Diego Valeri, Kyle Beckerman

MLS Playoff Preview: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake

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(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.

Europa League preview: Saints, Man Utd hope to join Spurs in Round of 32

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Yuto Nagatomo of Internazionale (R) and Ivan Perisic of Internazionale close down Nathan Redmond of Southampton during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur will be seeded in the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 32. What do Manchester United and Southampton need to do Thursday to join them?

Both the Red Devils and Saints enter the final group stage match day in their respective groups’ second place, but only United can claim a seeded place in the Round of 32.

[ UCL: Scenarios for Premier League sides ]

United can still win Group A, and would need to better Fenerbahce’s result on Thursday. Jose Mourinho’s men are in Ukraine against bottom-dwelling Zorya Luhansk, while Fener are away at Feyenoord.

Manchester United will advance with a draw, and could also go through if they lose and Feyenoord doesn’t defeat Fenerbahce.

As for Saints, Claude Puel‘s men are level with Hapoel Be’er Sheva and welcome the Israel side to St. Mary’s after drawing 0-0 in the reverse fixture.

Southampton needs to beat Hapoel or hold them to a scoreless draw. A scoring draw would push HBS through via road goals.

Full UEL schedule

11 a.m. EDT
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. EDT
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. EDT
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

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Report: Club Brugge agrees fee for USMNT keeper Ethan Horvath

HAVANA, CUBA - OCTOBER 07:  Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath #1 of the United States converses with his team during the match against Cuba at Estadio Pedro Marrero on October 7, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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A report confirms speculation that USMNT goalkeeper Ethan Horvath is moving from Norway to Belgium.

The promising Molde keeper is set to become the promising Club Brugge keeper after the two sides agreed to a transfer fee, according to Goal.com.

[ MORE: Examining Leicester, Man City ]

Horvath, who won’t turn 22 until June, has been capped in a 2-0 win over Cuba by the USMNT after starring for the U-23 side.

From Goal.com:

If terms are agreed to, Horvath will join a Brugge side that is second in Belgium — a point off the top spot. The Belgian club was in the Champions League this season, but was eliminated in the group stage. He will have to compete with 33-year-old Frenchman Ludovic Butelle, who has started all 17 of Brugge’s league games this season.

It’s a step up for the youngster, provided he’s able to play. Well-traveled French ‘keep Ludovic Butelle is between the sticks for Club Brugge in the UEFA Champions League match against Copenhagen today, with a pair of Belgians as Nos. 2 and 3.

The only bummer here: Would Club Brugge allow Horvath to head into the USMNT’s January camp, where the youngster has a good chance to impress Bruce Arena?

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Kane pleased Spurs give Wembley fans winning UCL finale

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his sides second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and PFC CSKA Moskva at Wembley Stadium on December 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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It took a while, but Tottenham Hotspur found its home form at Wembley Stadium in the UEFA Champions League.

Now it will have to take that to the Europa League after finishing third in its group to Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco; Spurs will be seeded in the UEL’s Round of 32.

[ UCL: Scenarios for Premier League sides ]

Spurs striker Harry Kane and playmaker Dele Alli were the stars of the show, and both were pleased to give their fans a 3-1 win over CSKA Moscow after previous home matches yielded just one goal in losses to Bayer and Monaco.

Here’s Kane, from the BBC:

“We’ve learned to be better at home. You have to win your home games – you can’t rely on away results.

“We’ve finished the campaign well, there’s a bit of pride to send the fans home happy.”

Spurs finish three points back of Bayer and four back of Monaco, meaning a home win over either would’ve put them into the knockout rounds. That’s a lot to dwell on as Spurs consider Wembley versus White Hart Lane.

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Champions League field set: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Leroy Sane of Manchester City (R) shoots from a freekick during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester City FC and Celtic FC at Etihad Stadium on December 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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We have to wait until Monday for the draw, but the field is set for the UEFA Champions League’s knockout rounds.

Seeded
Arsenal
Atletico Madrid
Barcelona
Napoli
Monaco
Leicester City
Juventus
Borussia Dortmund

[ MORE: Examining Leicester, Man City ]

Unseeded
Paris Saint-Germain
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Benfica
Bayer Leverkusen
Porto
Sevilla
Real Madrid


Premier League scenarios

Who can the three remaining clubs from England’s top flight face in the first knockout round?

Arsenal: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Porto, Sevilla, Real Madrid.

Leicester City: Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla, Real Madrid.

Manchester City: Atletico Madrid, Napoli, Monaco, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund

As for Tottenham Hotspur, they are set to be seeded in the Europa League’s Round of 32.


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