Diego Valeri, Kyle Beckerman

MLS Playoff Preview: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake

Leave a comment

(Originally posted Saturday night)

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.

source: Getty Images
Timbers’ captain Will Johnson is in his first season with Portland after five years in Salt Lake, winning an MLS Cup with RSL in 2009. (Photo: Getty Images.)

“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.

Benitez stay is huge, but Newcastle cannot be content with players

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 30:  Rafael Benitez (R) manager of Newcastle United congratulates Andros Townsend (L) after their 1-0 win in the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace at St James' Park on April 30, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

As posted yesterday, Rafa Benitez met with the media after Newcastle United confirmed that the trophy-winning manager has decided to stay with the club despite relegation, and said this is his ship now.

This is huge news for the Magpies.

The 56-year-old Spaniard couldn’t rescue the sinking ship he inherited from Steve McClaren, and is tasked with lifting Newcastle back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

For years, Newcastle’s managers have been subject to the approval of chief scouts, managing directors and owner Mike Ashley. What Benitez has now is assurances that no player is being sold without his permission, and none being bought without his approval. Which means no midseason sales of Yohan Cabaye because the iron is hot, or unrequested purchases like Xisco.

Of course that could mean we’re headed for a huge August or January bust-up when Ashley or Lee Charnley pulls the rug out from some big acquisition that could firm up Newcastle’s standing in the top flight, but we’ll stay on the sunny side for now and assume Benitez’s people made that part of his contact air tight.

It means Newcastle could line up, basically, the same as last season. There are plusses and minuses to that, of course, as the club was relegated thanks to woeful form and players who were perhaps rightfully accused of only showing up for primetime matches.

Consider:

— Newcastle took as many points from Manchester United (2) as Aston Villa.

— The Magpies went 2-0 against Tottenham Hotspur, grabbed four points from Liverpool, beat West Ham and drew both Manchester City and Chelsea.

— They also lost to relegation rivals Norwich, drew Sunderland twice and were swept by Watford.

So while Benitez holds sway to keep Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and Daryl Janmaat despite the big money they could command on the open market, he has to be 100 percent sure they won’t mail it in.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11: Kevin Nolan of Newcastle United celebrates scoring the opening goal with team mate Andy Carroll (L) during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Liverpool at St James' Park on December 11, 2010 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Carroll and Nolan (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

There’s no certainty there, and one of the main things that helped Newcastle bounce right back up to the PL in 2009-10 was a crew that got its footing in the Championship by Week 13 and never looked back: the Magpies lost just once in the league from Oct. 24 onward thanks in large part to heart-and-soul players who stuck around after the drop (Kevin Nolan, Jonas Gutierrez, Fabricio Coloccini, Andy Carroll and others).

Among those who fit the bill for understanding the task at hand are Andros Townsend, Jonjo Shelvey, Jack Colback, Chancel Mbemba and Coloccini. Others, like Sissoko and Siem De Jong, risk poisoning the well. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be kept around, but Benitez will need to know transfer rumor and agent hijinks aren’t in the offing.

Make no mistake about it, Benitez in control is better than anything the Magpies have had in ages and Newcastle is far more likely to replicate the instant promotions of West Ham and itself than the divisional drops of Leeds United and Portsmouth.

Altidore donations help to stage Copa America viewing parties in Haiti

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 14:  Soccer player Jozy Altidore speaks during A Celebration For St. Luke's Hospital of Haiti at the Garage on January 14, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
Leave a comment

USMNT striker Jozy Altidore‘s hamstring woes will keep him from playing in the Copa America Centenario, but it won’t stop him from making the tournament brighter in his parents’ home country.

Haiti made a surprising run to the tournament thanks to Kervens Belfort’s goal in a January playoff game against Trinidad and Tobago, and will be making its first Copa America appearance.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

Altidore is teaming up with the the St. Luke Foundation to host viewing parties with giant TV screens flown in from Miami, and will put both USMNT and Haiti matches on display around the country.

From SI.com’s Avi Creditor:

“When Haiti qualified I just thought it’d be a cool thing, because they haven’t qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup (in 1974),” Altidore, whose parents are from Haiti, told SI.com via telephone. “I thought this would be something cool knowing how much Haitian people love their national team … to have thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the matches broadcast the group games and see them perform.”

Very cool from Altidore, and it would be amazing to be at those parties should the Haitians get a shocking result against Peru, Ecuador or Brazil. According to Creditor, that footage, at least, will be available one day thanks to a documentary being filmed on the subject.

Mike Francesa rants about Sports Illustrated’s Copa America coverage, Lionel Messi cover

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MAY 11: Copa America 2016 is displayed during the Soccerex Americas Forum Mexico City Day 1 at Camino Real Polanco Hotel on May 11, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Victor Chavez/Getty Images for Soccerex)
Getty Images
6 Comments

Clueless clown Sports talk host Mike Francesa is known for being a crotchety, opinionated old man who has trouble adapting to changing times.

He’s had plenty of sparkling moments where he displays his ignorance room to grow when it comes to the world outside of New York sports, such as his knowledge of the Catholic hierarchy or his love for synergistic network promotion. He is the Tommy Wiseau of sports broadcasting.

So when Mike’s beloved childhood magazine Sports Illustrated soiled its cover with a picture of Lionel Messi, whom apparently he nor any of his staffers know anything about beyond his last name, the man was enraged.

You can listen to the whole segment here. Let’s break this gold mine down.

I got my SI, and the cover is “Summer of Soccer.” Where is the summer of soccer going to be? I have no idea. Now, I know I get accused of knowing nothing about soccer, because I don’t. I know absolutely zero about soccer, and that’s more than I want to know. Sorry! Just being honest. It’s a little late for me and soccer.

So…uh…why are you talking about it then?

On the eve of ‘Copa America’ SI has how many pages in its magazine this week…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…11…pages on this event. 11 pages, and I can’t find anybody who’s ever heard of it. 11 pages…you gotta be kidding me! No wonder they can’t give them away. This is a magazine that, as a child, I used to read it from cover to cover.”

So Mike thinks magazines don’t sell because they cover soccer, and he thinks that because he never read about soccer as a child, he shouldn’t have to read about that dang sport now.

He proceeds to then ask his cohost/producer/sidekick if he’d ever heard of Lionel Messi, to which his cohost/producer/sidekick sheepishly says he’s heard of him but only by his last name. Let’s just skip that part.

I’m sure to soccer fans this is an enormous event, which God bless them, I have no issue with. But mainstream America is not paying…doesn’t even know…if I go out and poll the newsroom, no one’s ever heard of this event. My guys in here didn’t even know what it was…nor have I! Nobody’s ever mentioned it. Has anyone ever called you [producer] to promote the Copa America on my show? [he says no]. If you’re going to promote something in sports you’re going to do it on this show. Bottom line is no one’s ever done that.

Guys, we should all just go home, we forgot to promote soccer on Francesa. Fuggetaboutit.

He then stumbled through reading what the Copa America actually is and what it entails, with an overly forced exasperated tone just to prove how frustrated he is with Sports Illustrated. Shame on them! Oh, and in this part he calls FIFA “Fie-fuh,” confuses the Olympics with an actual team that’s playing, and thinks it will be played in France. Yawn. Let’s wrap this up.

To spend 12 pages in SI on that? I mean, listen, I understand there are people here who love soccer, and they’ll be glued to it, and watch it on TV, which I understand, but man, how is that going to be part of mainstream America? I don’t get it.

You know, I don’t get it either. We should all just go home. Go home everyone! Fun’s over, we’ve been found out.

I left out the part where he calls Sports Illustrated “a sad reminder of the of a different world.” Ironic considering who it’s coming from.

For the record, callers lit Francesa up after this, so some justice was served. If you can’t get enough of the Francesa soccer shenanigans, check out this MLS read he attempts to get through, which takes him two and a half minutes and our hero realizes that NYCFC doesn’t have a “nickname” and that David Villa is pronounced like Pancho Villa. Stuff of legends.

Cellar dwelling Houston Dynamo, Owen Coyle decide to part ways

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10:  Head Coach Owen Coyle of the Houston Dynamo smiles prior to an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A week ago, Owen Coyle was whispered as possibly leaving the Houston Dynamo to lead Celtic.

With that opening filled by Brendan Rodgers, the Dynamo and Coyle cut ties anyway.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

Coyle struggled to pick up the pieces left behind by Dominic Kinnear in Houston, and the Dynamo are dead last in Major League Soccer after a quarter of the season.

On Wednesday night, the Dynamo announced that Coyle wanted to be closer to his family in England and would be leaving the club immediately.

From HoustonDynamo.com:

“I asked Chris (Canetti) if I could speak with him today and I explained to him the challenge of being away from my family and how we all want the best for Houston Dynamo,” Coyle said. “I want to wish all members of the staff, from owner Gabriel Brener to president Chris Canetti to general manager Matt Jordan, everyone has been such a source of support, along with the players and the technical staff. I’d like to thank the Dynamo supporters, who have been outstanding. We have a brilliant club, and I have no doubt success is just around the corner.”

The Dynamo went 14W-21L-11T during his reign, but have also been severely lacking in talent. The long delay from acquiring Cubo Torres to getting him on the pitch was one of the many things that frustrated progress in Houston.

Coyle is best known for his time with Bolton Wanderers, though that ended early in a Championship season following relegation. Houston is 3W-7L-2T this season, and has Vancouver up next.

Wade Barrett and a pair of Dynamo assistants will lead the club in the interim.