MLS playoff focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of Sunday’s match against Real Salt Lake

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PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers are down two goals going into Sunday’s second leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference finals, the West’s top seed having lost to Real Salt Lake 4-2 in Utah to open the series. Here are the must knows about Portland ahead of the teams’ second leg, which kicks off at 9:00 p.m. Eastern at JELD-WEN Field:

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

  • When to change things up

Citing how his team performed in their two home games against Real Salt Lake (3-3, 0-0 results), Timbers head coach Caleb Porter says he’s not going to change things up for Sunday’s decider. His team’s down two goals, but he doesn’t feel the need to alter his team’s approach. Given how his side performed in those two matches, arguably out-playing RSL each time, Porter wants to see if they can get those goals back without venturing out of their comfort zone.

Thanks to Frederic Piquionne, he can afford to wait. The former French international’s 94th minute goal two weeks ago in Utah makes Portland’s task a lot easier. Instead of chasing three goals at kickoff on Sunday, the two-goal margin means the Timbers can stay the course, see if they can claim a goal, and bring the game back within reach before they’re forced to take chances.

At kickoff on Sunday, expect the teams to look very similar to how they set up two weeks ago. If Portland’s defense improves, the steady hand may pay off.

[MORE: MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers, with the Western Conference title on the line]

  • Futty Danso needs to be better

The broadcast may have cursed him, ESPN noting that Portland had not lost this year with Danso in the starting lineup. Then the Gambian international was beaten by Chris Schuler on the first goal. Six minutes later, his giveaway at the edge of the Timbers’ penalty area gifted Robbie Findley a go-ahead score. It was Danso’s worst performance in over a year.

Throughout the season, the strong performance of Portland’s central defense had been a bit of a mystery, with the Timbers’ third and fourth choice center backs helping the team produce one of the league’s best defensive records. In Utah, though, Danso was exploited. He needs to rekindle his regular season form if Portland’s to contain RSL.

  • Home is where the improvement is

Portland has lost once all season at home: Their second game of the year against Montréal, all the way back in March. Since then, the Timbers have gone 11-0-4 against MLS opposition.

Unfortunately for them, two of those draws came against RSL. Though the Timbers are a better team at home (they were 3-4-10 on the road in the record season), JELD-WEN hasn’t provided solutions for their nemeses. It’s only provided improvement.

  • How long can Diego Valeri go?

Portland’s Argentine star was silent on the road in the conference semifinals before giving a Man of the Match-level performance at home. We could be in store for the same on Sunday. A non-factor in Utah, Valeri’s had two weeks to rest. He should be much better in leg two.

How long he lasts, however, is the big question. It’s a backs-to-the-wall game, so you figured he’ll go until he drops, but that might come some time mid-second half. Having suffered a groin injury Aug. 31 in Sandy, Valeri hasn’t played 90 minutes in his last 11 appearances, only twice lasting longer than 63 minutes.

If things go well for Portland, the teams might be on the field for two hours. Caleb Porter may only have his star player for one of them.

  • The end of an unexpected ride?

A few people picked Portland to make the playoffs. Nobody thought they’d finish first in the West. One year after sliding to eighth in their conference, the Timbers have a chance to extend their season into December. Nobody saw this coming.

So if they can’t comeback against RSL tomorrow, the disappointment will eventually be cast as a footnote to a season of rebirth. New coach, some new players, and a completely new standard of performance have been instilled at JELD-WEN. Even if the team can’t figure out RSL, it was still a wildly successful season.

Sanchez, Mkhitaryan transfer still up in the air

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The player-swap/trade/transfer between Arsenal and Manchester United still appears to be heading towards completion, but it was further delayed Friday.

Multiple reports in England state that while Alexis Sanchez seems set to move to Manchester United, Henrik Mkhitaryan has yet to agree to move the other way, as talks between the player’s agent and Arsenal continue. Mkhitaryan was seen training at Manchester United’s practice facility on Friday, and because the latest delay, both players would be unable to debut for their new teams this weekend after missing the Premier League registration deadline.

[MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks]

Arsenal hosts Crystal Palace Manchester United travels to Burnley, both on Saturday at 10 a.m. (Watch Arsenal live on CNBC, Manchester United live on NBCSN, and both live on NBCSports.com)

The London Evening Standard reports that Mkhitaryan would command a $242,000-per-week salary but that as of Friday morning he had yet to undergo a medical for the transfer. Arsenal reportedly still wants a transfer fee included for Sanchez, while Manchester United would prefer to just swap the two players.

It’s also looking as if that won’t be Arsenal’s only business in the transfer market. While it seemed like a far-fetched rumor at first, the links between Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Arsenal have only grown stronger in the past few days, and the Gabon international appears to be in the Gunners sights. It appears that Bordeaux’s young striker Malcolm is now off the table.

Vancouver adds versatile Juarez, formerly of Monterrey, Celtic

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Efrain Juarez is bringing his game to Major League Soccer.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 39-times capped Mexico veteran has inked a deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, joining a strengthened unit which came within a point of winning the West last season.

Juarez, 29, was unveiled as a midfielder by the ‘Caps, though he’s primarily played right back in his club career. He’s played at Celtic, Real Zaragoza, Club America, Monterrey, and Pumas.

Last capped by El Tri in 2012, Juarez has played every position except goal, center attacking mid, and center forward in his career (picture a ‘U’ on the pitch).

“I’m so happy and excited for this new stage in my career,” Juarez said. “It’s an opportunity for me to keep growing in a new league and to be a part of an amazing club in Vancouver. From the moment they showed interest me, Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps staff have made me feel very important. I promise to put all my effort into this club and do my best to help us achieve our goals.”

VIDEO: Asensio goal ends Real Madrid’s winless run

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Marco Asensio’s eighth goal of the season and second of this Copa del Rey put an end to an unlikely Real Madrid winless run in a 1-0 victory at Leganes.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 21-year-old darted in front of a defender to volley home from in-tight, giving Real Madrid a first leg lead in the tournament quarterfinals.

More importantly, perhaps, it gives struggling Real a boost in morale after draws with Celta Vigo and Numancia, and a loss to Villarreal.

Real is home to Deportivo de la Coruna in La Liga before hosting Leganes in the second leg.

Hopeful Newcastle buyer Staveley: Offer still on the table

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Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is probably happy that his for-sale club is away this weekend, even though his side’s up against Manchester City.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

That’s because hopeful buyer Amanda Staveley has responded to claims that her hopeful takeover of the team won’t be happening any time soon.

Talks had stalled, said Tuesday reports, much to the chagrin of an #AshleyOut brigade that at times can make Arsenal’s #WengerOut brigade look like a yard full of happy puppies.

A “source” had said, “Attempts to reach a deal have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” but Staveley shot back on Thursday to reignite the fire. From the BBC, taken from The Times:

“Our bid remains on the table. This is an investment, but it has to be a long-term investment. Newcastle would be run as a business, but we want it to be a successful, thriving business that is an absolutely integral part of the city.”

She also said that popular manager Rafa Benitez is integral to her interest in the team, and that fact combined with her insistence that an offer remains on the table will have many Newcastle fans seething with current ownership (and there have been protests for years). It’s Ashley’s move now.