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.”

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.