MLS Preview: Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids

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• The Colorado Rapids (12-8-9, 45 points, third place in Western Conference) and Portland Timbers (10-5-14, 43 points, fifth place) are separated by the thinnest of margins in the Major League Soccer standings.

• Both teams explode in the second halves of games, with the Timbers scoring 30 out of 44 (including 14 in the last 15 minutes) and the Rapids putting away 24 out of 37 of their goals in the second period.

• Will Johnson has scored in both meetings between the clubs this year: a 2-2 tie in Denver on March 30 and a 3-0 Timbers win in Portland on June 23.

If the Portland Timbers defeat the Colorado Rapids on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN), they will vault back into third place in the MLS Western Conference, with a game in hand on the Rapids. With only two wins in its last 10 games, Portland has an opportunity to begin solidifying a playoff spot with less than 10 matches left.

As the Timbers get more players back from injury, they can begin to regain some early-season form that saw them rattle off 15 games without a loss. Will Johnson and Diego Chará are back to marshal the midfield, and Diego Valeri and Jack Jewsbury should be able to play some part on Friday, although head coach Caleb Porter would not say how much after training on Thursday.

Johnson and Chará have been able to rekindle their partnership in the last two games, completing a combined 226 of 255 passes against Chivas USA and Toronto FC.

On the flip side, Colorado has only lost once in its last 12 games, surging up the table after three previous losses in a row left it on the wrong side of the red playoff line in the standings. U.S. 2010 World Cup forward Edson Buddle (pictured) has scored in three of the last four games, taking over some of rookie Deshorn Brown’s burden.

Another rookie, Clint Irwin, has anchored the team in goal, tying the club’s single-season shutout record with 10 after an early injury to Matt Pickens caused a panic in the Mile High City. The Rapids have put together some impressive results during their hot streak, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy at home and on the road and the Montreal Impact away.

What they’re saying

Timbers midfielder Will Johnson on regaining the team’s form: “We have to be a little more clinical in and around the box — attacking, set pieces. We just don’t seem to have that hunger in front of goal right now, and if you’re going to make mistakes at the back and give up goals, you’re going to lose points.”

Rapids defender Drew Moor on the playoff push: “It’s coming down to the point of the season where we need to show our best because you don’t just want to scrape into the playoffs and not be playing well because the playoffs is a whole different picture. Even in our unbeaten run … I’ve walked off the field thinking we can do more.”

Portland head coach Caleb Porter on climbing the table: “You can be worried so much about what’s beneath you that it starts pulling you down, versus … looking at the teams above you and hunting them. I actually like the position we’re in. I wish we were in a better position, but the fact that we’re in position to make the playoffs — above the red line — and a couple points off the teams that are ahead of us, I think means we’ll be aggressive and hungry.”

Prediction

The MLS season is coming down to the wire, to the point where being in good form actually matters, and Portland and Colorado are heating up — especially the Rapids. Portland is a hostile environment, but if any team in the league right now has a chance to take points at JELD-WEN Field, it’s Oscar Pareja’s men. At the same time, the Timbers are starting to get players back and trying to rebuild its rhythm. However, it’s too soon for Portland to be firing on all cylinders, which Colorado has been doing for the past month.

NFL’s 49ers purchase minority stake in Leeds United

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One of England’s most famous clubs is receiving investment and strategic business connections from one of the NFL’s most famous brands.

Leeds United and the San Francisco 49ers announced Thursday that 49ers Enterprises, an investment arm of the 49ers ownership, has purchased a minority stake in the Championship club. Multiple reports state that the 49ers now own 10-15 percent of the club, but current Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani remains the majority owner.

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As part of the deal, 49ers President Paraag Marathe gets a seat on the Leeds United board of directors. Per Leeds, the money invested will stay with the club and be used for the first team, as Leeds looks again to make its way back to the Premier League in next season’s campaign.

An American ownership group investing in England is nothing new, but to identify and purchase a stake in a club with history and a decent chance at making it to the Premier League is impressive. In addition, the York Family, who owns the 49ers, has a net worth in the billions, which could help fund Leeds’ push back into the Premier League.

For the 49ers, this is also a savvy business decision. By investing low in a club in the Championship, they hope that they can experience the financial windfall of playing in the Premier League. This season, clubs made a combined $3.2 billion (with a capital B) thanks to revenue sharing, international and domestic TV rights, and other sponsorship deals.

With even the relegated sides taking home nine figures in revenues from the league, who wouldn’t want to invest and take a cut of that?

Now, only time will tell how long it is before the 49ers influence helps – or hinders, based on the 49ers current state of affairs in the U.S. – Leeds reach the pinnacle of English football.

Iniesta joins Japanese club Vissel Kobe

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TOKYO (AP) Former Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta was introduced as the newest member of Japanese club Vissel Kobe on Thursday, a poorly kept secret that’s been rumored for weeks.

Iniesta appeared before a packed news conference at a central Tokyo hotel on Thursday along with Kobe’s billionaire owner, Hiroshi Mikitani.

[READ: Earnie Stewart being considered for U.S. Soccer post]

“I’m pleased to announce,” Mikitani said, “that Andres Iniesta will be signing up play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at Barcelona.”

Iniesta signed his contract as Mikitani watched, and then spoke through an interpreter.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Japanese media are reporting he will earn $30 million annually on a three-year deal.

“For me this is a very special day,” the Spaniard said. “This is an important challenge for me. My family is excited to come to Japan and we are very pleased. There were many offers. Other clubs showed interest. But I decided to sign with Vissel Kobe because the project presented to me was impressive.”

Mikitani is also the CEO of Barcelona sponsor Rakuten, a Japanese online retailer.

Iniesta held up the team’s red shirt with his famous No. 8 on the back, and his name written across the bottom.

Iniesta previously had said he would probably retire from international soccer after Spain plays at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

The 34-year-old Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. He also was a key part of Spain’s two European Championships in 2008 and 2012.

He announced last month he would leave Barcelona after 16 seasons. His last match for the Spanish club was on Sunday against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.

Vissel Kobe is in sixth place after 15 games in the J-League. It signed Lukas Podolski last year, but the German striker is out until the end of June with an injured calf.

Yaya Toure talks future, wants to play with Paul Pogba

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There is very little debate: Yaya Toure is his own special case.

The longtime Manchester City midfielder does what he wants, flies his own flag, has the worst agent in the game, and is pleased or dismayed in unusual ways.

[ UCL: What would Real 3-peat mean? ]

Toure, 35, has been linked with a move to NYCFC now that he’s leaving Man City, but the Ivorian still wants to play two more seasons for a Champions League or Europa League club.

And he wants to get together with Paul Pogba. You can see where this is going… (from The Manchester Evening News):

“Pogba is the same size, power – but different in the way he wants to go. Technically as well, the ability to score goals as well. It is a player I want to play with, to be honest, just to teach him some things.”

That must mean both are going to Paris Saint-Germain because… Yaya at Manchester United? No way, right? Right? Even with last year’s reports from his — again — terrible agent that it was an option, that still seems too villainous.

“I don’t rule big teams out. The big teams are very important for me. What they want to achieve, the way they want to go, for me is very important. … I want to go somewhere I can win and achieve. It’s going to be hard one day to play against City, but I have to do that. It is part of my job.”

Toure later said he was “no good in an office,” which had us thinking, well, what if they properly celebrated your birthday, Yaya?

WATCH: Miami United midfielder unleashes Open Cup laser

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Tomas Granitto, have yourself an extra plate at the postgame buffet.

The Miami United midfielder scored a gorgeous goal in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over fellow NPSL side Jacksonville Armada in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

Complete with aesthetically-pleasing post-ping, the former El Salvador U-20 player laid into a 25-yard shot to open the scoring in Florida.

Granitto, 24, has played for Timbers 2, Swope Park Rangers, FC Edmonton, since leaving NCAA side Florida Gulf Coast.