Diego Valeri led Major League Soccer in assists this season but was pulled after 60 minutes in Seattle on Saturday.

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.

What lies ahead for USMNT in January camp?

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Bruce Arena’s reign as the new U.S. national team head coach is well under way and the veteran seems to be enjoying his second stint in charge after 10 years away.

[ MORE: Europe’s 100 most valuable ]

The USMNT have been training in Carson, Calif. over the past five days and a pretty cool behind-the-scenes video of the opening day of training was released by U.S. Soccer (see above) to show how Arena has been getting on.

With 31 players currently in camp, Arena is enjoying himself (banter with DaMarcus Beasley and waxing lyrical about Jermaine Jones says as much) but he already has one eye on the two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama coming up in March.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news

This camp will be key for the MLS-heavy contingent, with the likes of Chad Marshall, Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty and Juan Agudelo getting another chance to impress for the Stars and Stripes. So many youngsters have emerged from these camps in the past, with Kekuta Manneh, Keegan Rosenberry and Walker Zimmerman just some of the young talent looking to not only make their debuts but also become regulars in the USMNT setup.

Veterans Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi and others are all around and ready to prove their worth to the new boss too.

Below is a quick look at what lies ahead for his team during January camp (and beyond) as they prepare for two friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica to tune themselves up for the World Cup qualifiers when the European contingent will join the squad.


Training

  • Jan. 11-28 – Carson, Calif.

Friendlies 

  • Jan. 29 – Serbia in San Diego, Calif.
  • Feb. 3 – Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tenn.

2018 World Cup qualifiers

  • Mar. 24 – vs. Honduras in San Jose, Calif.
  • Mar. 28 – at Panama in Panama City

Study reveals Europe’s 100 most valuable players

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur (L) celebrates scoring his sides fourth goal with Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur (R) during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Wait, what?

[ MORE: Title race over for City? ]

A study from the International Center for Sports Studies (CIES) has slapped valuations on Europe’s top stars and both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo aren’t the most valuable.

Hmm.

The guys over at the Football Observatory, the soccer arm of CIES, always do a great job with these kind of studies and below you will find who they’ve ranked as the 100 most valuable players in Europe’s top five leagues.

CIES take players’ performance on the pitch, contract length, age and many other factors into place when ranking them and in the extensive study 10 Premier League clubs have players included as stars from Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur feature.

In total, 38 PL players are in the top 100.

Neymar is the most valuable player in Europe as the Barcelona star has a valuation of $261.5 million, which puts him way ahead of Lionel Messi who sits in second place with a value of $180.6 million.In third place is Manchester United’s Paul Pogba who has a value of $164.5 million, while Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez round out the top five.

Below is the top 100 list in full, courtesy of CIES, with their club, age and when their current contract runs out listed.

Do you agree with their valuations?


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Too early for Guardiola to concede Premier League title?

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Pep Guardiola suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager on Sunday as Manchester City were hammered 4-0 at Everton in the Premier League.

Post-game he was understandably glum.

[ MORE: Klopp slams United ]

Guardiola even appeared to concede the Premier League title, as the preseason favorites for the crown have now fallen 10 points behind leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go.

When asked if City’s title hopes were over after a fifth defeat of the season, the Spaniard’s answer was emphatic.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

It seems like Guardiola has already decided that the title race is over for City, but has he thrown in the towel too early?

With just five points separating second-place Tottenham with sixth-place Manchester United, it appears City’s primary focus will now be to finish in the top four as a mammoth battle ensues in the final third of the season.

Yet, we have seen some miraculous comebacks from teams in the past to win the title. These stats could give Pep hope.

In the 1997-98 season, Arsenal were 12 points behind United after 21 games of the season (United had played a game more) but roared back to win the PL by one point. And of course, City’s two PL crowns came courtesy of stunning late surges in the season with thanks to Sergio Aguero’s magic on the final day in 2011-12 and then Liverpool’s collapse in the closing weeks of 2013-14.

Pep, don’t lost the faith. It can be done.

However, if City lose to Tottenham next weekend and Chelsea extend their lead over Pep’s boys to 13 points by beating Hull City, it is curtains.

Such is the dominance of the big boys this season, City pretty much have to go unbeaten for the rest of the season to have a shot at winning the PL. Given their recent defensive displays that seems unlikely.

We all know Pep is an idealist when it comes to how he wants his team to play but now we are seeing he is a realist too.

Conte urges players “money is not everything” amid Costa rumors

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 04: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on January 4, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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While new reports are suggesting that China will have to curb its massive spending, Antonio Conte has urged his players that they don’t have to be tempted by the Chinese Super League.

[ MORE: United, Liverpool finish level after late Ibrahimovic equalizer ]

Chelsea currently sits atop the Premier League — seven points clear of Tottenham and Liverpool — but the club has recently been at the center of controversy as star striker Diego Costa has been linked with a move away from the club.

[ MORE: CSL set to limit number of foreign players per team ]

Costa missed his side’s 3-0 win over Leicester City on Saturday after several outlets reported a rift between the Spaniard and Conte.

The Chelsea manager told reporters following the match that Costa wasn’t available due to a back injury he suffered in training, but there has been continued speculation that the 28-year-old could head to China.

Conte has made it clear to his squad though that the quality of competition in England supersedes the money offered abroad.

“The money is not everything,” Conte told reporters. “When you play for a great team like Chelsea, you must be pleased.

“I think we are a great club and it is a great honour to play for Chelsea. For this reason I don’t see [China] as a threat for my players.

The Blues have lost a number of high-profile players over recent seasons to the high spending of Chinese football, including Brazilian duo Oscar and Ramires, as well as John Obi Mikel.

Oscar departed Chelsea this month to join Shanghai SIPG for a reported $72 million.

“I have to look at the past,” Conte said. “Oscar played with us, had a good offer from China and he went.

“But this league is really competitive and every player wants to come and play in this league.

“This league is the first in the world because of a lot of positive things, so I don’t think these offers from China are a threat for our league.”