MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Portland Timbers, first leg

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  • First Cascadia Cup rivalry playoff matchup in MLS history. Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers split three regular-season games in 2013, each winning one and one ending in a tie.
  • Seattle will be on short rest, having played Wednesday in the play-in game and defeated the Colorado Rapids, 2-0. The Sounders won’t have to travel, but they’ll be without starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who was sent off.
  • This is Portland’s first MLS playoff game in franchise history, while Seattle looks to avoid a heavy loss in the first leg similar to those that led to elimination the past two seasons.

Major League Soccer has its dream playoff matchup, as Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers get set to face off over two legs. More than 50,000 fans will pass through the turnstiles across those two games, providing a good advertisement for the league to fans watching the MLS playoffs.

The teams met three times in three different leagues’ playoffs throughout the years. Portland won in the 1975 North American Soccer league quarterfinals, while Seattle won both the 2004 A-League conference semifinals and the 2005 USL First Division first round. The first two series went to extra time, while the USL-1 series ended 3-0.

Watch Sounders-Timbers (Sat., 10 pm ET) on NBC Sports Live Extra

Based on the last regular-season meeting between these teams, the fireworks on the field shouldn’t be far behind. Timbers midfielder Kalif Alhassan scored the only goal of the game just before halftime, and Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso saw a straight red card for an elbow to Will Johnson’s face behind the play.

It was another moment of bad blood between two bitter rivals. Last year, Fredy Montero and Lovel Palmer both received red cards in the same match. Not to mention the words and trash talk that have flown back and forth down Interstate-5 among the years.

source: AP
The Timbers’ Caleb Porter is an MLS Coach of the Year candidate after leading one of the biggest turnarounds in league history between 2012 and 2013. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

Home-field advantage has proven to be huge in this matchup the last couple seasons, especially if the Sounders draw a large crowd. The Timbers escaped with a point in an early season game this year, then lost by a single goal in their second visit to CenturyLink Field in front of 67,385. Likewise, Portland won by Alhassan’s lone marker three weeks ago at JELD-WEN Field.

On only five occasions throughout the season have Caleb Porter’s men failed to get at least a tie on the road and all three points at home, which bodes well for the rookie coach in his club’s debut playoff series. However, that season of consistency is only a memory in the playoffs, when a single mistake, injury or red card could cost a team its season.

Meanwhile, the Sounders have finally started to figure out how to be effective with Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson on the field at the same time. A change to a diamond midfield formation a couple games ago has given Seattle two of its best recent performances, with Dempsey scoring once and assisting once and Johnson adding a goal of his own.

Obafemi Martins could still be out for the first leg with a groin injury, though, giving Lamar Neagle another chance at the forward spot next to Johnson. In goal, Marcus Hahnemann will take over for Gspurning, as he did before the loss earlier this month against the Timbers.

For Portland, Maximiliano Urruti and Diego Valeri continue to manage their injuries. Urruti hasn’t played since leaving the Seattle game with a hamstring strain, while Valeri has played through some pain caused by an adductor strain through the last couple weeks of the season.

As it happens with all rivalry games, the team that can rise above the emotion and intensity to play its best soccer will win. And any team that survives a Cascadia playoff series will be dangerous to play in the rest of the post-season.

(MORE: Goalkeeping drama leaves hometown hero between pipes for rivalry match)

(MORE: Seattle Sounders’ new system allows star attackers to shine)

(MORE: Football Focus: Portland Timbers tactically transform under Caleb Porter in 2013)

Puel, Schmeichel fume at referee after Leicester loss to Arsenal

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While the world looked on at the performance by Mesut Ozil in awe, Leicester City manager Claude Puel and Foxes goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel were left stewing after the match at a first-half decision which they believed changed the game completely.

Had the referee awarded a penalty for a Rob Holding handball in the first half with Leicester City up 1-0, the game would likely have turned out very differently. Holding, already on a yellow card, would have likely been sent off and Leicester City would have a chance from the spot to go up 2-0.

“I think [the first half was] our best half since the beginning of the season,” Puel said after the match. “We deserved to score more goals and make the difference in the first half. I didn’t understand why the referee didn’t whistle for the penalty, because in this moment it was a penalty, it was a second yellow card and so a sending off for the Arsenal player. This situation can change the finality of the game.”

Puel said that once the call was not made, and Arsenal was able to equalize before the break, Leicester City’s level of play dropped enough for the Gunners to pounce.

“I regret a little our beginning of the second half. We lost a lot of balls and we gave them the ball too easily to put us under pressure, but we have had the chances to score and to be leading in the game with the header from Ndidi. A lot of regret in this game because we showed a lot of quality and we were not lucky with the refereeing decision.”

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was in agreement with his manager about the key first-half decision. “We got no help from the official,” Schmeichel said. “I’ve never seen a clearer penalty. It’s tough to take because we were so good in the first half but in the second we’ve got to do a lot better than we did.”

At halftime, the replay showed the ball clearly hitting Holding’s forearm while above his head. However, the NBC studio crew argued that the penalty was not called because Holding’s arm was hit into the ball by the Leicester City attacker who attempted a header, and that although his arm was above his head, it was not in an unnatural position due to the natural human instinct to balance the body while jumping into the air.

Emery still searching for improvement after Arsenal win

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Arsenal won its 10th match in a row across all competitions with a 3-1 victory over Leicester City, with Mesut Ozil playing the starring role.

Still, Unai Emery isn’t fully pleased with the performance.

[ WATCH: Ozil sets up 2 beautiful goals in Arsenal win over Leicester City ]

Arsenal fell behind 1-0 thanks to a Hector Bellerin own-goal, and the Gunners boss is concerned about his assessment of the 90 minute performance. “Different halves, every match is difficult,” Emery said after the match. “First half we didn’t control the match with possession and positioning.”

Ben Chillwell got behind Bellerin and sent in a cross to the middle of the box, to which goalkeeper Bernd Leno reacted, but the cross clipped off Bellerin’s foot and past the wrong-footed goalkeeper. Arsenal responded with a 3-goal wave, as Ozil scored the first and set the next two up in brilliant fashion.

“We are happy because we are progressing. We need to play with organization but also with heart. We are beginning to play with heart. When you continue to improve your demands are very high. We need to control the matches more than we are doing now.”

The win pushed the Gunners to fourth in the Premier League table, above rivals Tottenham on goal differential. Emery said in order to have success long-term and maintain their Champions League positioning, the players need to be flexible.

“First half we didn’t play well but then we played with quality and heart. This feeling together is very good. We need the number 10 position sometimes with Mesut Ozil and sometimes with Aaron Ramsey. We can’t play with both sometimes. Last match was away and we played it with two strikers. Today Mesut was very good but I believe in every player and different positions for the players.”

West Ham midfielder Yarmolenko out six months after Achilles surgery

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West Ham announced on Monday that midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko would miss around six months after undergoing successful surgery on his Achilles tendon.

Yarmolenko was carried off on a stretcher in the 40th minute of West Ham’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham on Saturday. He appeared to catch his studs in the penalty area turf and went to the ground.

[ MORE: Arsenal tops Leicester City 3-1 ]

The Hammers released a statement confirming the surgery was “successful” and that he would miss around six months. That likely leaves Yarmolenko out for the rest of the season, unless he returns for the final month or so.

The 28-year-old Ukranian international joined West Ham this summer from Borussia Dortmund for a reported $23 million, and had just cracked the starting lineup after coming off the bench for the first four matches of the season. He had a brace in a 3-1 win over Everton, but has otherwise struggled to find the back of the net.

Yarmolenko was expected to be a major part of the West Ham squad this season, with a significant amount of top flight and international experience. Yarmolenko has 80 caps for Ukraine, with 36 goals to his name. He is a versatile player, able to play either on the wing or centrally, and his injury will likely mean more minutes for Michail Antonio who has started just one match for West Ham in their last five.

Arsenal 3-1 Leicester City: Ozil conjures magic in Gunners victory

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They say Mesut Ozil is one of the best players in the Premier League, when he wants to be. He wanted to be on Monday afternoon.

The Gunners captain scored the opener, and he truly shone while orchestrating two of the most brilliantly constructed goals of the Premier League season to help Arsenal shake off an early Hector Bellerin own-goal to earn a 3-1 victory at the Emirates.

Leicester City attacked well from the onset and would go ahead just seconds past the half-hour mark as they push down the left. Ben Chilwell burst down the flank past Alexandre Lacazette and behind Hector Bellerin just enough that as Bellerin hoped to recover, Chilwell’s cross clipped Bellerin’s foot and into the back of the net, with goalkeeper Bernd Leno already diving the wrong way to stop the cross.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Arsenal surged into the asencency after falling behind, and nearly found an equalizer shortly after. A long ball was just out of reach for a streaking Alex Iwobi behind the defensive line, Granit Xhaka came close on a long-range free-kick, Aaron Ramsey whiffed on a free header at the near post on a corner, and Iwobi’s effort from the right was saved by Kasper Schmeichel.

Eventually, the pressure would prove fruitful and the Gunners would equalize just before the break. As the Gunners looked to build out of the back, Mesut Ozil charged through the midfield on the ball, and after spraying it right to Bellerin, he got the ball right back in front of net and had plenty of space for a one-touch finish on the run.
[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

After the break, Arsenal had a big chance as Lacazette’s shot pinged around and fell to Henrikh Mkhitaryan whose scissor kick swerved across the face of goal and just wide of the left post. Still, Leicester proved pesky and nearly put themselves back in front in the 58th minute as Wilfred Ndidi headed a corner straight into the crossbar.

That would prove costly, as Arsenal took advantage minutes later. With the Gunners on the ball in the attacking third, Ozil threaded an absolutely delicious through-ball for Bellerin that completely unlocked the Leicester City back line, and the Spaniard simply tapped across to substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the goal.

The Gunners would do even better three minutes later on one of the prettiest goals we’ve seen this Premier League season. Bellerin sent the ball into the mixer with Ozil waiting at the top of the box. The German international let the ball go through his legs, dummying to Lacazette who touched right back to Ozil on the run past the Leicester City back line. With Arsenal now through, Ozil produced a delicious chip over a charging Schmeichel to Aubameyang waiting to finish a simple tap-in for his second goal of the evening.

Arsenal probably should have had a fourth, but Lacazette’s look on the doorstep was smothered well by Schmeichel. That was the last serious action of the game, as the Gunners cruised to victory.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The win pushed Arsenal up to fourth in the Premier League table, even on 21 points with Tottenham and Chelsea, and ahead of their West London rivals on goal differential. Leicester City, meanwhile, remained stuck in 11th on 12 points for the season.