Emulating the match day experience on display at JELD-WEN Field is something high on Orlando's to-o list.

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


PORTLAND, Ore. — Given two weeks, your mind can figure out how to screw things up. It’s funny like that. No matter how much how positive you think you are, how focused you think you can be, the bad stuff has a way of getting in. Strong minds have ways of dealing with that, but most of us can’t help dwelling. We’re always aware of the worst-case scenarios.

For the Portland Timbers, those worst-case scenarios are no longer just mental. Down by three goals at one point in the first leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final in Sandy, Utah, the playoff neophytes had to starefailure in the face. That they responded with a late goal from Frederic Piquionne salvaged their chances of making their first final (making it 4-2 just before the referee blew for full-time), but chasing two goals ahead of Sunday’s kickoff, Portland’s already had to deal with disappointment.

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

Real Salt Lake, however, could have carried leg one’s energy into JELD-WEN Field, but instead of three or six days between games, the international break happened. With 14 days between legs, their momentum has cooled. Over a shorter period of time, they could have willed themselves to stay focused, concentrated on their short preparation period, and fed off of the positive between Utah and Oregon. Staying in their normal routine, it would have been easy to put blinders on. Instead, the 2009 champions had to ramp down, occupy all that time, and try to avoid thinking about all the ways Portland could crawl back into this match.

In that sense, there’s nothing good that can come out of this break for Real Salt Lake. All these 14 days have done is Caleb Porter a chance to figure out what went wrong in leg one. While Jason Kreis is trying to maintain his team’s focus, Porter can spend two weeks building his squad’s confidence. By Sunday’s kickoff, Portland will have walked through every scenario where they can get back into this contest.

[MORE: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s match]

What if Portland scores early on Sunday, a goal that would change the whole dynamic of the tie? And I’m not just talking about something freaky that happens shortly after kickoff. What if Portland scores in the 44th minute? Only down one with 45 minutes left at home, the second half looks completely different.

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Javier Morales put in a Man of the Match performance in leg one, recording a goal and two assists in Real Salt Lake’s 4-2 victory over Portland. (Photo: Getty Images.)

If that happens, the Timbers don’t have to open up too soon. They don’t have to take undue chances against an attack that put 13 goals on them in five games. Portland can stay with their regular approach, one that will limit the exposure of their center backs and use their pressing high through the midfield to limit RSL’s access to playmaker Javier Morales. Whether you’re protecting or chasing a lead, it’s the type of modest scenario that starts to look very realistic when you’re given 14 days to dwell.

Still, how much that matters in the face of what we know about these teams is debatable. Between the regular season, U.S. Open Cup, and leg one in Sandy, these teams have met five times in 2013. Portland has not only failed to win, they’ve only led for 40 minutes – less than nine percent of the time. They’ve never led by two. Against a team they haven’t beaten since April 2011 (the first time the franchises ever met), Portland not only needs to win. They need to win by three. A two-goal margin only gets them to penalty kicks.

[MORE: Notes on Portland ahead of the West’s decider.]

Real Salt Lake’s leading scorer, Álvaro Saborío, will be out, but he didn’t play in leg one, either. The Costa Rican international also failed to get on the board in the team’s last meeting in Portland, a 0-0, October draw that Jason Kreis called the type of game his team would need to play in the postseason. If they pull off the same trick on Sunday, they’re back in the finals.

Just as every indication ahead of Portland’s finale with Seattle said the Timbers should win that match, there’s nothing in these teams’ recent history that says Portland’s going to their first MLS Cup final. They have a large, unconvincing body of work against RSL – a collection of evidence that tells us they have no answer for Salt Lake. Two weeks might give RSL time to entertain some doubts, but they’re going to have to do a major psych-out job to offset the advantages they’ve shown throughout the season.

Unless Caleb Porter found a magic bullet during the last two weeks, history’s likely to repeat itself, though in a season that’s seen Portland claim their first playoff appearance, postseason win, and conference final berth, it’s not difficult to imagine a breakthrough win over RSL landing them in their first MLS Cup final.

[MORE: Sporting Kansas City punches ticket for MLS Cup; downs Houston in Eastern Conference final]

Top 5 Premier League storylines — Manchester clubs look to get back on track

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The Premier League title race is shaping up to be the closest race ever, which leaves little room for error for the top clubs. Going into Matchday 10 the top five teams are separated by just one point and any misstep could result in a quick drop from the top of the table.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Trouble in Manchester?

West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester City — Saturday, 10:00 a.m. (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)
Manchester United vs. Burnley — Saturday, 10:00 a.m. ET (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

Pep Guardiola has gone six games without a win for the first time in his managerial career. Manchester City only has two points from its last three Premier League matches and seems to still be adjusting to the style of their new manager. This past weekend, it was an error from John Stones that gave Southampton a goal and the eventual point. City came roaring out of the gates with six straight wins to start the Premier League season., but now that the team is facing its first rough patch under Guardiola, a positive response will be essential for the Citizens to keep pace in the title race. Despite the team’s recent struggles, Man City is still at the top of the Premier League table.

Over at Old Trafford, Manchester United is facing even more hardship with their new manager. Jose Mourinho and United were embarrassed in their trip to Stamford Bridge as the team was beaten from the starting whistle by Chelsea. Similar to Manchester City, United started the Premier League season in good form winning its first three matches. However, the Red Devils have won just one of its last six Premier League matches and is five points off the pace of the top five. Man United seem to lack an identity as Mourinho struggles to find the right mix of players and high-priced signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba have made little impact in the team’s recent matches.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Have Conte, Chelsea figured it out?

Southampton vs. Chelsea — Sunday, 12:00 p.m. (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

Chelsea have won its last three Premier League matches, including a dominating performance against Manchester United last weekend. Antonio Conte has recently made a change to his preferred system of three center backs and the move has worked as Chelsea has three straight clean sheets. The offense has also flourished for the Blues with seven goals in their last two matches. Chelsea is just one point from the top the table and has looked as good as any team in the Premier League throughout the last month. A trip to Saint Mary’s Stadium on Sunday is another good test for Chelsea and Conte.

Bradley looks to keep Swansea afloat

Stoke City vs. Swansea — Monday, 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

Bob Bradley earned his first point as Swansea City manager with a 0-0 draw against Watford last weekend. While it was a good result for a Swansea team that had lost four straight, Bradley will need to start winning matches soon to get the Swans out of the relegation zone. Swansea has just one win this season and is currently two points from safety. The biggest issue for Bradley to solve is on defense where Swansea have earned just two clean sheets this season, including last week’s result against Watford. Swansea’s defense faces a tough task on Monday against a Stoke City side that appears to have found its goal scoring form.

Sunderland’s dreadful start likely to continue

Sunderland vs. Arsenal — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

Sunderland is off to one of the worst starts the Premier League has ever seen. There’s no way around that statement. The Black Cats have just two points this season and are in danger of creating too deep a hole to dig themselves out of. It doesn’t get any easier for David Moyes and his players as Arsenal pay a visit to the Stadium of Light this weekend. If Sunderland cannot get a result against Arsenal, the team will tie the 1995-96 Manchester City side for the worst start through 10 matches in Premier League history.

(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Christian Benteke takes on Liverpool

Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool — Saturday, 12:30 p.m. (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

Christian Benteke welcomes his old teammates to Selhurst Park as Crystal Palace faces Liverpool. Benteke was a big summer signing for the Reds prior to the start of last season, but the Belgian striker never seemed comfortable at Anfield. Benteke scored nine goals in 29 matches for Liverpool, his lowest total in his four Premier League seasons, and moved to Crystal Palace in the summer. In his first seven games for Palace, Benteke has three goals and has played all but six minutes for the team in the Premier League. Benteke will undoubtedly want to score against his old side and a goal would be welcomed by Palace which has dropped their last two matches.

VIDEO: Previews of all 10 Premier League games – Week 10

Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur FC and Jamie Vardy, Leicester City FC
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Week 10 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

With plenty of intriguing clashes to look out for, let’s take a quick look at all of the major storylines across the league.

Tottenham vs. Leicester City, Southampton vs. Chelsea and Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool seem to be the frontrunners for the games of the weekend.

Click play on the videos below to see the previews, while you can stream every single game live by clicking on the link above.

Is it Saturday yet?

Tottenham vs. Leicester City

Manchester United vs. Burnley

Southampton vs. Chelsea

Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool

West Brom vs. Manchester City

Sunderland vs. Arsenal

Everton vs. West Ham

Watford vs. Hull City

Stoke City vs. Swansea City

Middlesbrough vs. Bournemouth

Will this be most competitive Premier League title race ever?

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So, who is going to win the Premier League this season?

That’s right, you haven’t got a solid answer.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

It’s okay. Most people haven’t. And that’s incredibly exciting.

As Jenna Corrado and I discussed in the latest PST Extra (watch by clicking play, above), it is tough to remember any Premier League season in history being this competitive at the top end of the table.

A unique set of circumstances has created what could be described as a “perfect storm” for the 2016-17 campaign.

Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City all have new managers and are taking time to settle down. The projects at Tottenham and Liverpool are in full flow. Arsenal’s squad is looking better balanced than ever. Chelsea and Liverpool do not have European action to contend with. The midtable teams in the PL are continuing to punch above their weight too.

[ VIDEO: Full PST Extra archive ]

The closeness between the perennial top six is apparent in the early season table too.

Via the PremierLeague.com, there has never been a closer margin between the team in first place and the team in fifth place after nine games of a season. There is just one point separating first-place Man City with fifth-place Tottenham. In fact, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool all have 20 points and only goal differential separates them. Spurs and Chelsea sit one point behind on 19. Despite some early struggles, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United only sits six points off top spot.

What this all adds up to is parity. Last season we saw Leicester City come from nowhere to win the league. It was remarkable. Unlike anything we’ve ever seen or are likely to see. However, in the end Claudio Ranieri‘s side won it at a canter as they were 10 points clear.

That happens in most PL campaigns.

In 2013-14 the title race went down to the penultimate weekend of the season where technically three teams could win it: Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Apart from that, it’s been pretty much a two-horse race up until the end.

The feeling early on this season is that a multitude of factors are combining which see the top six big boys more evenly matched than ever before.

The stats back it up in terms of the opening quarter of the season. Now let’s see if anybody can make a run and separate themselves from the pack.

Most would bet the team to eventually win it all are Man City as Pep Guardiola‘s methods start to ingrain themselves in City’s players and the potential for another spending spree in January is there. That said, the others can also spend big midseason too and if the margins between them are fine come the midway point, the addition of a few key players could make all the difference.

I’m willing to bet that this will be the most competitive ever season in the history of the PL’s title race. Bring it on.

Premier League Power Rankings: The Reds rise to the top

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The top of the Premier League is as close as it’s ever been with the top five teams separated by just one point.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea won big in the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge, while Tottenham and Arsenal faltered with draws against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough respectively.

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

Check out the latest round of power rankings ahead of Matchday 10.

source: 20 (20) Sunderland: The Black Cats have had a historically bad start to the Premier League season with just two points from nine matches. Things do not get easier this weekend as Sunderland faces Arsenal.
Hull City logo 19 (19) Hull City: The Tigers have lost five straight Premier League matches and have allowed five more goals than any other team in the league this season.  
source: 18 (18) Swansea City: Bob Bradley earned his first point as Swansea City manager with a scoreless draw against Watford. However, Swansea has still only won one match this season and are in the relegation zone.
200px-Middlesbrough_crest 17 (17) Middlesbrough: An impressive draw at the Emirates has Middlesbrough just out of the relegation zone on goal difference. A home match against Bournemouth will be another tough test for The Boro. 
source: 16 (14) West HamWest Ham earned its second straight 1-0 win, but needed a Winston Reid goal in stoppage time to sneak past Sunderland.
source: 15 (12) West Bromwich Albion: After falling to Liverpool 2-1 last weekend, the Baggies face another tough test as Manchester City makes a visit to The Hawthrons. West Brom is winless in its last four Premier League matches. 
source: 14 (16) Stoke City: The offense has picked up for the Potters, led by Xherdan Shaqiri‘s brace this past weekend. Another winnable match against Swansea on Monday offers Stoke the chance to extend its unbeaten streak to five matches.
burnley fc crest 13 (15) Burnley: Burnley earned a 2-1 win over Everton thanks to a dramatic 90th-minute winner from Scott Arfield. The Clarets are three points clear of the relegation zone.

12 (9) Crystal Palace: Crystal Palace was clearly the inferior side in the team’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Leicester City. A match against Liverpool on Saturday will make it difficult for Palace to bounce back.
source: 11 (10) Watford: Watford had the chance to earn three points against Swansea City, but could only come away with a point. The Hornets have another chance at three points this weekend against Hull City. 
source: 10 (13) Leicester City: The Foxes looked impressive in their win against Crystal Palace despite having Jamie Vardy on the bench. Leicester will need to continue their good form to get a result against Tottenham this weekend.

9 (7) Manchester United: Manchester United suffered an embarassing defeat against Chelsea and appear to lack an identity under Jose Mourinho. 
source: 8 (11)
Bournemouth: Bournemouth has eight points from its last four matches, including a 6-1 victory over Hull City and a draw against Tottenham in their last two matches. The Cherries have a chance to continue their good form against Middlesbrough this weekend. 
source: 7 (4) Everton: Everton suffered a damaging defeat to Burnley. Although the Toffees are in sixth place, they are now four points off the pace of the top five.
source: 6 (8) Southampton: Southampton is unbeaten in its last five matches and earned an impressive point against Manchester City at the Etihad last weekend. 
source: 5 (5) Tottenham: Spurs are still the lone unbeaten team in the Premier League, but a draw against Bournemouth is not the type of result Tottenham has become accumosted to under Mauricio Pochettino 
source: 4 (2) Arsenal: The Gunners only earned a point at home against Middlesbrough. However, the team is unbeaten in its last eight.
source: 3 (6) Chelsea: Chelsea looks to have found its form under Antino Conte. The Blues dominated Manchester United and Jose Mourinho in a 4-0 victory. After a winless September, Chelsea have won all three of its Premier League matches in October and are just one point off the top of the table.
Logo_Manchester_City 2 (1) Manchester City: Pep Guardiola has gone six games without a win for the first time in his managerial career. Manchester City could only earn a point at home against Southampton last weekend, but the team is still at the top of Premier League on goal difference.
source: 1 (3) Liverpool: The Reds put on a beatuiful display against West Brom at Anfield last weekend. Liverpool is unbeaten in seven matches and is tied at the top of the table with Manchester City and Arsenal at 20 points.