Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Portland Timbers

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Portland failed in 2012, and they know it. From the moment owner Merritt Paulson fired coach John Spencer, he set about making it clear to fans: Last season – a year in which he’d asked for a playoff appearance – was not acceptable. While Portland was only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of Spencer’s departure, the Timbers spent the rest of the season near the bottom of the west preparing for the arrival of Caleb Porter.

Change is already evident in Portland. There’s no air of disappointment lingering from last season. Instead, a new coach and an entirely different approach has restored the optimism. They may not be saying it out loud, but for the second year in a row, the Timbers plan to compete for the postseason.

Here are three (of many) questions they’ll need to answer this winter if they’re going to make waves:

  • Can Porter adapt?

On Tuesday, former Zip Darlington Nagbe was asked if he was having flashbacks to college training. Surprisingly, he said no. All of the drills Portland’s done this week are brand new to the somebody who played under Porter at Akron.

So Porter’s already adjusting. Whether that translates to wins is all that matters, something we won’t know until (at least) March, even if early returns are encouraging. The Timbers are training like a team ready to play to the strengths of Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara. That fit may ultimately be the magic that justifies Porter’s hype.

  • Is Diego Valeri worth the label?

We’ve seen a lot of Designated Players come and go, most of which haven’t met the expectations that come with the label. We should adjust our views on the high-priced talents, but still, when you hear a team is bringing in a new designated player, you rightfully assume they think very highly of him.

And so we have Portland’s Argentinine import Diego Valeri, a loanee from Lanus brought in to orchestrate the attack. Even on the nights he can’t generate goals, he’s doing to be tasked with managing a possession-based passing game that should take pressure off the defense.

As with Porter, early returns are encouraging, but on an expensive loan deal (and with little pedigree outside of Argentina to recommend him one way or another), fans would be right to reserve judgment. In case you missed it, the last DP didn’t work out so well.

  • Can Darlington Nagbe reach his potential?

We don’t even know where he’ll play, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do in 2013, but with the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe looks set to assume a more goal-scoring role. He started in one last season when John Spencer paired him with Kris Boyd up top in a 4-4-2, but when Gavin Wilkinson took over and switched to a 4-3-3, Nagbe had to orchestrate the transition.

While he’s capable of doing that, Nagbe is the Timbers’ best goal scorer. His skill and instincts in the penalty area (along with the acquisition of Valeri) suggest he should be moved back forward. Given the paucity of scoring threats on Portland’s rost, the move’s almost necessary if the Timbers are going to score enough goals.

If the chance produces a much-needed double-digit goal scorer, Portland will have solved their biggest problem.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Real Salt Lake

CCL wrap: Atlanta United, Cruz Azul advance

CONCACAF Champions League
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The underdogs did not have their days on Tuesday in the CONCACAF Champions League.

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MLS side Atlanta United and Liga MX mainstays Cruz Azul cruised to second legs win at home to clinch places in the quarterfinals.

Cruz Azul 4-0 (6-1 agg.) Portmore United

Bringing a pair of away goals from Jamaica, the Liga MX hosts just needed to put this one on ice early.

Orbelin Pineda did that in the 22nd minute, and Cruz Azul struck thrice in the second half to win in a landslide.

Atlanta United 3-0 (4-1 agg.) Montagua

It was all about the Martinezes in Georgia, as Pity sandwiched a pair of goals around Josef’s 61st minute tally to send the Five Stripes into the next stage.

All the goals showed calm under pressure, but Pity’s first was gorgeous football. He also assisted Josef’s goal in Honduras during the first leg.

Remaining Round of 16 second legs

NYCFC v. San Carlos (5-3) — 6 p.m. Wednesday
Montreal Impact v. Deportivo Saprissa (2-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tigres UANL v. Alianza (1-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Club America v. Comunicaciones (1-1) — 10 p.m. Wednesday
Seattle Sounders v. Olimpia (2-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday
LAFC v Leon (0-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday

Coronavirus: Italy may lift ban on sporting events by Monday

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MILAN (AP) The Italian government could lift its ban on sporting events by Monday in areas affected by the coronavirus if the number of cases stabilizes.

The outbreak forced a number of sporting events to be called off throughout the country this past weekend, including four Serie A matches in the north of Italy.

This week, the ban on sporting events was extended from Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont – the areas hardest hit by the outbreak – to also include the regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna and Liguria, until March 1.

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“If, as I hope, the statistics don’t give us different signs then maybe already by Monday these measures won’t be continued,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “But it’s only Tuesday today and we have to wait and see what happens over the next few days. The health of the Italian citizens is the most important thing.”

Italy reported a 45% increase in the number of coronavirus cases Tuesday, from 222 to 300. Ten people have died, all of them elderly or suffering from other ailments.

“Obviously, I can’t say I’m not worried because I don’t want anyone to think we’re underestimating this emergency,” Premier Giuseppe Conte said before meeting with visiting World Health Organization representatives. “But we trust that with the measures we have implemented, there will be a containing effect in the coming days.”

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two regions where clusters have formed and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

Serie A matches this weekend are set to be played behind closed doors, including Juventus’ key match against Inter Milan. That game is not only potentially crucial to the title race but also sees the return of former Juventus coach Antonio Conte.

Inter’s Europa League match at home to Ludogorets on Thursday will also take place without any fans allowed in.

Serie C canceled all games in two leagues which have teams in the north. Volleyball and rugby games were also suspended nationwide through next weekend.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation suspended all of its events throughout the country for an entire week, although it said that “for now” next weekend’s World Cup ski races in La Thuile in the Valle d’Aosta region were still set to go ahead. Those races are operated by the International Ski Federation, which has already canceled races this season in China that were slated to test the course for the 2022 Beijing Games.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

El Tri winger Jurgen Damm headed for MLS this summer

Jurgen Damm
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This season’s Liga MX invasion of MLS continues with Jurgen Damm announcing that he’ll leave UANL Tigres this summer after five years with the club.

TUDN has the destination as Atlanta, though previous reports have linked Damm to the LA Galaxy is the spot.

And MLSSoccer.com scribe Tom Bogert says the Houston Dynamo have his “discovery rights” (which remains the worst concept in the entire league).

Reports emerged over the past 48 hours that the El Tri man was headed for an MLS club.

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The 12-times capped winger has one goal for Mexico, but has not been capped since Oct. 2018. He has spent his entire career in Liga MX.

Damm spent the early part of his career with Tecos and Pachuca, but has been with UANL Tigres since 2015.

He won four league titles with UANL, as well as the 2018 Campeones Cup.

Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry: “London’s still red” after Bayern beats Chelsea

Serge Gnabry
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Ex-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry still has love for the club.

Gnabry tweeted that “London is still red” after he scored twice for Bayern Munich in a 3-0 beating of Chelsea on Tuesday in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

This after scoring four times against Spurs in a previous Champions League group stage match and Tweeting that “North London is Red.”

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So what’s with the London form?

“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Gnabry said after the game. “A lot of them were in the stands tonight, and it seems they give me a lot of good power.”

Gnabry only scored once during his time in England with Arsenal and West Brom but is a bona fide star in the Bundesliga.

With a three-goal advantage over Chelsea heading to Munich for a second leg, however, he’s not got his head in the clouds.

“Three goals ahead gives us a little bit of confidence, but we need to be prepared for the second leg. We can’t take it not seriously enough. … We’ve seen it last year with Liverpool beating Barcelona, so we have to be careful. We have to go into the second leg with all of our focus.”

Gnabry now has 51 goals and 29 assists in four seasons since returning to Germany from Arsenal. Not terrible production for a player the Gunners offloaded to Werder Bremen for under $6 million in 2016.

What color will London be when Chelsea buys him next year? We kid, we kid…