Portland adds two more Argentines: What the Timbers may be getting with their latest South American imports

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Rumors Portland would add two Argentines came to fruition on Wednesday, with the Timbers turning to South America for solutions at their roster’s two biggest areas of need. Looking to the same source that gave them Diego Valeri last offseason, Portland has signed forward Gastón Fernández and center back Norberto Paparatto from Argentina’s Primera División, adding the pair of 30-year-olds to the team’s thin striker and defense corps.

The moves had been rumored for some time, with “internet sleuthing” having already identified the potential acquisitions. With team general manager Gavin Wilkinson and head coach Caleb Porter having flown to Argentina shortly after the Timbers were eliminated from the playoffs, there was little doubt the teams’  signings would likely come from the Primera. Given the Timbers lacked an established striker and ended the season with Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou “Futty” Danso in central defense, it was clear which areas the team intended to target.

As with any imports, the question is what the Timbers are getting, particularly with Fernández (pictured, above). Typically employed as a supporting striker, La Gata hasn’t registered a competitive goal for Estudiantes since June 24, going 33 appearances for El Leon without scoring. Over the past six months in Argentina, the former Monterrey and Tigres attacker has only made one appearance for Mauricio Pellegino’s team, coming on a halftime of the team’s a 2-0 loss to Tigre on Dec. 8.

“It was our priority to find a striker that was the right fit for our group on many different levels,” Caleb Porter said in a statement released by the club. “We had a specific type of player in mind, someone that could create goals but also have chemistry with our other quality attacking pieces.”

Quick, skilled, and capable of playing used as anything from an attacking midfielder to striker through the middle, Fernández has the talent to reestablish himself in Major League Soccer. His main problems in the past — a want to hold to spent too much time on the ball — could be alleviated by playing in a system that’s already defined Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe as its focal points. At only 5’7″, however, Fernández lacks the size and physicality the Timbers enjoyed last year with Ryan Johnson.

Size is not an issue for the Timbers’ other Argentine import, with the 6’4″ Norberto Paparatto bringing Omar Gonzalez-level height to Porter’s back line. He also brings six-and-a-half years’ experience at Tigre to Major League Soccer, having been a regular on a team that made the 2012 Copa Sudamericana final. Though his speed and ability on the ball have allowed him to occasionally play on the right, Paparatto should immediately slip into Portland’s central defense, providing the Timbers with the high-quality center back the squad desperately needed at times last season.

“He is technically and tactically sound and will bring another player in our locker room that has experience and leadership qualities playing at a high level for many years,” Porter said. “Norberto will also help with our aerial ability, which is a critical component we wanted to enhance in our team.”

Out of the box, Paparatto will improve the Timbers, and in that way, he represents a signing on the opposite end of the spectrum from Fernández. Whereas the former Tigre man has consistently played over the last two years (making 82 appearances), La Gata’s only played 19 games in 12 months. While Fernández will be judged on his ability to rekindle the goal scoring touch he showed when returning to Estudiantes from Mexico four years ago, Paparatto looks to be a steadying influence at the back, his biggest concern being a tendency to mistime tackles (24 cards over the last two years). And whereas Fernández has experience playing outside of Argentina, Paparatto is making his first venture abroad, traveling 6,800 miles to do so.

Given the squad Portland had before signing their third and fourth Argentines, the risks make sense. In defense, where Timbers need more of a sure thing than a dice roll, Paparatto gives them somebody who can partner whomever emerges from the Kah, Danso, Mikael Silvestre battle. In attack, if Fernández can’t rediscover his form, the team still has Maxi Urruti, Frederic Piquionne, or the myriad possible combinations available to a team that could be moving away from playing a traditional striker.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.