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

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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]

Premier League player Power Rankings – Week 1

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It is time to take stock of the Premier League’s opening weekend and select the top 20 players who dazzled to open up the 2017-18 campaign.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Romelu Lukaku (Man United)
  2. Steve Mounie (Huddersfield)
  3. Nemanja Matic (Man United)
  4. David Silva (Man City)
  5. Alexandre Laczette (Arsenal)
  6. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
  7. Dele Alli (Tottenham)
  8. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
  9. Wayne Rooney (Everton)
  10. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
  11. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
  12. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)
  13. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea)
  14. Kyle Walker (Man City)
  15. Stefano Okaka (Watford)
  16. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield)
  17. Sam Vokes (Burnley)
  18. Jay Rodriguez (West Brom)
  19. Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea)
  20. Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)

Everton confirm Gylfi Sigurdsson medical ahead of move

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Everton’s $57.8 million club-record move for Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is almost complete.

[ MORE: Danny Rose to Chelsea?

Toffees boss Ronald Koeman was speaking to the media ahead of the first leg of their UEFA Europa League playoff against Hajduk Split on Thursday, and he confirmed Sigurdsson has undergone a medical at their Finch Farm training ground without any hiccups.

He also stated that Sigurdsson, 27, could make his Everton debut away at Manchester City on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) if everything goes to plan.

“I have seen the doctor and there is no problem,” Koeman said. “Still he needs to sign, but I saw him in the Blue! Normally we will do the business today.”

This news will be a relief for everyone concerned. Everton. Sigurdsson. Swansea. Koeman. Absolutely everyone. This has taken over six weeks to sort out but the end game is near and Swansea will at least get a huge profit as they bought Sigurdsson for Spurs in 2014 for $11.5 million, but did send Ben Davies and Michel Vorm in the opposite direction. Spurs also have a 10 percent sell-on clause in this deal.

The Icelandic playmaker scored nine goals and added 13 assists in the Premier League last season as he kept Swansea in the Premier League but the former Reading, Hoffenheim and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder will now link up with Koeman at Goodison Park.

Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney, Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaassen will all be tasked with chipping in with double figures in terms of goals this season to counteract the departure of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United for $96.5 million earlier this summer.

In his prime and ready to be a key piece of Everton’s attacking unit for the foreseeable future, it appears that Sigurdsson has landed in the right place. This is a massive blow for Swansea but for Everton it’s magnificent news.

Sigurdsson will have a large transfer fee hanging over his head and some suggest he prefers being a bigger fish in a smaller pond a la Swansea compared to his time at Tottenham.

We are about to find out if he can handle the pressure of leading a top four charge for the Toffees. Given his incredible assist record last season (only Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen provided more in the PL) he should slot in just fine at Everton.

Report: Danny Rose to Chelsea for $64.3 million

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Just a week after Danny Rose gave an explosive newspaper interview, for which he later apologized, suggesting he will get paid what he’s worth be it at Tottenham Hotspur or elsewhere, it appears interest is rife in the England left back.

Who would have thought that would happen…

[ MORE: Wenger gives update on Sanchez ]

The Sun newspaper claim Rose will be the subject of a $64.3 million from Chelsea on Sunday following heir clash with Tottenham at Wembley (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a massive London derby.

Rose, 27, is still recovering from a knee injury and won’t be available until after the next international break in early September, but the man who has been named as the best left back in the Premier League over the past two seasons will have obviously upset the hierarchy at Spurs with his comments, even if many believe he was only airing the thoughts of most of Tottenham’s players.

He certainly opened up a can of worms with his comments (more on that here) as Spurs’ star names continue to be paid less than stars at Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and even Arsenal, and with Kyle Walker moving on to Man City earlier this summer and instantly doubling his salary, many can see where Rose is coming from. However, nobody told this Spurs players to sign new long-term deals. They all agreed to them.

Man United are also said to be interested in Rose who revealed in his self-proclaimed “ill-advised” comments that one day he would like a move back to the north of England to be closer to family.

Moving back to Chelsea’s pursuit of Rose, does it make sense?

Strengthening on the right-hand side of defense should probably take priority for the reigning champs with Marcos Alonso having a fine first season at Stamford Bridge and also adding an attacking threat down the left in the 3-4-3 system. Adding Rose could see Alonso pushed further forward but having two players for each position is crucial for Antonio Conte especially with UEFA Champions League action coming up, so looking for another left-wing back make sense. Rose’s pace and power make him the perfect fit for that position.

With Tottenham said to closing in a move for Ajax’s 21-year-old Colombian center back Davinson Sanchez, it appears Spurs are pushing ahead with exactly what Rose asked for last week: more big-name signings he didn’t have to Google to find out who they were.

It would be extremely tough to see Spurs willing to sell on another full back after letting Walker leave for Man City for $64.3 million earlier this summer, but if Chelsea wanted to pay that for Rose and with Ben Davies stepping in and developing into a solid, dependable left back over the past 12 months, should they take the cash and invest in other talented youngsters from across Europe?

Wenger gives update on Sanchez, Chamberlain, Wilshere

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Arsene Wenger has a lot to sort out in the coming months. And that’s just off the pitch.

Wenger, 67, has nine first-team players who are in the final years of their contracts at Arsenal and although Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have had much of the spotlight when it comes to their respective futures, there is plenty more to sort out.

But, for the sake of order, let’s start with Wenger’s comments on Sanchez’s future as the 28-year-old remains sideline with an abdominal injury and is in the final 12 months of his deal.

Wenger revealed that Sanchez won’t make the game at Stoke this weekend, but that he’ll likely return against Liverpool on Aug. 27.

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Stoke on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) the Frenchman revealed there has been no progress in talks over Sanchez staying at the Emirates Stadium.

“He is a player who goes into the final year of his contract. We have not progressed on that front,” Wenger said. “Let’s not be wrong, it’s not an ideal situation on the financial side and it demands some sacrifice. But first of all, it doesn’t mean the players who are in the final year of their contract will not extend their contract. You have still that possibility and we work on that as well.

“That (possibly allowing Sanchez to leave for free) is a consequence of what I say, yes, unfortunately. But we have to make a choice between efficiency on the field and financial interest and most of the time if you can find a good compromise, it’s better. But in this case, I think I prioritize the fact that he will be useful on the sporting side.”

So, that’s Sanchez. It appears Wenger is still willing to let Sanchez leave for nothing at the end of this season with the Chilean superstar, who scored 24 goals and added 10 assists in the Premier League for Arsenal last season, free to negotiate a free transfer with clubs outside of England from January onwards.

As for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere, Wenger seems eager to keep both players but interest around the England internationals continue to swirl with both Chelsea and Manchester City said to be interested in the Ox and clubs such as West Ham, Newcastle and Sampdoria trying to sign Wilshere.

“We always wanted to keep Sanchez and we always hope, even now, that we can extend the contracts of Sanchez, Chamberlain, Ozil,” Wenger told beIN Sports. 

He expanded on those thoughts with the press on Wednesday, stating his appreciation for Chamberlain in particular.

“I rate him  highly,” Wenger said. “I want him to stay here for a long time and I’m convinced he will be the English player in the next two or three years that everybody will look at.”

Wenger’s comments earlier in the summer about Arsenal being in a strong position with several first-team stars in the final year of their respective contracts seemed like a bizarre one. With these situations rumbling on and no end in sight to the speculation and uncertainty, his comments now seems even more peculiar.