What We Learned from Real Salt Lake’s dismantling of the Portland Timbers

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In the wake of Real Salt Lake’s 4-2, opening leg win over Portland, here’s What We Learned after leg one of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final:

  • Javier Morales is no Clint Dempsey

Where Portland did a reasonable job of containing Seattle’s focal point in the conference semifinals, they completely failed to restrain Javier Morales – a player who has mastered the tip of a diamond midfield in Major League Soccer. The Argentine attacker played a part in three of his team’s goals, finishing the night with one score and two helpers. As much as any performance since his 2011 ankle injury, this was classic Javier Morales, creating seven scoring chances while leading his team in passes (49).

So why was he so successful where Dempsey wasn’t? It didn’t appear as if Portland gave him less attention than they showed Dempsey. Of course, whereas Seattle’d been playing their diamond for about a month, Real Salt Lake’s been doing so for years, leaving them far more familiar with how to deal with the Timbers’ pressure. Sometimes that resulted in Morales dropping deep to spur connections around Portland’s pressing. Other times that meant running into space behind the midfield, making himself into an outlet for Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, and rest of the RSL players tasked with handling Portland’s pursuit.

Bottom line: Morales was much more effective than Dempsey. For Portland, the difference was huge.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake Man of the Match: Javier Morales]

  • Short passing out of problems

The virtues of Real Salt Lake’s approach paid off on Sunday, their skill on the ball helping them exploit Portland’s pressure. Numerous times we saw play, particularly down RSL’s right, connect two or three short passes in succession, pulling Will Johnson or Diego Chara toward the ball before a teammate was found higher up. Putting theory into practice, RSL used Portland’s pursuit against them.

The team’s first and third goals provide examples. Play down the right side just past the half-hour mark ended with Javier Morales behind Portland left back Michael Harrington, who was helping to apply pressure higher up. Morales won the corner, delivered a perfect ball to Chris Schuler, and saw his team go up one.

On the team’s third goal, Diego Chara missed Rodney Wallace with a pass, and as Portland pursued a quick turnover, the play went from Luis Gil wide to Tony Beltran and in to Javier Morales, who quickly found Robbie Findley making a run deep on the right. This time, however, Findley gets his cross through the box to Devon Sandoval, who gives RSL a two-goal lead.

[MORE: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

  • source: Getty Images
    Real Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley took advantage of Portland’s Futty Danso for his team’s second goal. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    There’s only so much midfielders, goalkeepers can do to  protect defenders

As the Timbers went from mild curiosity to MLS Cup contender, many looked at their star-deprived defense and asked how they produced the second-best goal prevention record in Major League Soccer. Futty Danso was a backup on last year’s team. Pa Modou Kah was an emergency, mid-season signing. How did a team that lost their top two central defenders forge such a great defensive?

Will Johnson, that’s how. And Diego Chara. And Donovan Ricketts. Provide protection in front, cover their mistakes at the back, and a central pairing can look a lot better than they actually are.

But there’s only so much a midfield or goalkeeper can do. In one-on-one assignments on set pieces, defenders have to do better than Danso did on Chris Schuler. And that Kyle Beckerman long ball minutes later? Danso can not make that into a goal scoring chance for Robbie Findley. You don’t get assists on the other team’s goals.

Danso picked a bad time to have his worst night of the season, and while you’d like to give RSL some credit on those first two goals, those scores are on Portland’s central defender. In both cases, those goals are prevented by most MLS central defenders.

  • 2013 postseason = Chris Schuler’s coming out party?

Real Salt Lake conceded twice, but neither can be hung on the 26-year-old defender, who is playing at a national team-caliber level. That seems knee-jerk given Schuler only played 16 games in the regular season, but this is a player whose talent has been evident for some time. It allowed Real Salt Lake to trade Jamison Olave this offseason, and this postseason, it’s allowed Schuler to be MLS’s best defender.

It goes beyond the two goals he’s scored, though those help. Of the three goals RSL’s allowed this postseason, he had a part in none, while his discipline has allowed him to make crucial clearances against Los Angeles (leg one), help contain the league’s best counter (also leg one), and co-anchor a defense that held the Galaxy to two shots on goal in an elimination game. Tonight, Schuler made a game co-leading three interceptions, his effort helping hold Portland to three shots on Nick Rimando.

More succinctly: Schuler is doing everything you want. From his distribution to his positioning, his reads and his execution, he has been one of the postseason’s standouts, giving RSL a central pairing capable of carrying them to a title.

source: Getty Images
Caleb Porter, seen talking to an official Sunday night, saw his team concede four goals for the second time this season. Both times, it was against RSL. (Photo: Getty Images.)
  • Portland still have no plan for Real Salt Lake

After eliminating Seattle, Portland’s players downplayed RSL’s dominance of the teams’ season series. Some didn’t even realize the Timbers haven’t beaten RSL since 2011. The postseason’s different, the general feeling held. Whatever happened before is irrelevant now.

As such, it’s worth noting the similarities between tonight’s game and the 4-2 loss Portland suffered in Utah on Aug. 30. Those are the only times Portland’s given up four goals under Caleb Porter, and each time late consolation prevented the scoreline from being worse. The games were more one-sided than the final scores say.

Even if we don’t know the exact cause, it’s naive to think there isn’t something special about RSL – a characteristic that makes them particularly difficult for Portland to conquer. Of the seven losses the Timbers have suffered this season, three have been to Jason Kreis’s team, who’ve failed to lose to Portland in five 2013 meetings (counting Open Cup).

My theory: A stylistic like-for-like leaves the side with years’ experience in their system at a huge advantage over a team that’s played together for eight months. RSL’s players know Portland’s tendencies because the teams are of the same mind. They know where the Timbers can be exploited, and they have the experience to execute.

How does Caleb Porter beat that? He can’t fast forward his team’s progress. He can’t jump to the point where his team is as familiar with this approach as Real Salt Lake.

For all the talk of Plan As and Plan Bs, there may be no plan for RSL. Porter may need a master stroke.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.