Will Johnson: “We need to win against Seattle” as Timbers skipper issues rallying call

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The Portland Timbers welcome Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders to Providence Park on Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN, 3 p.m. ET and online via Live Extra) with the need for a vital win intensified for the home side.

So far in 2014, the Timbers are without a win in four games, drawing two and losing two. Something just hasn’t quite clicked for Caleb Porter’s team, as the reigning MLS Coach of the Year is facing a big battle in just his second season coaching in Major League Soccer.

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According to Porter’s captain, Will Johnson, the biggest rivalry in MLS needs no extra hype. Portland’s skipper epitomizes their fighting spirit and drive to get back to the highs of last season’s Western Conference regular season title, and he’s focused solely on toppling the Sounders on Saturday.

“It’s big time, this rivalry doesn’t need any building up. It is what it is, a fantastic spectacle of Major League Soccer,” Johnson said. “It’s intense, it’s big, it’s all those huge words you put next to it, it is fantastic. I think we are all ready to get this thing going, it will be a fantastic atmosphere where two good teams are fighting for three points.”

Johnson, 27, has been a revelation since switching Real Salt Lake for the Rose City in 2013. The Canadian national team midfielder is the heart and soul of the Timbers, and his terrific two-way play in the engine room saw him rewarded with a new long-term contract at the start of this season.

With the captain’s role comes responsibility, and although you’d hardly call Portland’s slow start to the season a catastrophe, Johnson is rallying his troops behind the scenes to get their season kick-started against Seattle.

“I am just keeping everyone positive, keeping guys composed and not pointing fingers. We are all in this together,” Johnson said defiantly. “When we are playing well, we accept the praise. And when we aren’t doing well, we are all in this together and have to find a way to battle out of it. It’s just about keeping the group united and making sure everybody understands that it is long season, and we are going to get this thing right.”

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In his first year in Portland, Will Johnson set career highs in goals and assists. The skipper is the Timbers’ heartbeat.

Matches against Seattle at a sold out stadium in downtown Portland, coupled with the energy, creativity and x-factor of the reverent Timbers Army, has seen this matchup become the most eagerly-anticipated game in MLS. It is certainly one of the first fixtures many neutrals look for when flicking through the schedule.

However, after two draws were followed by back-to-back defeats to Colorado and FC Dallas to start this season off, you could forgive the Timbers Army for letting out murmurs of discontent should another poor result arrive against Portland’s biggest adversaries.

Johnson understands that, and believes the fans have the right to express their opinions. Positive, or negative.

“We are trying as hard as we possibly can to win games and perform well. But if they get frustrated if we aren’t doing that, that’s understandable,” Johnson said. “We take the criticism just like we take the praise when we are doing well. It is just the reality of the situation. I would say it is good, because they really care about this team. They care about this city and us doing well, so if there is some criticism that goes along with the praise when we get it right, then so be it. We have the characters who can take that.”

(MORE: Latest MLS standings)

As mentioned, Johnson has tied himself to Portland for the foreseeable future, with the former RSL standout taking to life in PDX remarkably well. 11 goals in 35 appearances last season marked his best ever MLS campaigns, in terms of productivity, and the former Chicago Fire and Heerenveen player is delighted to be on board with the journey the Timbers are on.

“I love what this club is all about, through think and thin,” Johnson said. “You want to find a place where you are valued, where they look at you like you look at yourself and you see eye to eye. I feel like I fit in well with this club and the philosophy and the city as well. Speaking to the fans, owners, general manager Gavin [Willkinson] and Caleb, I just really like what the club is all about. For me it was always an easy decision to commit my future here and give everything I have for the club. The hard part is trying to reward them for believing in me.”

The next chance to reward the front office, coaching staff and their fans comes against Seattle. Johnson’s praise for head coach Caleb Porter runs deep, and he believes the tactics and plans have been spot on. It is just the execution from the players that’s been missing. Johnson thinks nabbing the Timbers’ first win of the season against the Sounders would be extra sweet, given their slow start to the current campaign.

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Johnson won named in the MLS Bext XI in 2013 for the first time in his career, and now has a long-term deal with the Timbers.

“It would be the icing on the cake, that’s how we are looking at it,” Johnson said. “Three points are there for the taking, we expect to win our home games. It would be nice to reward our fans, who have stuck with us for four games now without a win. We haven’t played to our peak. We need to win against Seattle, it would be a nice treat to get our first win of the season at home against Seattle.”

What about Seattle?

In recent meetings Portland have certainly had their number, at home. In 2013 they won 1-0 in the regular season, then knocked Seattle out of the playoffs with a 3-2 win in the Rose City which fueled the flames of rivalry further heading into Saturday’s early season clash. This year, Seattle’s squad is littered with players possessing bags of MLS experience, as their head coach Sigi Schmid has gone with a different approach to recruiting.

“It’s their secondary guys, because you still have Dempsey, Martins, Alonso, those guys who’ve been on the team for a while. but they’ve done well,” Johnson said of Seattle’s rebuild. “They are a good team, but it’s still the same guys who make them tick, Alonso in the middle, Dempsey and Martins up front, the guys they are counting on are the same and we have to be aware of them. They are dangerous, they are well organized and I don’t think it’s any harder… but I don’t think it’s any easier.”

What would make things a little easier against Seattle would be going ahead early, as Johnson revealed his team must start strong and build off the intense atmosphere created by the Timbers Army. But they must stay calm and focused because as we’ve seen in previous Cascadia clashes, things escalate and get out of hand pretty quickly.

“We have got to get the first goal. We haven’t had a lead this year, so that’s been part of it. And we need a shutout, we haven’t had a shutout either. So those are two key focuses for us,” Johnson said. “The atmosphere, intensity, there’s no need to ‘rah, rah’ and get everyone pumped up. The rivalry and atmosphere takes care of that, so it’s almost calming the nerves and executing versus letting your emotions getting the best of you and being too up for a fight. We have to play smart, as well as be aggressive, and find that balance. That will be the key.”

Off the field, Johnson is a bit of a nomad. He was born in Toronto, Canada in 1987, before moving to England and living in a suburb of Liverpool during his formative years. He then played in Chicago as a youngster, before moving over to the Dutch leagues and then he moved back to the U.S. with Real Salt Lake. Yeah, he gets around. In both Toronto and Liverpool, teams in Red are aiming to win their domestic titles this season. What does Johnson think about that?

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Johnson aims to get Portland ready for battle against Seattle. Can the Timbers keep calm and bag a win?

“It is great. The fans deserve it, they deserve a winning team in Toronto,” Johnson said.” For the league it is great when an ownership group is willing to pump in some money and get this thing going and generate buzz and press for the league. As for as it being Toronto, where I was born, a little piece of me is definitely very, very happy for them.”

What about Liverpool?

“Until I was about ten years old I grew up in Crosby, which is just outside of Southport. I am a red, red all the way!” Johnson said. “I grew up watching Jamie Redknapp, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, all those guys. They were my heroes growing up. Now I am following the Gerrard’s and the other guys today, it has been good. With NBC’s coverage I get every game on the road home or away, I get to watch most games. It’s been fun, it’s been a good year to be able to watch them.”

Johnson is hoping it will be a good year to watch his Portland Timbers side too. But what will the outcome be for a team rebuilt in 2013, and then going through some early growing pains in 2014? Reticent to look too far ahead, Johnson is thinking about getting the win against Seattle on Saturday, and building on it. Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the 2014 MLS season Portland will be…

“… MLS Champions. But I think that’s too cliche,” Johnson laughed. “We have just got to win our first game. You have to walk before you can run. Right now we are focused on winning against Seattle, but our goal is to win a trophy. That is why we are here, that’s why we play.”

Totti leaves future uncertain before final match with Roma

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ROME (AP) Francesco Totti has finally announced that Sunday’s match against Genoa will be his last with Roma after an incredible 25-season career with his hometown club.

Whether the 40-year-old Totti will continue playing with another squad remains anyone’s guess.

The 2006 World Cup winner opened his future to questions by releasing a carefully worded statement on Thursday.

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“Roma-Genoa, Sunday 28th May 2017. The last time I can wear Roma’s jersey,” Totti said. “I can’t tell you in a few words how much these colors meant, mean and will always mean to me.

“I just feel that my love for football never fades; it’s a passion, my passion. It’s so deep I can’t imagine not fueling it any longer. Ever. From Monday I’m ready to go again. I’m ready for a new challenge,” Totti added.

The first part of Totti’s statement inferred that it wasn’t his decision to end his Roma career but that of the club, by not offering him a contract for next season.

Totti has not hidden his difficult relationship with Roma coach Luciano Spalletti, who has used Totti mainly as a last-option substitute.

However, Spalletti is widely expected to follow former Roma sporting director Walter Sabatini to Inter Milan; while Sassuolo coach Eusebio Di Francesco, a former teammate of Totti’s, could move to Roma.

The second part of Totti’s statement, when he mentioned a “new challenge,” inferred that Totti is considering ending his career with another club.

Miami FC, which plays in the second-tier NASL and is managed by Totti’s former teammate with the national team, Alessandro Nesta, and co-owned by Paolo Maldini – another former Italy teammate – appears to be the most attractive option.

James Pallotta, Roma’s American owner, has offered Totti an unspecified management position.

As for Sunday, Totti is not expected to start.

While the match at the Stadio Olimpico was sold out for Totti’s goodbye, Roma enters the final match of the season still looking to seal second place in Serie A and a direct berth into the Champions League.

Roma is one point ahead of third-place Napoli, which will play at Sampdoria.

Totti has appeared in 785 matches in all competitions with Roma, third all-time in Italy for most games with a single club behind only Maldini (902 with AC Milan) and Javier Zanetti (858 with Inter Milan).

Totti is also second all-time in goals scored in Serie A with 250, 24 short of the record that Silvio Piola established from 1929-54. No other active player has more than 200.

But statistics don’t tell the entire story for Totti, a cultural icon perhaps more linked with his club and city than any other player in Italian history.

Born in the working-class San Giovanni section of Rome, Totti made his debut for Roma at the age of 16 way back in 1993.

In 1998 at the age of 22, Totti became the youngest ever Serie A captain.

At the 2000 European Championship, Totti’s chipped “Panenka” penalty against the Netherlands highlighted his talent and audacity.

A year later, Totti led Roma to its third Serie A title and was the centerpiece of a celebration inside the Circus Maximus attended by a crowd estimated at 1 million.

After a spitting incident with Denmark’s Christian Poulsen at Euro 2004 slightly tarnished his image, Totti regained respect within the national team by returning from a broken leg to help Italy win the 2006 World Cup – playing with a metal rod and about 10 support screws inside his left ankle.

In 2007, Totti led Serie A with a personal-high 26 goals and earned the Golden Shoe award as the top scorer in Europe.

In 2015, Totti scored twice as Roma came back from two goals down to earn a draw with Lazio in the city derby, then took a selfie with Roma’s fans in the background.

A final highlight came in February, when Totti scored in added time to give Roma a 2-1 win over Cesena and a spot in the Italian Cup semifinals.

On Sunday, Totti’s career will be honored with an extensive post-match celebration at the Olimpico.

Whether or not there will be more highlights next season – somewhere – remains to be seen.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Transfer rumor roundup: Morata flying to Milan, Carvalho to Newcastle

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Alvaro Morata is one of the hottest properties on the planet. Like James Rodriguez, he doesn’t get the time at Real Madrid he’d receive at most other clubs in the world. And like James, he’s been linked with plenty of clubs including Premier League powers Chelsea and Manchester United.

[ MORE: Man City medical for Silva ]

But Italian site Gazzetta says Morata will skip over the Premier League for a return to Serie A, this time heading to AC Milan. The ex-Juventus star, 24, scored 20 goals in 42 appearances for Real this year.

Morata is said to be flying to Italy, hours after Marca claimed that Jose Mourinho would insist on his inclusion in any deal for David De Gea.

Newcastle United is the latest club linked to Portuguese center midfielder William Carvalho, and the Magpies are said to be looking into a $78 million bid. The 25-year-old Sporting CP dynamo is a regular in the transfer rumor mill, and has 31 caps for Portugal. The Angola-born Carvalho played nearly every minute of Portugal’s EURO 2016 winning run.

Sevilla: Agreement with Sampaoli to leave for Argentina job

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Argentine managerial wizard Jorge Sampaoli is coming home.

Sevilla announced that Sampaoli is leaving the club after one season to take charge of the Argentina national team, with La Albiceleste’s World Cup fate hanging in the balance.

Sampaoli won 50 percent of his matches at Sevilla, leading the side to the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 in addition to finishing fourth in La Liga.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

He previously led Chile to its first Copa America crown.

Sevilla said the agreement to let him go will be signed on Thursday, allowing him to oversee Argentina’s next World Cup qualifier in late August. Argentina sits fifth in the CONMEBOL table, just two points out of second.

It heads to Uruguay before hosting Venezuela, with the remaining qualifiers versus Peru and away to Ecuador.

FA Cup Final preview: Desperate Arsenal meets Double-seeking Blues

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  • Clubs split PL series
  • Chelsea’s Conte aims for double
  • Chelsea 8W-3D-2L vs. Arsenal since 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea face off with a trophy on the line for the fourth time this century when the London sides hit Wembley Stadium for Saturday’s FA Cup Final.

Arsenal beat Chelsea in the 2015 Community Shield, the first silverware match-up between the two sides since the 2007 League Cup Final in Wales. The Blues won that one, 2-1, while Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 in the 2002 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: Conte open to contract extension ]

A win would be Arsenal’s third FA Cup trophy in four seasons, and Arsenal would be thrilled to put something shiny in its trophy case following a season of tumult at the Emirates Stadium which ended without UEFA Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.

Conte knows Arsenal is desperate for something good.

What they’re saying

Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on what a win could mean“We wanted to finish higher up in the league, there is no doubting that. We cannot hide from that and we need to own up to that. The FA Cup is a big trophy, one we want to win and which would definitely boost morale going into next season.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte on the match: “If you ask me who is the favorite now, I can tell you it is Arsenal because Arsenal now has the possibility to find a good season after a win in the FA Cup. For this reason, we must play with great patience. We must find in ourselves the right motivation, the right anger because the game can be very difficult for all of these reasons.”

Prediction

Could go either way, with many players not just glory-hunting but in the shop window. Will Alexis Sanchez be the difference maker? Mesut Ozil? Maybe, but we think Chelsea ratchets up the intensity one more time and claims a double with a 2-1 win.