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.

Conte names Gary Cahill new Chelsea captain

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As expected, Gary Cahill has been named Chelsea’s next skipper following the departure of long-time talisman John Terry this summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho rules out speculation of Bale joining Man United ]

While Cahill is no stranger to captaining his side — which he did for much of last season — the honor has been bestowed upon him on a full-time basis now by manager Antonio Conte as Chelsea prepares for the 2017/18 Premier League campaign.

Conte insists though that while Cahill is the man to wear the armband going forward that the rest of the squad’s elder statesman must also take on leadership roles to help guide the club as they pursue back-to-back PL crowns.

“I think also we can have other captains in our team, it could be [Cesar] Azpilicueta, [David] Luiz, and also, in the future, it could be Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas,” Conte told the Evening Standard.

“I think every single player must improve in this [being personalities in the dressing room] and take more responsibility because we lost big players and we need now to find these new players to create this fundamental for Chelsea. It is very important for our future success to create this base.”

Transfer rumor roundup: Man United to swoop for Verratti?

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With the Premier League season lurking, several of England’s top clubs are looking to put the finishing touches on their summer with quality last-minute signings.

Manchester United has been in the market for a holding midfield this transfer window, with Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and Eric Dier of Tottenham long linked to the Red Devils, but now another name could be made available to Jose Mourinho.

Marco Verratti is reportedly growing more and more tired at PSG, and while the Italian does still wish to move to Barcelona this summer, he would be open to signing with United if the Blaugrana don’t come calling.


Chelsea could be closing in on another young Brazilian talent, and Blues will be looking to beat out Man United and others for his services.

Fluminense forward Richarlison is the player of interest, and the Blues are prepared to duel with the Red Devils and AC Milan in order to secure the 20-year-old’s signature.


Meanwhile, Juventus is looking to Liverpool’s Emre Can to help out in the midfield after a strong season for the Reds in the Premier League.

Mourinho rules out speculation of Bale joining United

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Jose Mourinho has certainly done his best to help revamp Manchester United this summer with the additions of Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof, however, one name can be ruled out from joining the Red Devils at this time.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Arnautovic for club-record fee ]

There’s been speculation for some time that Gareth Bale would return to England — and likely to United if he did make a comeback in the Premier League — but the Portuguese boss has slammed the door on those talks.

“The same [as Ronaldo],” Mourinho said when asked about Bale’s availability. “You have contacts and feelings, you understand things, and it was clear that Bale likes Madrid, the challenge and situation.

“They are in a very good situation now and I never felt a desire for him to leave, so why waste time on it? No.”

While Bale — and Cristiano Ronaldo — appear off the radar of Mourinho and Co. for now, the second-year United manager has suggested that he would like one or two more signings to be made available to him heading into the season.

Players like Nemanja Matic of Chelsea and Tottenham’s Eric Dier continue to be linked to the Red Devils, while Ivan Perisic has also been rumored to be closing in on a deal to Old Trafford.

“Names is difficult for me, the players belong to clubs and are in preseason,” he said. “The managers and owners are not happy if players talk about them — I’m the same.

“My plan for the evolution of the team, my second transfer window, was to get four players and get balance and make a better squad.

“But with the development of the market, I was getting the feedback from Mr Woodward and I repeat, the market is very difficult.

“If the club has no chance to give me the four players, I like my group and I go with them, but I still have the hope I can have a third player, and maybe a fourth.”

El Salvador players face bans after biting USMNT’s Altidore, Gonzalez

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While the USMNT booked its place into the Gold Cup final on Saturday night, the team’s quarterfinal opponent was punished for the actions of some of its players.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica ]

The U.S. knocked off El Salvador, 2-0, on Wednesday night, but it was the malice committed by the losers that proved to be so disappointing to watch.

Americans Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez were each bit by El Salvadoran players during the match, with both incidents going unnoticed during live action by the referees.

Henry Romero was given a six-match international ban, while Darwin Ceren of the San Jose Earthquakes was handed a three-match suspension for his role.

According to CONCACAF, the duo will only have to sit out “official matches,” and with El Salvador out of the running for qualification into next summer’s World Cup, the Central Americans will have some down time.