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.

MLS Snapshot: Colorado Rapids 1-2 Real Salt Lake

SANDY UT - MARCH 14: Olmes Garcia #13 of Real Salt Lake celebrates his goal during their game against the Philadelphia Union at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 14, 2015 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Real Salt Lake stays alive in the hunt for a playoff berth in the Western Conference with a crucial 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids. After falling behind early, RSL scored twice before halftime and held onto the lead for the rest of the match, moving within three points of the final playoff spot in the West. Real Salt Lake has three matches remaining, including a massive clash against the Portland Timbers, which will pretty much decide their season. For Colorado, it’s another year without playoff soccer.

[ MORE: FC Dallas clinches playoff berth ]

Three moments that mattered

16′ — Doyle heads Colorado into the lead — The former Premier League man gave the home side an early lead, thanks to a powerful header from quite a bit out. Sean St. Ledger played in a cross, where Doyle snapped a header into the top corner past Nick Rimando.

33′ — Joao Plata bends in the free kick — Trailing 1-0, Joao Plata drew RSL level with a brilliant free kick. Plata’s shot dipped over the wall and under the crossbar, as Clint Irwin stood helpless in goal for Colorado.

43′ — Mulholland fires home a volley to put RSL ahead — Luke Mulholland scored his first goal of the season, and it was a beauty. A corner kick popped out to the midfielder at the top of the box, as he rifled a shot off the bounce and into the side netting.

Man of the match: Luke Mulholland

Goalscorers: Doyle (16′), Plata (33′), Mulholland (43′)

Wenger lauds team spirit following Arsenal’s big win

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Arsenal put on a superb performance against Manchester United today, flying out to a three-goal lead in the opening 20 minutes of the match.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 3-0 Manchester United ]

United was stunned by the fast-paced, free-flowing Arsenal attack, unable to recover from the Gunners’ early dominance.

All of this came on the heels of a disappointing loss to Olympiacos in the Champions League, after which many questioned manager Arsene Wenger and his side.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. Manchester United ]

Following the big 3-0 win at the Emirates, Wenger praised his team’s spirit, saying there were outstanding performances throughout the side.

You go from Petr Cech up to Theo Walcott, and we had only outstanding performances. Sometimes we have that magic side in our game.

[Against Olympiacos] maybe we lacked a little bit of urgency and discipline, and that’s why we lost the game. But let’s not forget, last Saturday we won 5-2 at Leicester. Today we beat Man United 3-0.

[The players] have shown that we have an outstanding spirit in the squad. To respond the way we did after what happened to us, you need to have an exceptional spirit.

The Gunners’ performance today immediately silenced all the critics, as Wenger’s side put out on a display that many have been waiting for all season. The combination play of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott was brilliant, as Santi Cazorla continued to impress in the center of the midfield.

Wenger’s teams have not always been known to show strong heart and resiliency, but that’s exactly what they showed today against a Manchester United side that was in great form. Now sitting second on the table, Arsenal continues to climb up the Premier League.