Drilling down on: at Seattle Sounders 1, Portland Timbers 1

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SEATTLE, Wash. — For as exciting and fluid as their new soccer can be, the Portland Timbers have been surprisingly predictable. Against New York, Montréal, and today against Seattle, Portland fell behind, went on to rack up advantages in shots, passes and possession, and eventually got on the scoreboard. In their 2-1 loss to Montréal those advantages weren’t enough, but Saturday in Seattle, the pattern produced a 1-1 draw, with Rodney Wallace’s 91st minute header sending the Sounders to a heartbreaking result.

The goal saw the Sounders drop points in a game they’d led for 77 minutes. Despite playing on the back foot for much of that time, Seattle had managed the game well, conceding possession but keeping the Timbers from any significant chances on goal. As the game approached full time, the Sounders looking on track for a comfortable end to their first win of the season.

But it was the second ball in on a late corner that undid the hosts. After right back DeAndre Yedlin headed Diego Valeri’s cross clear, Andrew Jean Baptiste’s chip toward the edge of the six-yard box found an oncoming Wallace. Unmarked, the substitute’s headed into the right of goal, giving Michael Gspurning no chance to prevent the equalizer.

It was the second time in three meetings Rodney Wallace had cost Seattle points. On Sept. 15, the teams’ last meeting in Portland, Wallace converted a late corner to give the Timbers a 1-1 draw.

Up until Saturday’s equalizer, Seattle had leaned on their 13th minute goal, an Eddie Johnson finish that took advantage of a Diego Chara turnover. Just inside Portland’s half, Chara mishandled a ball played left from the middle of the park. Steve Zakuani collected the loose ball, turned up the pitch, and sprinted 40 yards before rifling a pass across Donovan Ricketts’ six-yard box. Johnson finished his far post run with an easy tap-in for his fifth Cascadia Cup goal.

The Timbers finished with a 13-7 edge in shots and 55 percent of the game’s possession, but both were season lows. Between his decision to exploit Steve Zakuani’s edge on the left and his team’s second half adjustments to the Portland’s style, Sigi Schmid played his cards right. Portland only had two shots on goal and few significant chances on the night.

Unfortunately, Schmid again had no answer for RodneyWallace.

Man of the Match

He was the focal point of an attack that had to do wide, a role that forced Steve Zakuani to produce. In the 13th minute, he did, creating the match’s only goal, and although Seattle couldn’t replicate that moment of brilliance, his play along the left (in combination with Eddie Johnson’s) continuously threatened Portland.

As usual, Osvaldo Alonso played a huge part, with the Seattle midfielder destroying almost everything that came into the middle of the park. Often venturing up to became Seattle’s most advanced midfielder, Alonso was also instrumental forward, though his distribution was the subject of Schmid criticism after the game. While praising the holding midfielder’s defensive contributions, Seattle’s coach said his all-star needed to be quicker moving the ball.

Threesome of Knowledge

  • Portland’s defense still a problem

For the first time this season, Portland didn’t allow multiple goals, but the team still made the type of mistake you’d see maybe once-per-month from other teams. Chara’s giveaway was an act of carelessness. In a system that continuously throws people forward, it was a crippling error, but when nobody in defense tracked Johnson’s run, it cost Portland on a scoreboard.

Mikael Silvestre had his best match yet, and Ben Zemanski (a surprise starter at right back) had a strong audition in an unfamiliar position. But the defense as a whole continues to be a problem. Portland’s now allowed six goals in three games.

  • Remove all doubts: Steve Zakuani is back

Let’s forget about Zakuani’s performance: A strong but not overwhelming game (many may disagree he was Man of the Match). The mere fact that he’s good enough to be a focal point tells of what Sigi Schmid is seeing day-to-day in practice. Zakuani is strong enough to be leaned on, which means this is the last time this bit is newsworthy: Zakuani is fully back.

If it wasn’t for strong play from Silvestre and Zemanski, Zakuani and Johnson would have created more than the one goal. The duo were constantly lining up and beating whomever happened to be on Portland’s right. Had Seattle not changed gears in the second half, Zakuani’s performance may have been more pronounced.

  • Why did Seattle change gears?

But the Sounders definitely did change gears, something Schmid admitted wasn’t the plan. After the match he lamented the team’s inability to keep possession or win more second balls. After taking the lead, the Sounder players looked more willing to hold their positions rather than pursue their opponents.

So what happened? Tired legs were brought up by multiple people, with eight Seattle starters playing their second match in six days. Both were big games. Both were on turf, and both required 90-minute efforts.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Ben Zemanski, acquired from Chivas USA in the preseason, made his first start of the season. It was a surprise inclusion, particularly considering the position: Right back. Ryan Miller, Portland’s starter in each of their first two games, didn’t get in the game.
  • Jack Jewsbury also made his first start of the year, playing at the base of midfield as the Timbers changed formation. Switching away from a 4-2-3-1 that Caleb Porter has identified as a 4-3-3, Portland played a 4-4-2 variant on Saturday, with Darlington Nagbe, Will Johnson and Chara defending in a line in front of Jewsbury.
  • Seattle was initially without two of their regulars, though Mauro Rosales played most of the second half. The back injury he incurred on Tuesday improved enough to allow him to come off the bench. Brad Evans, however, was out with a calf injury.
  • New Designated Player Obafemi Martins made his debut, playing 20 minutes in the second half. He nearly created a goal shortly after coming on, with Eddie Johnson failing to get a toe to a ball that could have been the game-winner.
  • Controversy struck in the 25th minute when Jhon Kennedy Hurtado went down in the box to win a ball at Ryan Johnson’s feet. Kevin Stott, with an unimpeded view of the play, saw it as a good tackle. Replays showed Kennedy had wrapped his legs around Johnson while playing the ball.

Highlights

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Xhaka, Shaqiri display controversial goal celebrations in win over Serbia

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A seemingly innocuous goal celebration performed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri has thinly veiled, politically charged undertones and could potentially land the pair in FIFA disciplinary proceedings following Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia.

Both displayed a bird hand signal as they celebrated scoring goals, and considering their pre-match comments, post-match social media posts, and ethnic backgrounds, those were clearly meant to represent the double-eagle symbol in the middle of the Albanian flag.

This is a complicated political scenario, but it could be considered by FIFA to be politically provocative. Shaqiri is Albanian, born in Kosovo before moving to Switzerland with his parents and three siblings when he was just a year old. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as a sovereign nation by Serbia. Xhaka is of Albanian descent, and his father previously participated in a demonstration against the communist Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo that landed him a lengthy jail sentence. Albania and Serbia have a particularly tumultuous relationship, with their leaders meeting for the first time in over 60 years in 2014, which caused tempers to flare.

Scoring against the Serbian national team and then displaying a hand signal representing the Albanian flag is clearly meant to jab the Serbian team and its fans. Following the match, Xhaka posted a picture of his celebration on his Instagram story, with the caption in Albanian roughly translated to, “Here you go Serbia, this is why they call me Granit Kosovo!” He deleted the post, and replaced it with an image of his celebration side-by-side with Shaqiri’s, with the slightly more cryptic caption, “We did it, bro!” in English.

FIFA is wildly against any type of political demonstration or involvement in the world of soccer. The governing body has punished individual nation federations in the past for government involvement, while political demonstrations on the field are fiercely frowned upon.

Shaqiri could be in especially hot water. The Stoke City midfielder wore boots with the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo. He has made it clear in the past that he values his roots, saying, “I was born in Kosovo, but I grew up in Switzerland. I live both mentalities, it’s not a big difference.”

Switzerland finishes its World Cup group stage round with a match against Costa Rica on Wednesday in which a win would secure a spot in the knockout stage.

World Cup referees miss yet another physical penalty in box

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Let’s get this out of the way first: VAR (Video-Assistant Refereeing) has been a fabulous addition to the game of soccer. In the 2018 World Cup, the availability of replay has done nothing but improve the ability of referees to correctly officiate the game, providing an outlet for mistakes to be corrected. Earlier on Friday, a referee gave a penalty to Brazil for a foul on Neymar, but with VAR applied correctly, the penalty was wiped off after it was determined Neymar went down easily. The game continued as it should, and a clear and obvious error was erased.

Unfortunately, despite the clear improvement to the game VAR provides, there’s still some work to be done in one very specific area of the game.

[ MORE: Recap of Serbia 1-2 Switzerland ]

On multiple occasions this World Cup, referees have missed wrestling matches in the penalty area, allowing defenders to essentially get away with murder instead of awarding attackers a deserved penalty. The worst example of this yet took place in the 66th minute of the 2-1 Switzerland win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, already with a goal to his name early in the match, went up to meet a set-piece delivery with his head. He was fully bear-hugged by Switzerland captain Steven Lichtsteiner, and while being wrapped up, was then rugby tackled by Swiss central defender Fabian Schar.

Yet somehow, Mitrovic was called for the foul, as the referee whistled him for ending up over the back of his defender on a genuine attempt to play the ball.

With every replay shown, it became more and more evident that not only should a penalty have been awarded, but the referee missed a clear and obvious call. Yet the match referee, German Felix Brych, was given no assistance from the VAR booth, left on an island after blowing the call.

There have been so many instances of this throughout the tournament, despite a public directive reportedly given by FIFA to referees asking them to crack down on physical play in the box, according to Fox rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. England striker Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground numerous times against Tunisia with no call, while many Egypt fans felt hard done by after Mohamed Salah was bullied in the box repeatedly against Russia.

The more defenders can get away with while defending set pieces in front of net, the more the game will be muddied by controversy, clouding an otherwise glittering debut for VAR on the international stage. That’s frustrating.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Late Shaqiri break shatters Serbian hearts

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One of the most exciting games of the 2018 World Cup proved entertaining from start to finish, ended by a stunning breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri that capped a 2-1 Switzerland comeback victory over Serbia.

The start of the game was all Serbia, with Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic the most dangerous option up front, and he delivered on that promise just five minutes in. After a pair of chances just kept out by Yann Sommer, Mitrovic powered in a header off a Dusan Tadic cross to put Serbia in front early on.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The goal confirmed yet another game without a 0-0 draw, 26 in a row to start the tournament, marking the World Cup record set back in 1954 when every single game in the Switzerland event featured a goal.

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After the goal, the game exploded, with Serbia looking to double its lead and Switzerland hoping to gain a grip on the match. Without a second coming, Switzlerland began to build promisingly, and had its first chance right on the half-hour mark as Steven Zuber through-ball sprung Blerim Dzemaili, but his sliding effort was saved brilliantly by Vladimir Stojkovic at the last second. They had a second chance minutes later, but for some reason Xherdan Shaqiri decided for one too many crosses rather than taking the open shot himself.

Serbia didn’t just look to see out the first half, though, as the star of the first half Dusan Tadic nearly gave his team another lift. First, he delivered a fabulous corner that stunningly skipped through the box untouched. Then, just before the break, Tadic came agonizingly close to what would have been a fabulous half-volley strike that flew viciously wide.

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After the break, the back-and-forth action continued, and Granit Xhaka struck an absolute stunner on the counter to level the match seven minutes into the second half. Shaquiri’s initial attempt from the right edge of the box was blocked and the rebound fell to the Arsenal midfielder outside the penalty area. His follow-up was a laser, curling through the defense and past a wrong-footed Stojkovic.

The chaos continued, with Serbia swinging back into the initiative. Mitrovic had a penalty shout turned down after being bear-hugged and wrestled to the ground by a pair of defenders, and minutes later Aleksandr Kolarov delivered a luscious cross into the box but nobody was there to tap it home.

Serbia began to tire as the game inched towards the final minutes, and Switzerland had most of the late pressure. One moment of brilliance caught the Serbians sleeping, and it proved the difference. Mario Gavranovic fed Shaqiri on the break from his own half, and free on goal the Stoke City winger made no mistake as the last ticks of regulation came off.

The win for Switzerland moves them to four points through the first two matches, leaving them level atop Group E with Brazil on points but in second thanks to an inferior goal differential. Serbia, meanwhile, sits third with three points. Switzerland would advance to the knockout stage with a win or draw in their final match against Costa Rica, while the winner of Brazil vs. Serbia will advance as well, with Brazil advancing in the event of a draw.

Southgate asks media to “help the team” after lineup leak

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England management is unhappy with the media after a coach was snapped with the proposed lineup for Saturday’s match against Panama.

Assistant manager Steve Holland was photographed holding a teamsheet that appeared to show a pair of changes in the England attack, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford partnering with Harry Kane up front. While Southgate attempted to play down the leak, stating the piece of paper was “just a squad list” and “the next sheet has different players in different positions,” he was also clearly frustrated with the media’s decision to run the photos.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“Obviously any time, if we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team it’s a disadvantage to us,” Southgate said in his pre-match press conference. “So of course our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not.

The teamsheet showed no changes to the defense, with the team playing a three-center-back system as Kyle Walker continues his role along that back line. Kieran Trippier stays in at wing-back opposite Ashley Young, with Jordan Henderson sitting in the midfield between them. Jesse Lingard retains his place in the attack centrally with help from the addition of Loftus-Cheek, and the pair of strikers ahead of them.

Walker was also asked about the leak, and he said Holland apologized to the team, even if they felt it was unnecessary. “He’s apologised to us all in training, which we had a bit of banter with him about, and that was it.”

“I think if you guys try to keep it to yourself and don’t bring it out to the world,” Walker added, “because it’s not going to help us come the later stages of the tournament, please God we get there. All the rest of the world’s seen our team now, if that is the team or if not. As I say, you guys have to do your little bit, so if you could just please help us with that it would be polite.”