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.

2-year doping ban upheld for Finland, CSKA Moscow player

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) The Court of Arbitration for Sport has upheld a two-year ban for CSKA Moscow midfielder Roman Eremenko for a positive test for cocaine.

[ MORE: Morata signs five-year contract at Chelsea ]

CAS says the ban imposed by UEFA was “appropriate” and dismissed the Finland international’s appeal.

[ MORE: Vertonghen says Spurs need to “level up” like rest of PL contenders ]

The ban will expire on Oct. 5, 2018, when Eremenko will be 31.

Eremenko tested positive after playing in a Champions League game for CSKA Moscow against Bayer Leverkusen last September. The 2-2 result was not affected despite Eremenko scoring CSKA’s second goal.

Born in Moscow, Eremenko grew up in Finland and has represented its national team 73 times.

Webb says De Jong would have been sent off with video review

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NEW YORK (AP) Howard Webb says he would have given Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong a red card in the 2010 World Cup final if a video assistant referee had been in place.

The retired English referee showed De Jong a yellow card in the 28th minute for his karate kick into the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso. Hired in March to oversee video technology for professional soccer in the U.S. and Canada, Webb held a media seminar Friday ahead of its Aug. 5 launch in Major League Soccer.

Webb says: “Yes, it was a clear red card. It was a clear and obvious error on my part not to send the player off, and VAR would have been able to recommend a review to me, and I would have been able to make the right call.”

Now 46, Webb was a Premier League referee from 2003-14. He worked the Champions League and World Cup finals in 2010, became director of referees at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and started in March as manager of video assistant referee operations for the Professional Referee Organization.

MLS Snapshot: Orlando City 0-1 Atlanta United (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): Friday night’s effort at Orlando City Stadium wasn’t the prettiest for either side but Atlanta United will gladly take three points from the fixture as the Central Florida venue proved to be a fortress once more. The Lions were far superior in their attacking threats throughout the match, testing USMNT and Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan on multiple occasions. However, it was Hector Villalba that proved to be the difference when he blasted a long-distance effort to beat Joe Bendik in the 86th minute. Atlanta extends its unbeaten streak to four matches with Friday’s decision, keeping Tata Martino’s side in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, while Orlando City moves into fifth.

Three moments that mattered

36′ — Guzan stands tall, denies Rivas — Carlos Rivas thought he scorched this one (and he did…), but Brad Guzan acted like it was nothing as he held his ground to make the stop.

39′ — Spector gets ripped off by Guzan — The U.S. goalkeeper is at it again… What a save!

86′ — Villalba unleashes stunner to propel Atlanta — Sometimes it just takes one good hit as a striker.

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Man of the match: Brad Guzan

Goalscorers: Hector Villalba (86′)

Report: Man City adding Mendy to continue backline restoration

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Fresh off of completing a record deal to help bolster the club’s back line this summer, Manchester City is back at it with the Premier League season looming.

[ MORE: Alvaro Morata signs five-year contract at Chelsea ]

The Citizens are reportedly on the brink of signing Monaco left back Benjamin Mendy to yet another world-record fee — which will total over $67 million.

Confirmation of the deal has yet to be announced by either team, but L’Equipe is reporting that the Citizens are hot on the 23-year-old’s trail in adding to their pricy back four.

Manager Pep Guardiola and Man City have not been shy readjusting their defensive unit over the past year, adding expensive first-team choices John Stones and Kyle Walker.