It may only be preseason, but Portland, Porter right to be confident

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Had the score reflected the unbalanced play, people outside of Portland may have taken notice: The Caleb Porter Project is starting to yield early returns for the Timbers. True, his defense was mistake-prone and made what should have been a comfortable victory into what appears to be a shootout, but for 90 minutes against the Supporters’ Shield holders, Porter’s product was as advertised. His team passed, pressed, ran and rocked the visiting Earthquakes onto their heels, leaving 14,229 at Jeld-Wen Field with a performance that transcended the result.

“In the end I think we proved to ourselves and each other that we’re capable of beating anybody in Major League Soccer,” was Porter’s bold assessment after the 3-3 result, a game highlighted by a hat trick by new Timber Ryan Johnson. It also featured three defensive mistakes which allowed San Jose to earn a draw.

“There were some moments in the game that we need to address,” Porter conceded. “The nice thing is that those are things that are easily addressable.”

The first goal, three minutes in, came after a ball-to-hand in the box. Chris Wondolowski buried the opener from the spot. A midfield foul and a converted set piece allowed Victor Bernardez to score San Jose’s second, while chaos in the penalty area let former Timber Mike Fucito give the Earthquakes a late equalizer.

The goals weren’t enough to cloud Porter’s standout Jeld-Wen debut, one that allowed his team to show the stylistic revolution anticipated from the former Akron boss is more than some hyperbolic fable. Returning from their four-game stretch in Arizona, the difference between Porter’s teams and the style of former coach John Spencer’s was drastic. The Timbers dominated possession, relied on short passing that capitalized on constant off-the-ball movement, and were steadily throwing players at the defense.

The first goal, two minutes after San Jose’s opener, illustrated the approach. San Jose left back Justin Morrow had been drawn in, leaving Portland fullback Ryan Miller — advanced to play along San Jose’s line — space to receive and play a pass toward the byline. Kalif Alhassen ran through the channel and onto the ball, providing a perfect near-post cross to Ryan Johnson. The Jamaican international’s looping header pulled Portland even.

Portland opened up San Jose’s midfield for the second, Diego Valeri given too much time to threat a ball behind Bernardez for Ryan Johnson, while the third saw Johnson chip Jon Busch to complete a Portland counter.

(MORE: Ryan Johnson hits for three in Jeld-Wen debut – HIGHLIGHTS)

It may have just a preseason game, but San Jose started seven regulars. Portland started nine players who are likely parts of Porter’s First Kick XI, but their setup was slightly different than the one we’re likely see against New York on March 3. The relatively flat midfield in Sunday’s setup should give away to a midfield diamond, with newly acquired Ben Zemanski playing at its base.

But with time running out on the preseason, it’s time to start drawing some conclusions about teams’ preparedness. And in that regard, Portland is far ahead of the game. You can see Valeri will be their playmaker, Johnson their push, and (eventually) Nagbe their poacher. You can see a narrow midfield giving way for fullbacks to provide width and pressure.

You can see the chemistry developing among players learning to read each other’s movements, and you can see players bursting from midfield seeking to exploit the space exposed by their passing game. It’s shocking how much the team is playing to the Caleb Porter hype.

source: Getty ImagesIt’s the type of approach a stylistic homogenous, tactically risk-averse MLS rarely sees. That was evident by San Jose’s reaction. The Earthquakes, playing a standard MLS 4-4-2, saw their midfield flattened and rooted by the Timbers’ movement, with the home side habitually breaking down the Earthquakes’ left flank. Even after Frank Yallop switched loanee John Bostock with starting right midfielder Shea Salinas, San Jose couldn’t stop right back Ryan Miller and right midfielder Kalif Alhassan from teaming with forwards Johnson and Diego Valeri (right) to breach that side. The Timbers’ new passing and movement was going to take more than 90 minutes for San Jose to get used to.

“That’s going to be a strength of our team,” Porter said of his side’s style, sentiments that have been echoed since his mid-winter introduction. “We want to be an aggressive team … a proactive team. We want to be on the front foot, and we want teams to have to deal with us. San Jose had to deal with us tonight.”

San Jose couldn’t say the same of Portland. For most of the night they were without the ball and forced to rely on transition for opportunities. Yet with three goals that came decidedly against the run of play, the Earthquakes highlighted why Portland’s 2012 defense ranked 17th in Major League Soccer. Giveaways, soft fouls, and lapses in focus — all correctable offenses — kept the Timbers from victory.

“It’s easier to clean up the defensive side,” Porter said of his team’s progress. “It’s easier to sort out a giveaway that can’t happen. It’s easier to sort out getting your back four tightened up. It’s easier to sort out marking a guy on a set piece. Those things will be sorted out …”

Even if the defense stays problematic, Sunday’s game represented a huge step forward for the Timbers. Not only do they seem better than last year, but their style of soccer is much improved. That entertainment value is something owner Merritt Paulson has stressed since the Timbers entered Major League Soccer. Even if Portland can’t challenge for a playoff spot, a new, more ambitious tactical approach will be a reprieve for Timbers’ fans.

source: Getty Images“I was pleased because there were moments where we showed Portland Timbers football and our identity and what it’s going to be,” Porter said. “We also showed we’re adjustable as well, and we do what we need to win games.

“That’s a mark of a good team in MLS. You know who you are but you also can adjust and be flexible at times if you need to.

This all assumes the team that showed up on Sunday is for real. It could have just been a good night against a team that’s not as far along in their preseason preparation. Until Portland can transfer this production onto a regular season game, the revolution’s yet to start.

Ultimately, it was just an exhibition, though it was one that will inspire a lot of conviction.

“[San Jose] was the best team in the regular season last year. We went toe-to-toe with this team, and in the end, I thought we were the aggressor looking to win.

“If we would have cleaned up a few mistakes, the game would have been ours. So we take a lot of belief and confidence from this game. “

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.