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.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.