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.

TFC’s Bradley: “Responsibility, privilege and passion” on line in playoffs

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Michael Bradley #4 of United States looks on against New Zealand in the second half during an International Friendly at RFK Stadium on October 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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Toronto FC’s supporters fell in love with the club almost immediately, but it’s taken to Year 10 for the Reds to get a home playoff match.

The latest batch of TFC stars have embraced the battle for relevance, at times even surpassing expectations the lofty expectations of championship-starved Toronto.

[ MORE: Bradley talks TFC renaissance

This is a city which has seen the Blue Jays and Raptors find the precipice of glory in recent seasons, but not reach the apex. The Leafs haven’t been to a Stanley Cup final since the NHL had a whopping six teams.

So winning would be a mighty big accomplishment, right Michael Bradley?

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Being captain or a big player on a team in this city carries an extra weight,” said captain Michael Bradley. “I’ve loved every second of that; playing in this city, for this city, and being captain. It’ll be nights like Wednesday night where the responsibility, privilege and passion that I have for this role will get magnified that much more.”

He has a way with words, doesn’t he? The USMNT captain begins Canada’s quest for a title at 7:30 p.m. ET against visiting Philadelphia.

Whitecaps lock up Welsh coach Robinson through 2020

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 5:  Head coach Carl Robinson (right) of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC during their MLS game against the Colorado Rapids April 5, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Colorado won 2-1. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
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Vancouver is hanging onto stalwart coach Carl Robinson despite a massively disappointing season.

The Whitecaps were tipped to compete for the Supporters’ Shield, only to miss the playoffs. There were plenty of excuses for the ‘Caps, including an injury to Kekuta Manneh and the transfer of Octavio Rivero.

And Vancouver is alive as the No. 1 seed in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, also claiming the Cascadia Cup.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high ]

Robinson has signed an extension through 2020, from WhitecapsFC.com:

“Carl’s body of work over the course of his five years at the club has shown that he is one of the top up-and-coming head coaches in North America. While this past season was certainly a learning experience for everyone involved within the club, we have complete faith in Carl’s continued vision in acquiring the necessary players to build a team that will compete with the best in MLS.”

Robinson turned 40 this month, and has been leading the ‘Caps since December 2013. This is a smart move for both Vancouver and its coach.

PST shortlists Major League Soccer award candidates

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
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Major League Soccer’s playoff run begins tonight with Philadelphia at Toronto and LA hosting Real Salt Lake, and it also gives us a chance to run down the regular season.

We’ve already discussed several items, including Portland and Columbus’ historic flops, DC United’s red-hot form, pre-playoff power rankings, and predictions.

[ MORE: Chalobah’s double nutmeg ]

But what about the season that was, the one that saw Bradley Wright-Phillips snag his second Golden Boot and Colorado nearly grab a shocking Supporters’ Shield?

We rounded up our staff’s opinions to put together combined shortlists for MLS awards.

Rookie of the Year

Jordan Morris (Seattle)
Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia)
Alex Muyl (RBNY)
Jack Harrison (NYCFC)
Jonathan Campbell (Chicago)

Newcomer of the Year

Ronald Matarrita (NYCFC)
Ashley Cole (LA Galaxy)
Tim Howard (Colorado)
Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle)
Jelle van Damme (LA Galaxy)
Luciano Acosta (DC United)
Ola Kamara (Columbus)
Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado)

Goalkeeper of the Year

Brian Rowe (LA Galaxy)
Andre Blake (Philadelphia)
David Bingham (San Jose)
Jake Gleeson (Portland)
Luis Robles (RBNY)

Coach of the Year

Patrick Vieira (NYCFC)
Jesse Marsch (RBNY)
Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado)
Oscar Pareja (Dallas)
Greg Vanney (Toronto)

Most Valuable Player

David Villa (NYCFC)
Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto)
Sacha Kljestan (RBNY)
Bradley Wright-Phillips (RBNY)
Ignacio Piatti (Montreal)
Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle)

Spanish FF fines Valencia for bottle toss; Chastises Barcelona

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  FC Barcelona are hit by objects thrown from the seats after Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona scores his team's third goal from the penalty spot during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Spain’s football federation has fined Valencia about $1600 for the water bottle tossed at celebrating Barcelona players on Saturday.

It’s also criticized Barca’s reaction to Neymar being hit with the water bottle.

[ MORE: Watch the incident here ]

Lionel Messi in particular flipped out at fans, who were furious after Barca scored a match-winning penalty and celebrated near the touch line.

From the BBC:

Spain’s football federation criticised the Barca players for their “exaggerated reaction” and for celebrating in front of home fans, but added “nothing justified” the reaction of the Valencia supporters.

There’s an easy joke to make about playacting/diving here, as Luis Suarez hits the deck despite not appearing to be hit.

But it’s critical to remember that these players at the moment don’t have any idea what’s happened, only that they’ve been hit. And Suarez is covering head, perhaps wondering what’s coming next. Neymar laying on the pitch for a while seems a bit overboard, but I don’t blame Messi nor his teammates for being furious with the supporters.

What do you make of it?