Regression or progression? Why New York, Portland are off to slow starts

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They were the feel good stories of last year’s regular season, but four weeks into the 2014 campaign, both the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers have yet to win a game. Perhaps more importantly, both teams are playing to their poor March records. After being blown out on opening day, the Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls have earned three lackluster draws, while Portland’s struggles while drawing its first two at home have led to back-to-back losses on the road. While both teams started slowly last year, too, 2014’s brought new problems.

Even before opening day disappointments, both teams’ rise last season made them logical relegation candidates, with last year’s San Jose providing a great example of what happens when everybody comes back to earth. In 2012 under Frank Yallop, the Earthquakes surged from out of the playoffs the pervious year to the top of the league, claiming the Supporters’ Shield. Chris Wondolowski won Most Valuable Player, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart had career years, while Simon Dawkins and Martín Chávez exploded on the wings. The likes of Rafael Baca, Steven Beitashour, and Justin Morrow had unpredictably good seasons, while Honduran import Víctor Bernárdez won Defender of the Year.

Fast forward one year, and everybody simultaneously regressed, perhaps predictably so. As a result, Frank Yallop was out of a job within months, and the Earthquakes had to rally under Mark Watson to finish on the edge of the playoff picture. The team regressed.

What does San Jose’s story tell us about New York and Portland? As it concerns the Timbers, it may tell us a lot. The list of players who had unexpectedly strong seasons under Caleb Porter is nearly as long as San Jose’s, from Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace in attack, to Will Johnson in the middle, to Donovan Ricketts in goal. Even Michael Harrington, on Kansas City’s bench the year before, and Jack Jewsbury, moving from midfield to right back, may have been unexpectedly strong performers, while Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe may yet prove regression candidates, too. Play devil’s advocate and be pessimistic, and Portland could be 2014’s San Jose.

The obvious problem: Portland can’t score goals, and it isn’t necessarily for lack of good chances. Yes, the quality of the chances can always improve, but when you see Diego Valeri flubbing shots at the edge of the six-yard box (vs. Philadelphia), Kalif Alhassen not hitting goal with open shots inside the arch (at Dallas), or Futty Danso missing opener headers at close range on corners (vs. Colorado), player performance is the issue. All the things that were going right for Portland last year — those things that translated onto the scoresheet, into the stat columns, and into the standings — may not be clicking thus far this season.

source: APThere is an alternate narrative, though. Whereas San Jose’s year-over-year improvement happened under the same coach, Portland brought in a new guy, somebody with a drastically different philosophy about how to play soccer. Moving from John Spencer to Porter (right), the Timbers also completely overhauled their roster, with only Nagbe and Diego Chara returning to the starting lineup in a similar role. If the concept of regression requires us to identify a mean or baseline, it’s almost impossible to tell what Portland’s should be. The player’s based level of play under one coach may be drastically lower than expectations under Porter.

In New York, however, the explanation may be two-fold. Yes, New York may have also punched above its weight, but this year’s problems may come down to an old cliché: If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind – an expression that actually has a practical application in professional sports. In a world where athletes’ performances start to diminish after a peak age, electing to carry over an old squad could mean taking a step backwards.

Thierry Henry is 36. Tim Cahill is 34. Jámison Olave is 32, while eight others who’ve seen time this year are 29 or older. New York may not only have exceeded expectations in 2013, but the advanced age of the squad means their recoil could be brutal, perhaps explaining why this season, in 360 uninspiring minutes, New York is playing like one of the league’s worst teams.

This is not to say the Red Bulls and Timbers are destined to fail, but if we’re looking for explanations as to why New York’s 0-1-3 and Portland’s 0-2-2, regression may be one of them. And for New York, age may be another. Four games is too few to draw any conclusions, but it is enough to note some potentially disturbing patterns. Teams shouldn’t blow things up based on one bad month, but they may need to develop plans in case the trend becomes undeniable.

If March was just an uncharacteristic stretch, New York and Portland’s results should improve soon. It’s also worth remembering: 2013 may not tell the story of how good these teams really are.

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.