland Timbers lifts Diego Valeri #8 of Portland Timbers into the air after Valeri scored a goal during the first half of the game against the Columbus Crew at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: A rivalry is meant to be a two-way street, and it was just that, albeit in the most see-saw way possible. Portland scythed, carved, and sliced up the Seattle back line with fluid movement and set-pieces in the first half, working up a 4-0 lead, and then clung on for dear life in the second, ending up with a 4-2 win at Providence Park.

Three Four moments that mattered:

16′ – Just four minutes after a seemingly disastrous miss from Liam Ridgewell, the Timbers began quickly putting that in the rear-view mirror. Vytautas Andriuskevicius earned the opener as his towering header off a corner forced Stefan Frei to make a leaping save, but he could only tip it up into the crossbar and back down into the goal. The ball bounded back out, but the linesman made sure to flag that a goal had been scored, with replays showing the ball did clearly cross the line.

21′ – Fernando Adi doubled Portland’s lead from more handy work by Valeri. The Argentinian burst his way through defenders into the box and ripped off a shot. Frei made a solid save, but the rebound fell to Adi who held strong with the ball and finally stuck it into the back of the net from point-blank range. From there, the game was effectively over, and goals from Lucas Melano and Steven Taylor extended the lead further.

44′ – With the Timbers up 3-0 after a fabulous team goal finished off by Lucas Melano, they capped the first-half with yet another set-piece score. Ridgewell swung in a free-kick from the right, and Taylor contorted his body to meet the ball, redirecting a forceful header past Frei.

51′ – Just six minutes after the break, Seattle suddenly clawed themselves back into the game with a pair of goals. A shot from Andreas Ivanschitz forced an own-goal with a looping shot that smashed into the head of a Portland defender and past Jake Gleeson, and Jordan Morris followed that up minutes later when he met a long ball from Nicolas Lodiero with his head.

Man of the Match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Andriuskevicius 16′, Adi 21′, Melano 29′, Taylor 44, Ivanschitz 47′, Morris 51′