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.

History denied! Real Madrid loses, fails in bid to beat Pele-led record (video)

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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Real Madrid did everything but score, and now find themselves denied a chance at unparalleled history and in a relatively deep early hole in La Liga’s table.

A stoppage time loss to visiting Real Betis ended the club’s 73-match run of matches with a goal, and it came on the day it could’ve passed Pele’s Santos for sole possession of the longest scoring streak in history.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

Perhaps more important, Madrid now sits seven points back of first place Barcelona. Their eight points leave them sixth.

Real Madrid 0-1 Real Betis

The hosts looked so good, and so fluid… and provided any number of finishes which would’ve been goals on another day. Unfortunately for them, the only goal came from Paraguay’s Antonio Sanabria in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time.

That’s because Real Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adan was sensational, including a stunning stop on Gareth Bale‘s backheeled volley in the final quarter hour.

It could’ve gone worse for Madrid, as Mexico’s Andres Guardado had an assist called back for offside.

Before that, there was this from one of the best in history:

Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Atletico Madrid

Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco helped the visitors go second in La Liga, as ex-Atleti midfielder Raul Garcia provided Athletic’s only goal deep into stoppage time.

Elsewhere
Leganes 0-0 Girona
Deportivo de la Coruna 1-0 Alaves
Sevilla 1-0 Las Palmas

League Cup draw: Spurs host Hammers; Everton off to Chelsea

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Sixteen teams are five wins from a berth in the Europa League following the fourth round draw for the League Cup.

Eleven of the 16 belong to the Premier League, leaving Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Norwich City, Bristol City, and Middlesbrough to dream of dream runs to Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

There are only a trio of all-Premier League ties in the bunch, including a high-profile London clash between Spurs and West Ham.

Chelsea will host Everton, while Manchester United heads to Wales for a date with Swansea City.

All-in-all, we could have quarterfinals without a single Cinderella story.

Full draw
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Ham United
Bristol City vs. Crystal Palace
Arsenal vs. Norwich City
Chelsea vs. Everton
Swansea City vs. Manchester United
Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough
Leicester City vs. Leeds United

League Cup wrap: Sane saves Man City; Big boys roll (video)

David Davies/PA via AP
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There were neither upsets nor much drama to be found as five European contenders joined the League Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

Man City needed to overcome a surprising late equalizer from Premier League hosts West Brom, and Arsenal’s finishing wasn’t up to par in the lone close score line of the day.

Blowouts dotted the landscape as second-choice and fuller-strength giants powered past lesser competition to reach the fourth round.


Everton 3-0 Sunderland

USMNT winger Lynden Gooch got a start for the Black Cats, who also had ex-Everton players James Vaughn, Jack Rodwell, and Darron Gibson on the pitch.

The familiarity didn’t stop Dominic Calvert-Lewin from giving the Toffees a first half lead, and buttressing the advantage with a second half marker. Oumar Niasse rounded out the scoring for Everton.

Chelsea 5-1 Nottingham Forest

Kenedy, Michy Batshuayi, and Charly Musonda scored first half goals. Batshuayi completed a brace after fine work from Eden Hazard in the second, then completed his hat trick late. Ex-Burnley man Tendayi Darikwa spoiled Chelsea’s clean sheet in second half stoppage.

For Musonda, it was this goal on his full senior debut.

Arsenal 1-0 Doncaster Rovers

Alexis Sanchez opened up the defense and found Theo Walcott to make it 1-0. That was all the Gunners needed to top Darren Ferguson’s League One side.

West Bromwich Albion 1-2 Manchester City

Leroy Sane put home an Ilkay Gundogan rebound in just the third minute, and avoided blushes for City after a late concession with an even later winner. Hal Robson-Kanu missed a point-blank shot deep into stoppage as City survived the Baggies’ fight back.

Here’s Claudio Yacob‘s surprising equalizer.

Manchester United 4-1 Burton Albion

The below statistic was accurate before Marcus Rashford added his second of the first half. Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial also scored for United, while Lloyd Dier ruined the Red Devils clean sheet minutes from full time.

 

Bundesliga: Pulisic stars in another BVB win (video)

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Writing these Bundesliga wraps from an American perspective means paying attention to Christian Pulisic, but the 19-year-old USMNT phenom would have his name in print anyway.

[ MORE: Rashford’s League Cup screamer ]

Pulisic had a goal and helped set-up another as BVB continued its excellent start to the Bundesliga season as one of five league matches on Wednesday.


Hamburg 0-3 Borussia Dortmund

Shinji Kagawa and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored on either side of halftime as BVB kept up its near perfect start to the Bundesliga season. BVB is 4W-1D with 13 goals scored and zero conceded, good for a one-point edge on Bayern Munich.

Andriy Yarmolenko was the star of the show, though many American eyes were trained on USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood. The former was lively and produced a few chances, including the penultimate pass/hockey assist on Aubameyang’s goal, while Wood didn’t see much of the ball thanks to BVB’s fine form.

In reverse order, the goal and the “assist.”

Koln 0-1 Eintracht Frankfurt

The nightmare start continues, this time thanks to a Sebastien Haller penalty kick. USMNT back Timmy Chandler went 90 for the victors.

Hertha Berlin 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Mathew Leckie and Salomon Kalou helped the hosts almost cruised to three points at the Olympiastadion before a Julian Brandt 84th minute goal tightened the finish.

Freiburg 1-1 Hannover 96

96 looked set to continue its decent start off Martin Harnik’s fourth goal of the league season, but Nils Peterson’s 83rd minute goal meant points were shared at Schwarzwald Stadion.

Mainz 2-3 Hoffenheim

The hosts led 2-0 after 16 minutes, but Sandro Wagner’s first half stoppage time goal had it level by the break. It stayed that way deep into second half stoppage, when Mark Uth’s fourth of the season completed Hoffenheim’s comeback.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 5 4 1 0 13 0 13 2-0-0 2-1-0 13
 Bayern Munich 5 4 0 1 12 3 9 2-0-0 2-0-1 12
 1899 Hoffenheim 5 3 2 0 9 5 4 2-1-0 1-1-0 11
 Hannover 96 5 3 2 0 6 2 4 2-0-0 1-2-0 11
 FC Augsburg 5 3 1 1 8 4 4 2-1-0 1-0-1 10
 FC Schalke 04 5 3 0 2 7 6 1 2-0-1 1-0-1 9
 Mönchengladbach 5 2 2 1 7 5 2 2-0-1 0-2-0 8
 Hertha BSC Berlin 5 2 2 1 6 5 1 2-1-0 0-1-1 8
 RB Leipzig 5 2 1 2 8 6 2 1-1-0 1-0-2 7
 Eintracht Frankfurt 5 2 1 2 3 3 0 0-0-2 2-1-0 7
 Hamburger SV 5 2 0 3 4 8 -4 1-0-2 1-0-1 6
 VfB Stuttgart 5 2 0 3 3 7 -4 2-0-0 0-0-3 6
 VfL Wolfsburg 5 1 2 2 3 6 -3 0-2-1 1-0-1 5
 Bayer Leverkusen 5 1 1 3 9 10 -1 1-1-0 0-0-3 4
 FSV Mainz 05 5 1 0 4 5 10 -5 1-0-2 0-0-2 3
 SC Freiburg 5 0 3 2 2 9 -7 0-3-0 0-0-2 3
 Werder Bremen 5 0 2 3 3 7 -4 0-0-2 0-2-1 2
 1. FC Köln 5 0 0 5 1 13 -12 0-0-2 0-0-3 0