San Jose Earthquakes v Portland Timbers

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.”

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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.”

Report: Stoke City bids massive $23 million for Christian Pulisic

ALTACH, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 05: Christian Pulisic of Dortmund (c) challenges Patrick Van Aanmolt of Sunderland (l) and Lee Cattermole of Sunderland (r) during the friendly match between AFC Sunderland v Borussia Dortmund at Cashpoint Arena on August 5, 2016 in Altach, Austria.  (Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images)
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Christian Pulisic’s meteoric rise to the Borussia Dortmund first team has attracted interest. Big money interest.

The first real transfer noise of the 17-year-old’s career is a bang, with German publication Bild reporting that Stoke City has bid a whopping $22.5 million for the American.

There isn’t much more information at this point, but clearly the influx of cash to the Premier League has even the mid-table sides spending huge amounts of money for young talent. Stoke apparently isn’t the only team interested in Pulisic, with Red Bull Leipzig and CSKA Moscow also interested according to Bild. Leipzig would likely have more interest in the young attacker on loan, seeing as they have just been promoted to the Bundesliga and likely wouldn’t be able to compete with the likes of a Premier League team.

It’s hard to imagine Pulisic could be lured away from Dortmund at this early stage in his career with things going so well, but if the club wishes to cash in on him with value high, he might have little choice. A loan to another Bundesliga side like Leipzig would likely see him get more playing time at the same level while still being able to return to a big club, but other than a small loan fee, it’s unlikely the club would make any money in that sort of a deal.

Expect this one to go down to the wire, as both team and player weigh their options. Either way, this is a good sign for the USMNT’er with so much interest in his services and more possibly to enter the fray.

League Cup roundup: Middlesbrough and Burnley fall to lower league foes

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Adam Forshaw of Middlesbrough is challenged by Tim Ream of Fulham during the EFL Cup second round match between Fulham and Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage on August 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Sunderland and Bournemouth advanced to the League Cup third round, while Middlesbrough and Burnley dropped out after both finding themselves bested in extra-time.

A strong Boro lineup still saw its goal pummeled all evening by Fulham’s young squad, and Lasse Vigen Christensen won it in extra time with an assist from American youngster Luca de la Torre to complete the 2-1 scoreline. Middlesbrough went ahead early on an 8th minute header by David Nugent, but they were on the back foot the rest of the match. Scott Malone forced a Boro own-goal for the equalizer shortly after halftime, and Christensen won it seven minutes before penalties.

The win for Fulham means they are unbeaten through five matches this season across Championship and League Cup play. The Whites then drew a home meeting with Bristol City for the third round of the Cup.

Burnley also went to extra-time after a scoreless full 90 minutes, and they were stunned by a goal from Accrington Stanley’s Matt Pearson in the 122nd minute, just ticks before penalties to down the Clarets 1-0. It was a dull match up to that point, and the League Two side earned its first-ever victory over a Premier League side in cup play with the late winner. The winners will have another shot at a Premier League side in the next round, drawing West Ham.

Bournemouth nudged past League Two side Morecambe 2-1 thanks to goals from Max Gradel and Marc Wilson, although Morecambe had leveled things for a bit between the two Cherries’ goals. Bournemouth saw themselves drawn against Preston North End in the upcoming round.

Sunderland also saw themselves through thanks to Adnan Januzaj‘s first goal for the Black Cats, an 83rd minute strike to down League One side Shrewsbury Town 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. The match was a relatively even affair until Januzaj’s late goal, but Sunderland likely deserved to win on number of chances, with Patrick van Anholt having the best prior opportunity just before halftime with a rocket saved by Jason Leutwiler. The Black Cats will travel to QPR following the third round draw.

Champions League playoff roundup: Man City eases through, Ajax bounced

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Joe Hart of Manchester City looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League Play-off Second Leg match between Manchester City and Steaua Bucharest at Etihad Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The result was never in doubt for Manchester City after a 6-0 demolition of Steaua Bucharest in the first leg, but the Premier League side made it official as they eased into the group stage with a 0-0 second leg result at the Etihad.

Joe Hart started and played what could be his final match in a City shirt, with Pep Guardiola handing him potentially one last showing in front of the home fans. The fan favorite received a thunderous welcome from the home fans who understood the situation.

Guardiola rested Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, and David Silva but still put forth a strong side, and Fabian Delph‘s 58th minute goal sent Man City home with an easy victory and clean sheet. There was a scary moment when Kelechi Iheanacho appeared to pull up lame with a hamstring injury, and then suddenly passed out on the field, but he came to just before a Bucharest player was about to attempt to resuscitate him. The young striker was brought off in favor of Fernandinho in the 75th minute.

Also through easily is Borussia Monchengladbach, with a 6-1 home win over Young Boys to complete a 9-2 aggregate victory. Thorgan Hazard opened the scoring just nine minutes in with a solid bit of skill, and Raffael continued his solid run of form with a hat-trick to easy the Germans through. Hazard would eventually cap off a hat-trick in the 84th minute as well.

In the surprise of the round, Dutch giants Ajax saw themselves bow out of the Champions League following a 4-1 aggregate defeat to last year’s Russian Premier League runners up FC Rostov. The spot in the group stage was there for the taking after a 1-1 first leg in the Netherlands, but Ajax was hammered on Wednesday 4-1 in Russia. Rostov managed four goals with four different goalscorers, including Ecudorian international Christian Noboa. The visitors, meanwhile, didn’t even manage a shot on target until the 73rd minute.

FC Koln needed a late equalizer to send them through over APOEL Nicosia, as Paraguayan international Federico Santander scored in the 86th minute to level the match at 1-1 and give the visitors a 2-1 aggregate win. Finally, Dinamo Zagreb completed a stunning comeback, scoring twice after the 87th minute to beat Red Bull Salzburg 2-1 on the day in Austria and 3-2 on aggregate. Junior Fernandes scored in the 87th to level things at 1-1 and requiring extra time. Then Algerian international El Arabi Hilal Soudani bagged the winner in the 97th minute, sending the Croatians through to the group stage.

Coleman explains why he stayed as Wales coach, rejected Hull

ZENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Chris Coleman of Wales celebrates after the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales at the Stadium Bilino Polje in Elbasan on October 10, 2015. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Chris Coleman says he chose to remain as Wales manager despite interest from Premier League side Hull because he’s in a job that is “close to his heart.”

The Football Association of Wales rejected an approach for Coleman from Hull this month, with the Welshman deciding to stay on rather than resigning.

Coleman, who guided Wales to the European Championship semifinals against the odds, said on Wednesday that “if someone comes and it’s the Premier League, anybody, you kind of look at it sideways. Of course.”

But, Coleman added, managing your country “comes around once, if you’re lucky.”

Coleman has made no secret of his desire to manage in club football in the future, but says “what I’ve got here is something very special and close to my heart.”