Portland Timbers, New York Red Bulls learning to faithfully grind out results

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Playing with style in MLS gets you, well, “style points.”  That’s great and all, and there is plenty of value attached, although more in terms of fan and media acclaim and similarly intangible elements that probably don’t matter to the bottom-line biz of Ws and Ls.

On the other hand, regardless of the lesser aesthetic, the useful ability to faithfully grind out results is golden stuff at this time of year. Two prominent clubs are learning how to do so right now – and that’s code for “Watch out!”

Portland took MLS by storm earlier this year, earning acclaim for a stylized approach under first-year manager Caleb Porter. Indeed, the Timbers became a fun club to watch, forming an identity around the highly practical balance of tidy possession and precision counter attacking.

But the next step for Porter’s reconstruction project around Jeld-Wen was going to be tougher, this ability to instill a healthy dose of “find a way to win.” So when Portland outlasted Colorado a week back, claiming a 1-0 win over a Rapids club that out-played and out-passed the Timbers, evidence was mounting that Porter’s team had seen the light.

Sunday’s performance against the Galaxy in the Oregon rain and wind should remove any lingering doubt that “grind” is not just a rumor around Jeld-Wen. Yet another 1-0 victory against a quality Western Conference side says more good things yet about the team’s quick learning curve.

Will Johnson’s recent return to the field and even more recent return to form is such a big part of it. Go back and watch Sunday’s victory over Los Angeles; Johnson’s significant imprint is all over it. Johnson (pictured above) is winning balls in the midfield, drawing fouls, lobbying the referee, providing some snappy dead ball service. In short, he is getting involved in every way possible, willing the team toward results (no pun intended).

Teammates feed off that steely, unbending determination.

New York is another MLS club learning the ways of the grind. My favorite line of the MLS weekend came from ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, who said the Red Bulls “have no idea” how they have gotten to this place where they may claim Supporters Shield, the Eastern Conference crown or both.

(MORE: New York tops this week’s ProSoccerTalk MLS rankings)

They may not – but it may not matter. Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Seattle checks the box on “big accomplishment” for a club missing its top attacker (Thierry Henry) and top defender (Jamison Olave). A week earlier, New York needed an own goal to get past Dallas in New Jersey. No, it’s not pretty, but the three points count the same in the standings.

We can keep tracking back through the Red Bulls schedule, continuing to pick apart the team’s string of shaky achievement (and I did last week). But at some point you have to say, “Well, it doesn’t matter how they are arriving at these convenient results; they are getting the points they need.”

Whereas Johnson is the emotional fulcrum and veteran shepherd for Portland, Tim Cahill fills the same role for New York.

Credit to manager Mike Petke, a grinder himself back in the longtime MLS defender’s playing days. He cannot teach what Henry does on the field; that’s just special talent at work. But Petke can guide in the ways of fortitude and resolve. Apparently, he’s making progress there.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

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


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Halted World Cup flip-throw heard around the world

AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Milad Mohammadi knew the time was right for something special, but special isn’t always good.

And good is a subjective term. Cause to us this is very good, Milad.

The Iranian national team defender failed with a flip-throw bid in the final moments of a 1-0 loss to Spain on Wednesday at the World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

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

And this wasn’t like he illegally flipped or broke some other rule. No, like a kid trying an audacious jump into the deep end, Akhmat Grozny star Mohammadi just bailed and climbed in from the side (so to speak).

The kiss, the look skyward, the headbutt… all integral parts of a wonderful World Cup moment.

Renard, Morocco ‘very proud’ of unlucky national team

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If you would’ve told Morocco fans or their manager, Herve Renard, that they’d outshoot and outpossess both Iran and Portugal at World Cup, their next question would probably be, “So do we need to do against Spain to win Group B?”

Alas, Morocco lost a pair of 1-0 decisions to become the first team knocked out of the 2018 World Cup.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The Lions of Atlas fell to Iran in their opener on a stoppage time own goal after carrying 64 percent possession and a 13-8 advantage in shot attempts, then lost to a Cristiano Ronaldo fourth minute goal on Wednesday despite a 16-10 shot advantage and 53 percent of the ball.

“I’m very proud of the performance and I am very proud of my players, I’m very proud of this country,” Renard said.

With no hope of advancing to the next round, the manager is finding the experience bittersweet. From RTE:

“What I am sure of at this moment is that the entire Moroccan people is proud of this team. Of course it’s easier to play with a player who has one chance and he puts it away. But we are in Morocco.

“We have quality players. Despite the ups and downs of the game, we should have been more effective. Because, like in the first game, we had plenty of chances. I won’t blame anyone. That’s football. It’s always those who know how to be present in the box, the most gifted players, who make the difference. We took a lot of risks and we didn’t get our reward.”

It’s unlikely Morocco will hold either of those statistical advantages against Spain, especially a Spanish side yet to qualify, but there is plenty to like from the tournament aside from poor finishing quality.

But the performances of 19-year-olds Amine Harit (Schalke) and Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid) — not to mention Hakim Ziyech (25, Ajax) — seem to hint at a promise for 2022. And Renard’s men can still play spoiler for Spain, which is no small shockwave.