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.

Brad Davis announces retirement at the end of the MLS season

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 27:  Brad Davis #14 of the United States in action against Azerbaijan during their match at Candlestick Park on May 27, 2014 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The 15-year career of Brad Davis will come to an end at the end of the MLS season, Sporting Kansas City announced Sunday.

The 34-year-old has spent his entire career domestically, currently with Sporting KC for a season after spending ten years with the Houston Dynamo where he won two MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007. The club made it to the final again in 2011, but Davis missed it with an injury and the team fell to Los Angeles.

Davis also collected 17 caps with the U.S. National Team. He debuted in 2005 in a Gold Cup win over Cuba, but was a late bloomer with the national team, making 12 of his 17 appearances from 2013 or later. He earned his final cap for the Stars & Stripes in the 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup.

“I can’t believe that the last 15 years have gone by so fast and that this journey has come to an end,” Davis told the official Sporting KC website. “Along the way, I have met a lot of great people and have had the privilege to play alongside many great players. There are so many individuals that I look forward to thanking who have made me the person and the player I have become.”

The announcement came just hours before Sporting KC finishes its regular season against San Jose in front of the home fans at Sporting Park. With Kansas City teetering on the edge of the playoff picture, it’s likely they wanted to allow Davis the opportunity foir a sendoff should they fall short of extending the season.

Sporting sits in the final playoff spot on 44 points, level on points with Portland but above on goal difference by a single goal. The Timbers finish their regular season on the road at 9th-placed Vancouver.

VIDEO: Chelsea’s Pedro capitalizes on Manchester United error 30 seconds in

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: Pedro of Chelsea celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on October 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Just 30 seconds into Jose Mourinho’s return, Manchester United trailed.

A long ball over the top from Marcos Alonso seemed ill-fated with three defenders surrounding Pedro, but Chris Smalling never collected himself and Pedro snuck through, snatching the ball and rounding David De Gea to put the Blues up almost immediately.

WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs. Manchester United live on NBCSports.com

His goal is the fastest in the Premier League this season.

The game exploded open following the goal, with Manchester United looking for an equalizer almost straight away. Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed over and Marcus Rashford caused problems down the left inside the opening 10 minutes.

WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs. Manchester United (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge for the first time after being let go by Chelsea last season as the Blues host Manchester United live at 11am E.T. or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Special One returns to Stamford Bridge two places and two points back of the Blues, with Manchester United in seventh with 14 points. Paul Pogba retains his place in the starting lineup after bagging a pair of penalties in the midweek Europa League win. There is just one change for the Red Devils, with Ashley Young making way for Jesse Lingard on the wing.

WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs. Manchester United live online at NBCSports.com

Henrikh Mkhtariyan misses out after a thigh injury, while Chris Smalling recovers after coming off against Fenerbahce with a slight injury.

For Chelsea, John Terry is still only fit enough for the bench as Gary Cahill and David Luiz in the middle of defense as they look to extend a streak of 10 games unbeaten for the Blues against Manchester United. Willian and Oscar are both on the bench to start after they each spent time away after family losses. Meanwhile, both Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic miss out with injuries, the latter of which forces Conte to play a back three with Cesar Azpilicueta deputizing as a central defender, which will limit their width moving forward.

The visitors have struggled at Stamford Bridge, with just a single win there in Premier League play since 2002. This will be the first time these two managers face off, with the two matching up in Serie A play in 2009 but both were serving touchline bans that day.


Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Hazard, Costa.
Subs: Begovic, Oscar, Willian, Batshuyai, Terry, Chalobah, Aina.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Bailly, Blind; Fellaini, Herrera; Rashford, Pogba, Lingard; Ibrahimovic.
Subs: Romero, Rojo, Mata, Martial, Carrick, Young, Darmian.

Manchester City 1-1 Southampton: John Stones error leaves City winless in five

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Nathan Redmond of Southampton scores the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City remains winless in its last five across all competitions after an error by John Stones at the back sent Nathan Redmond in on net, but Kelechi Iheanacho came on at halftime to salvage a point for the visitors.

Both teams were sloppy early on, with a number of poor wayward passes on either side. Nobody had an effort on goal in the opening 15 minutes, with the only chance coming on a cross from Kevin De Bruyne that flashed across the face of goal just out of Raheem Sterling‘s reach.

City slowly gained control of the match, with poor touches the only thing that let their possessional hold of the game down. Leroy Sane and De Bruyne looked dangerous on the flanks early on.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Unfortunately for the hosts, it would come undone due to a massive error at the back by John Stones. The young defender under-hit a poor back pass to goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, and Nathan Redmond pounced, touching it past a committed Bravo and into the back of the net.

City continued to push forward, and Stones thought he had immediate redemption, finding himself on the end of a beautiful set-piece delivery to tap the ball into the back of the net, but the assistant referee’s flag went up for offsides. Replays showed Stones was onside, but Sergio Aguero was not, and the Argentinian’s attempt to head the ball in the middle of the pack was illegal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Pep Guardiola yanked De Bruyne at halftime in favor of a second striker in Kelechi Iheanacho. It did little out of the gates, as Southampton held much of the meaningful possession out of the break. Eventually, City worked their way back level, with Iheanacho the man to finish it. Fernandinho found Sane with a long ball to the left edge of the box who picked out Iheanacho, and the young Nigerian finished smartly past Fraser Forster on 55 minutes.

The game appeared to open up in the final 15 minutes. Southampton had a big chance to go back in front, but after substitute Sofiane Boufal found Charlie Austin all alone with space to shoot, the striker gunned his chance straight at Claudio Bravo. On the other end, Aguero charged forward but pulled himself into a tight angle and dragged his shot harmlessly across the net.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The draw sends Manchester City to the top of the table on goal difference, but they are tied with two other clubs on points as the Premier League appears set for a fantastic title race. Southampton, meanwhile, stays in eighth with 13 points, moving just one behind Manchseter United with the Red Devils about to play.