MLS Season Preview: Portland Timbers

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Odd to say about a team with a “genius” coach, the fewest losses in MLS and the best goal differential, but it’s hard to get a confident read on the Portland Timbers. Caleb Porter clearly knows how to coach up a team, and the Timbers cleaned up at the MLS Awards, but who were they really in 2013? And who might they be this year?

The reason to put it that way is the Timbers tied a remarkable 15 matches last season. That’s nearly twice as many as any playoff team and four more than the club with the second-most ties (FC Dallas).

LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

In a Western Conference where their first place point total was just six points higher than the San Jose club that missed the playoffs, Portland may have very well been the best team in the entire league… or just another squad. Their 15 ties are the highest in two entire seasons of MLS play, so were they a goal away from the Supporters Shield or a couple goals away from missing the playoffs entirely?

Likely the former (See: the playoffs), but something to keep an eye on before we go all gushy on a team loaded up for 2014. Darlington Nagbe, Will Johnson and company will have their say yet again this year, but how loud will they roar?

Transfers In: Gaston Fernandez (transfer from Estudiantes de La Plata), Norberto Paparatto (transfer from Tigre), Steve Zakuani (Re-Entry draft), Jorge Villafana (trade from Chivas USA), Andrew Weber (free), Schillo Tshuma (MLS SuperDraft), Taylor Peay (MLS SuperDraft)

Transfers Out: David Horst (option declined), Ryan Johnson (out of contract), Andrew Jean-Baptiste (traded to Chivas), Sal Zizzo (trade to Sporting KC), Milos Kocic (retired), Mikael Silvestre (contract terminated), Brad Ring (out of contract), Jose Valencia (loaned to Club Olimpo)

Key Player: Diego Valeri

How will the reigning MLS Newcomer of the Year improve on a 11-goal season (10 regular season, 1 playoff)? That’s the big question, and I’d expect to see Valeri be even more a playmaker than a finisher this season. Yes, it’s nice to see Nagbe move in tight spaces and the Akron family reunion (Zakuani, Zemansky, Porter) will likely pay dividends, but Valeri slots in just above Will Johnson in position and importance as to whether the numbers go the way of PDX.

source: AP
Caleb Porter (right), with Timbers owner/president Merritt Paulson (Photo: AP.)

Manager: Caleb Porter

He’s got all the tools you’d like in a manager, plus the brash attitude to reshuffle his deck at will. Remember the incredible flipped roster of last season? Well, Porter’s brought in a big center back in Paparatto and slick Fernandez from Argentina. He continues to make the right moves in the Pacific Northwest.

Outlook:

I’ll admit to having my concerns about the Timbers repeating their success, but the numbers say that Porter and Portland should challenge for the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. In fact, if Porter is who many think he is, this could be the season where he starts getting whispers for jobs even “bigger” than the one supported by the wonderful world of Timbers Army.

Steven Gerrard didn’t want any part of Coutinho in training

AP Photo/Clint Hughes
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Steven Gerrard has issued some fairly hilarious comments regarding former Liverpool teammate Philippe Coutinho.

The Premier League legend admits there were days in training that the sight of the Brazilian wizard on the other side of the pitch made him lash out.

[ MORE: Palace fans must be patient ]

It seems Gerrard wanted nothing to do with marking Coutinho in small-sided games, and the idea of “Stevie G” spouting off in frustration when Brendan Rodgers posted Coutinho across from him is a wonderful mental picture.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“He’s impossible to defend against,” Gerrard told BT Sport after Saturday’s game.

“I mean when I used to train against him, I’d hate it if I was on the opposite five-a-side team. I wouldn’t go near him. And sometimes I’d say to him: ‘Keep away from me! He can embarrass you [as a defender]. He can stand you up, he can both ways, he’s got such a low centre of gravity. He’s sharp, he’s quick and he’s two or three steps ahead of defenders. He’s so, so clever.”

Again, the vision of Gerrard throwing his hands up with a “Nope, not having this today” is amazing. Even if exaggerated, we love it. We picture that old meme with the office worked tossing papers through the air.

Patience with Hodgson required by Palace

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Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson is 0-2 in his new gig and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t exactly within touching distance.

The latest defeat is a 5-0 blowout at Manchester City, and the immediate road ahead is sobering: at Manchester United and home to Chelsea. Following a trip to Newcastle, who is in form, the Eagles have matches vs. West Ham, at Spurs, and versus Everton.

[ MORE: Premier League Sat. roundup ]

Palace is 0-6 overall and the first team in the history of the Premier League to go goalless through its first six matches.

Palace fired Frank De Boer after four league matches and a summer in which the club failed to add much to its squad.

And Hodgson is feeling his way through the dark. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this is the timing of Palace’s change.

From the BBC:

“I am learning about the team all the time and they are learning,” said Hodgson.

“Our focus has to be in May. By the latter part of the season the players must know what we are looking for. They should feel stronger by then.”

To be shooting for May has to be overwhelming for the Selhurst Park faithful but may indicate their most reasonable promise of life in the Premier League.

Palace fans cannot afford to get caught up in how Sam Allardyce saved them a year ago, because his turnaround coincided with the Eagles’ purchases of Luka MilivojevicMamadou Sakho, and Patrick Van Aanholt. An influx of talent does not save a season alone, but we’re fairly sure Alan Pardew would’ve relished the chance to work with two new backs and a stabilizing center midfielder.

Remember that Allardyce then retired, which says something given his willingness to bask in any light in which he can claim a modicum of credit.

So Hodgson, known for his relentless training methods, needs to be given his time. Palace will likely have at-most one point after the next two PL matches, and they may have not scored yet. History can be daunting, but supporters need to exhale and realize the road ahead is long.

Kenya loses hosting rights to 2018 African Nations Championship

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) Kenya has been stripped of the right to host the 2018 African Nations Championship.

The Confederation of Africa Football cited “accumulated delays” in Kenya’s preparations for the tournament, which is the continental championship for players playing in their home leagues.

[ MORE: Premier League Sat. roundup ]

CAF made the decision to take the tournament away from Kenya at an executive committee meeting in Accra, Ghana, on Saturday and opened the bidding process for a new host on Sunday. CAF says applications must be received by next Sunday and the new host will be announced in just over two weeks.

The African Nations Championship is scheduled to be played from Jan. 12-Feb. 4.

Kenya’s preparations for the 16-team tournament were already troubled before August when its presidential elections were nullified and a re-vote was ordered. That re-vote is scheduled for next month, and the political instability has meant preparations for the soccer tournament have been undermined.

CAF also says it is opening a tender process to recruit an audit firm to examine Cameroon’s preparations for the 2019 African Cup of Nations, Africa’s top soccer event.

Like Kenya, Cameroon’s readiness to host the Cup of Nations has been under scrutiny. CAF says it needs to examine the state of Cameroon’s “infrastructure to host the tournament,” with the 2019 Cup of Nations the first to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams.

MLS Snapshot: Red-hot RSL end Sounders’ unbeaten run at 13

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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The game in 100 words (or less): With the Seattle Sounders’ 13-game unbeaten run now a thing of the past (and the final four of those games all draws), Real Salt Lake (two losses in their last two, including wins in four of their last five) might just be the hottest team in MLS not named Atlanta United (just one loss in their last 12, including wins in three of their last four; combined score: 17-3). Furthermore, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium boosts RSL into fifth place in the Western Conference, two points clear of the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, as Mike Petke’s side makes this year’s improbable, late charge toward the MLS Cup Playoffs, in much the same fashion Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders did a year ago. Jefferson Savarino, who scored one and assisted one on Saturday, has proven himself a star on the rise in recent weeks, and has RSL playing their best soccer of the year at exactly the right time.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

52′ — Savarino slams home Rusnak’s pass for 1-0 — RSL have themselves an attacking trio (Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Brooks Lennon) that loves to play together, and that joy really shines brightly in moments like this.

66′ — Mulholland slams home from Savarino’s cross for 2-0 — Savarino turned provider just 15 minutes later, getting in behind Joevin Jones, corralling Joao Plata’s through ball, and picking out Mulholland atop the six-yard box.

92′ — Rimando makes a stunning save to deny Dempsey — Clint Dempsey tried to sneak a quick free kick past Nick Rimando, but the all-time greatest goalkeeper in MLS history was over it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jefferson Savarino

Goalscorers: Savarino (52′), Mulholland (66′)