The Western Conference semifinals saw hope triumph over expectation, with the league’s most talented and accomplished sides (Seattle, LA Galaxy) eliminated by teams few pegged as MLS Cup contenders at the beginning over the season. Yet eight months later Portland and Real Salt Lake are one step away from playing for Major League Soccer’s title, the West’s top two seeds set to begin their conference final Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern at Rio Tinto Stadium.
With both teams spending most of the year near the top of the Western Conference, we’ve long become accustomed to RSL and Portlands’ unexpected contenders’ status, but with each team now in MLS’s final four, it’s worth a moment’s reflection on how far they’ve come. As RSL head coach Jason Kreis reminded everybody ahead of the conference semifinals, if you would have offered him a spot in the playoffs against the LA Galaxy at the onset of the season, he would have taken it, salary cap considerations having forced the 2009 champions to wave goodbye to Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola this offseason. As for Portland, one year ago it appeared owner Merritt Paulson had scrapped his three-year, expansion plan for MLS Cup contention. Instead, the dismissal of John Spencer (and eventual hire of Caleb Porter) proved merely an unexpected bump in the title-contending road.
Now, Portland is not only the West’s top see but the league’s hottest team ahead of their trip to Utah. Starting with a 4-0 win over Toronto on Sept. 7, Portland is unbeaten in 10 games, recording seven wins in a stretch that saw them to the top of the Western Conference, the league’s best goal difference (+21), and an MLS record for fewest losses in a season (five). Their two wins over Seattle in the conference semifinal made Portland the only team to win both of their conference semifinal games.
Unfortunately for the Timbers, all those results are mitigated by their performance against Real Salt Lake. In four 2013 meetings with RSL (three in league, one in Open Cup), Portland are 0-2-2. Their last loss came to Kreis’s side on Aug. 30 (4-2, in Sandy) while the teams’ last meeting was hailed by the Real Salt Lake coach, who saw their 0-0 draw at JELD-WEN Field as the type of tough, pragmatic performance his team would need to give come the postseason. Winless against Real Salt Lake since the franchises’ first meeting (back in 2011), the Timbers clearly have a specific, isolated problem with their conference final opponent, one they haven’t been able to identify.
“For me, the record in the playoffs is even,” said former RSL, current Portland midfielder Will Johnson, optimistically. “Whatever the regular-season statistics are, they are what they are, but this is the playoffs now so it’s a brand new slate.”
Still, when trying to explain a streak that spans three seasons, the things to look for are commonalities, and there’s nothing more endemic to Salt Lake than how they play. Though players like Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Nick Rimando have been stars throughout their run, different cast members have been able to step into what’s been a consistent approach. Throughout Kreis’s time in charge, the team has remained committed to a short passing style, usually played out of a formation reliant on a diamond midfield.
RSL did change out of that approach for their first semifinal leg in Los Angeles, something Kreis would later call a mistake. Against Portland, expect RSL to stick with what works.
“The nice thing is that we played Seattle and they play a diamond,” Porter explains. “There’s not a ton of tactical changes that weíre 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.”
That’s if truly exploiting RSL is even possible. Theirs is an approach that’s seen them finish no lower than third in the West since winning the title four years ago. Yet after eliminating the two-time defending champions in the previous round, this may be RSL’s best chance since 2009 to regain that title. In addition to their dominance over Portland, RSL beat Houston in the teams’ only meeting this year, and although they fell at home to Sporting in July, the game was a controversial one – the type of aberration that’s unlikely to be replicated should the teams meet on December 7.
But first things first. If Real Salt Lake are going to challenge for their second league title, they’ll have to dispatch the league’s hottest team. Fortunately for them, recent history tells us Portland’s yet to figure out how to get past RSL.
MLS at Week 29: NYCFC looks to clinch vs. Houston, Atlanta hosts Impact
While the playoff situation in the Western Conference likely won’t be settled until the final week or two, another team in the East can lock up a spot in the postseason this weekend with a victory.
New York City FC vs. Houston Dynamo
New York City FC has struggled a bit as of late with injuries and are also winless in their last two matches, but Patrick Vieira’s side has the opportunity to clinch its place in the East playoffs and potentially draw one step closer to locking up the second seed.
Vieira’s boys have scored just two goals in their last three outings (1-1-1 in that span), but the good news for NYCFC is that David Villa is expected to return to the starting XI on Saturday. MLS’ leading goalscorer has racked up an impressive 19 goals this season, and the Spaniard looks on pace to capture another MLS MVP award in 2017.
They’ll face the Dynamo in a “home” match in Hartford, Connecticut after the game was moved from Yankee Stadium due to a stadium conflict with the Yankees. The fixture still bodes well though for NYCFC, as the Dynamo boast one of the worst road records in MLS this season, at 1-9-5.
Atlanta United vs. Montreal Impact
Tata Martino’s side continues to benefit from playing at their new venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and Atlanta will have the opportunity to put on another show on Sunday against the Impact.
Atlanta has leapt all the way up to fourth in the Eastern Conference and could potentially go third this weekend with a victory. Over the team’s last four matches, Atlanta has scored an astounding 17 goals, putting the rest of MLS on watch over the club’s potent attack.
For the Impact, they are in desperate need of a victory after picking up three points against Toronto on Wednesday. Mauro Biello’s side is on the outside looking in with five matches remaining, and the Impact are still three points behind the New York Red Bulls for the final playoff spot in the East.
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders
Even if the Claret and Cobalt don’t qualify for the playoffs, Mike Petke has done a really special coaching job this season in Salt Lake City. RSL holds the final playoff spot out West for the time being, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve risen in the table given their form.
Since July 4, RSL is unbeaten in nine of its 11 matches, including six victories during that span. Unfortunately for Petke and Co., they have to play the Sounders this weekend — who haven’t lost June 17 at NYCFC.
The Sounders have drawn four in a row, but their unbeaten streak has extended to an MLS-best 13 matches as of late, putting them within a point of the Western Conference lead.
Here’s a look at the full rundown of the weekend’s action around MLS.
New York City FC vs. Houston Dynamo — 3 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Toronto FC — 5 p.m. ET
D.C. United vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire — 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls — 7:30 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. FC Dallas — 8 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders — 9:30 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Colorado Rapids — 10 p.m. ET
Sporting KC vs. LA Galaxy — 2 p.m. ET
Atlanta United vs. Montreal Impact — 5 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. Orlando City — 8 p.m. ET
After conceding sloppy goals against Watford and Burnley in the Premier League this season, plus a demolition at Manchester City, a draw against Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League group stage and a defeat at Leicester City in the League Cup in midweek, many armchair analysts and pundits are calling for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp to alter his high-pressing approach and set up his defense differently.
You won’t find Matip doing that.
Quite clearly Liverpool’s most consistent defender since he arrived in the Premier League last summer, Matip doesn’t believe he and his teammates need to change to a more defensive style to keep winning games.
Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Leicester City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) Matip was adamant that the players, both attackers and defenders, must stay true to themselves.
“Both parts only work together. I cannot stand at the back and our attackers go forward and there is so much big space. We all have to fit together. It is not always easy but this is our way of play but I think that is a good way of playing,” Matip said. “Everything has its positive and negative sides but I have no doubt about our way of playing.”
The 6-foot 5-inch center back arrived from Schalke on a free transfer last summer and has settled in impressively in his first 12 months in England, establishing himself as Liverpool’s first-choice center back.
His strong aerial ability and calmness to make key challenges and blocks around the box have particularly impressed.
How does he assess their start to the season which sees them in eighth place in the Premier League after two wins, two draws and a defeat in their opening five games?
“We have had our good moments and also our not so good moments. We were punished for these and it was ruthless, the first few games, but we have to carry on,” Matip said. “I am not in doubt about the quality in our team and I am looking forward to the next game and I’m positive still.”
That next game comes against Leicester, who beat Liverpool 2-0 to on Tuesday in the League Cup third round after Klopp made multiple changes to his starting lineup — including a rest for Matip and usual center back partner Dejan Lovren — and the Reds failed to take many clear cut chances (a reoccurring theme) in a first half they dominated.
Matip, a late injury concern ahead of the clash at the King Power Stadium, believes Liverpool can take plenty of positives from their defeat at Leicester earlier in the week.
“The game on Saturday will be a completely different game,” Matip said. “You cannot compare these two games. I think we did it very well in the first half [on Tuesday] and we will try to copy this, maybe with a bit more luck upfront, but we are in a good way if we score then keep a clean sheet and don’t concede many goals. I am looking forward to it and I think we can win.”
Looking back at his first 12 months in England the German born defender, who represented Cameroon at international level from 2010-15, is enjoying life in the Premier League.
Smiling and laughing often as we chat at Melwood, the languid center back is in his full tracksuit and is getting ready for an afternoon training session ahead of the Leicester game.
“It was a long year but I enjoyed this year, with all the ups and downs. It is a pleasure and an honor to play for Liverpool in the Premier League,” Matip said. “I try to do my best and help all of my teammates and my teammates also help me, so we have to help each other. Everybody helps each other and that’s the only way to go.”
At Liverpool the weight of past success, particularly in Europe, often sits heavy with five European Cups in the trophy cabinet and the Reds now back in the Champions League for the first time since 2014.
Does extra pressure come from Liverpool’s illustrious history as the fans demand more success in Europe?
“I think pressure, that would not be right. There is an opportunity,” Matip said. “We worked hard for this opportunity. Pressure is the wrong word because Liverpool has this great past but we only try to do our best and use this opportunity and try to enjoy.”
Special European nights at Anfield are something Matip clearly cherishes.
“They are tough games but everyone is happy we have the opportunity to play in the Champions League. Every football player wants to play in these games. It is always a special night [at Anfield] and always special to play against the biggest teams in Europe. These are special nights to play against these international teams and these are the nights when you are really small, what you dreamed of,” Matip added, smiling.
What has been the main difference of moving to the Premier League from the Bundesliga?
“Physically and sometimes the pace,” Matip said. “It’s going up and down, up and down. In Germany it is often a little more tactical I would say. It is not going down from the one goal to the other goal. That would be the main difference.”
Matip worked hard over the offseason to prepare his body for those differences and for his second grueling campaign in England.
He admitted he can improve in many areas and said it is “a pleasure” to work with Klopp who “tries to improve me every day” and is “enjoying” the experience of working for his countryman as he makes the necessary adjustments.
“For me it was really important to make the whole preparation. For me last season was not easy with all the injuries but injuries belong to football. You cannot always do something against that. I hope preparation will help me a lot to get a good fitness level but there are a lot of points to work hard on. I have to improve a lot of things. It would be better to list all the things I don’t have to improve!” Matip chuckled. “I don’t know things on this list. I have to improve at everything and get better to help the team.”
In terms of how the team plays and how Klopp asked his defenders to defend, has Matip worked on positioning and other specifics since making the move to England?
“This depends on the way you play. When Klopp was a coach in Germany he also had his center backs to play in a similar ways. I would say psychically because you play against a striker who are really strong in the air and bring a lot of body weight into the game,” said Matip, laughing out loud. “Also the pace. If you go directly from offense to defense, offense to defense, that’s something different to get used to.”
Should Liverpool switch to a back three to give them extra numbers in central defense and in the central attacking areas?
“It is different but it is not all about the system. It is not always easy for us against deep, defending teams with many lads in the back,” Matip said. “Sometimes they manage really good but we are always trying and because of this, in the end, we will have the luck because we work really hard for this.”
Matip has always worked hard to reach the top but it certainly helped being from a soccer mad family as his father, Jean, was a footballer and his older brother, Marvin, still plays for Ingolstadt in Germany’s second-tier. His cousin is also Joseph-Desire Job, the former Middlesbrough striker, so soccer was always in his blood.
“My older brother was my biggest role model. He was a few years older and I always looked up to him. Our family growing up, there was a lot of football,” Matip smiled. “It is a pleasure but there was no pressure from my family. I could do anything I wanted and they always support me.”
Matip’s parents are both qualified doctors and the German-born, Cameroon international gives thoughtful, insightful answers when considering questions.
He owes plenty to his education in both life and soccer via an esteemed academy at Schalke. He graduated from the now famous Gesamtschule Berger Feld school which has German internationals Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler, Manuel Neuer and Benedikt Howedes among their alumni.
“The school was not the only part. The work they did at Schalke at youth level, there was a brilliant coach at U-19, [Norbert] Elgert. Every former player if you call and ask about him would say he was a fantastic coach and is still a fantastic coach,” Matip said. “Everybody is really thankful for him and he did a great job with the connection with the school. Everything there was a good start for every football player.”
After leaving for a new experience and a new country Matip is settling into life in England’s north west. Last summer he moved away from home for the first time at the age of 25 and Matip is enjoying life on Merseyside. Even if he is yet to perfect his Scouse accent…
“I am still struggling with most of the dialect,” Matip laughed. “The language is not easy but you start talking and you are getting better and better. I am still fighting and when they use the Scouse accent I am always like ‘what!?’ I need one, two, three or maybe four tries to understand it but I am in a good way. Maybe it will take a while to understand the Scouse but I am still happy to be here.”
Always smiling, always peaceful, Matip is ready to continue leading Liverpool’s defense as they aim to win their first trophy in over five years.
“Of course, everyone wants to win trophies but this will not happen from one day to the other,” Matip said. “But we work hard to improve ourselves and achieve something.”
The Red Devils also won three trophies — UEFA Europa League, League Cup and Community Shield — which certainly helped boost the club’s morale as well.
“We concluded a successful 2016-17 season with a total of three trophies [including the Community Shield] and a return to Champions League football,” said United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
“The year saw us set record revenues of over £581m and achieve a record EBITDA [Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization] of £199.8m. We are pleased with the investment in our squad and look forward to an exciting season.”
Overall, United has reportedly netted a profit of roughly $53 million, before taxes, and the club’s net debt has been reduced to around $288 million.
Woodward has estimated that United will generate in the range of $770 to $790 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
Edinson Cavani’s on-field disagreements with Neymar were documented over the weekend, with the Uruguayan forward clearly disgruntled over the fact that he had a free kick taken away from him and a separate occasion where the Brazilian wanted to take a penalty kick as well.
The Daily Mail is reporting that Chelsea and Everton have expressed their interest in the 30-year-old striker following the incidents that occurred against Lyon.
Everton is certainly in the market for a striker at this point, after heavily struggling in the attacking third during the opening month-plus of the Premier League season, while Chelsea would likely want someone to provide depth for them up front in support of summer signing Alvaro Morata.
However, the big concern over Cavani is not only his age, but his salary as well. For the sort of money that he’d likely command, a team like Chelsea would surely only play the Uruguayan on rare occasions given Morata and Michy Batshuayi‘s presence.