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).

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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.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.