MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Portland ahead of Saturday’s trip to Seattle

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Ahead of Saturdays’ first-leg of this conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about the Portland Timbers: (Saturday’s match kicks off at 10 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN):

  • Valeri and Nagbe: Different peas in the same pod

They’re playmakers of different types, though calling Darlington Nagbe that would be a stretch. In three Major League Soccer seasons, Portland’s attacking midfielder has eight assists, yet as somebody who can operate in a number 10’s space, he’s shockingly reliable with his passes. Eschewing risk for accuracy, Nagbe’s pass completion rate of 85.4 percent was the highest among Major League Soccer’s attackers in 2013.

Contrast that with Diego Valeri, who only completed 73.1 percent of his passes (ranking 185th among all players in Major League Soccer). Willing to take the chances Nagbe won’t, Valeri led the league in assists (13). In Opta’s key pass stat (passes that lead to chances), he averaged 2.3 per 90 minutes. Nagbe? 1.4.

Together, each provides something the other does not, but there’s one playmaker here, even if both can drop into that role. And as Portland fans found out throughout the last two months of the season, if there’s one player that’s more likely to decide a match, it’s Diego Valeri.

[WATCH: Sounders-Timbers will be available on NBC Sports Live Extra]

  • The four-headed monster

The Timbers starting lineup is utterly predictable with one exception: The team’s number nine. At the point of their attack, the team has four options, with Caleb Porter’s choice potentially telling us how he plans to approach Saturday’s game:

    • Maxi Urruti, the late-season acquisition from Toronto, has been battling a hamstring injury and is unlikely to play. If he’s chosen, Porter will be selecting the group’s best goal poacher, Urruti’s positioning able to exploit the hole Valeri and Nagbe create. His pressing is also seen as a virtue.
    • Jose Valencia has started the team’s last three games and would be the option Porter chooses if he wants to test Djimi Traoré and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado with pace. That pace can also be used wide, to take on fullbacks Leo González, DeAndre Yedlin or Brad Evans.
    • Frederic Piquionne is the direct option. If Portland wants to test Marcus Hahnemann’s willingness to come out and challenge balls sent into his area, the 34-year-old is their best option.
    • Then there’s Ryan Johnson, the one-time first choice whose minutes have dwindled as the season’s progressed. In addition to experience, he offers a little bit of every of everything, though his tenacity distinguishes him from the others. He might be Saturday’s ‘play it safe’ option.

Going four deep at striker can be seen as special of frightening. Either your the U.S. Women’s National Team and have an enviable army, or the lack of a stand-out contributes to your indecisiveness. Caleb Porter has talked up the virtues of having four solid options, but at striker, quality may be better than quantity. Particularly when you’re playing with only one up top.

  • What does playoff experience mean?

When you see how Colorado and Montréal performed mid-week, you can’t help but notice teams light on playoff experience being controlled by more tested squads. Perhaps that was coincidence, or maybe we’re biased toward seeing what we want, but Houston and Seattle seemed more intense than their regular season selves. For Colorado and Montréal, it might as well have been game 34.

Portland’s in the same boat. Donovan Ricketts and Will Johnson have won MLS Cups, and Jack Jewsbury has been here before, but the rest of Saturday’s potential starters have only smatterings of playoff experience (at most). If that experience is important, Portland’s at a huge disadvantage against Seattle.

  • The importance of Will Johnson

That’s where Portland’s captain comes into play. If you could only have two experienced players, you’d probably want them in goal (or, maybe central defense) and central midfield. And although Diego Valeri has been Portland’s best player in 2013, Will Johnson has been their heartbeat. It’s hard to overestimate the value his vitality has brought to the team, something that translated into his numbers (nine regular season goals) and the team’s success.

Seattle may see Johnson in a different light. In last year’s playoffs, he was the subject of a homophobic slur from Marc Burch that saw the Seattle defender subsequently suspended. In this year’s last regular season meeting between the clubs, Johnson drew an elbow from Osvaldo Alonso that saw the Sounders’ midfielder ejected from the game. As Sigi Schmid put it after that game, “whenever things happen, Will Johnson always seems to be at the other end of things.”

Unless the unexpected happens again, Johnson’s most important role should bea  less controversial one: That of helping Diego Chará protect a vulnerable central defense. That two-man shield has helped Portland survive the season with their third and fourth choice central defenders (Futty Danso, Pa Modou Kah). Protecting that Gambia duo by cutting off access to opposing forwards is more crucial in Portland games than most.

Reina faces hearing over links with trio connected to mafia

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ROME (AP) Outgoing Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been summoned to a hearing at the Italian football federation over his association with people with links to the mafia.

Reina, along with Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica, is to face the FIGC’s disciplinary committee after an investigation by Naples’ anti-mafia department.

It is reportedly one of the reasons why Napoli decided not to renew Reina’s contract, with the former Liverpool goalkeeper set to move to AC Milan on a free transfer.

The FIGC says Reina “has had and continues to have inopportune association and friendship with Gabriele Esposito, Francesco Esposito and Giuseppe Esposito.” It adds that that includes holidays and “an exchange of favors.”

Cannavaro, who had two spells with Napoli, retired at Sassuolo last year. Aronica also spent several years at the southern club before joining Palermo in 2013.

Iran names initial squad for World Cup

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) Jalal Hosseini and Vouria Ghaffouri have both been left off Iran’s provisional 24-man squad for the World Cup.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz did not say why Hosseini, a Persepolis defender, and Ghaffouri were not included.

There was space for midfielders Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, however. Both played with Greek club Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in August 2017. Iran does not recognize Israel and its supreme leader has threatened the country in the past. Both Shojaei and Hajsafi missed matches with the national team after the game.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh, a 24-year-old forward who plays in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, is also in the squad, which was announced Sunday.

In the midfield, Queiroz chose Saeid Ezatolahi, although the Amkar Perm player will miss the team’s first World Cup match because he was given a red card in a game against South Korea in qualifying.

Nottingham Forest midfielder Ashkan Dejagah was also chosen.

Goalkeeper Amir Abedzadeh of Portuguese club Maritimo made the squad. His father, Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, was Iran captain and goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Iran will play in Group B at the World Cup with Portugal, Spain and Morocco. The team will play warm-up matches in Turkey and Greece before heading to Russia.

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo)

Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian (KV Oostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Al Saad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Seyed Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal)

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiakos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds FK), Ali Gholizadeh (Saipa)

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiakos), Mahdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa Sports Club), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (SC Heerenveen)

Six Premier Leaguers named to Argentina, but no Icardi

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Argentina’s World Cup roster features a number of the usual suspects, particularly up front, but Serie A’s top goalscorer has been surprisingly left off the list of 23.

[ MORE: Belgium goes to World Cup without Nainggolan ]

Manager Jorge Sampaoli’s squad was made official on Monday, which includes the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.

The Albiceleste won’t be taking Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi though, which has raised some questions about the decision.

Icardi led all scorers in Italy’s top flight this season, scoring 29 goals in 34 Serie A matches, while Paulo Dybala edged out the final striker spot in the Argentina squad.

Dybala is teammates with Higuain at Italian giants Juventus.

Meanwhile, six Premier League players were named into the South American nation’s squad, including goalkeepers Sergio Romero (Man United) and Willy Caballero (Chelsea), as well as Nicolas Otamendi (Man City), Marcos Rojo (Man United) and Manuel Lanzini (West Ham).

Men in Blazers POD: FA Cup recap, UCL final preview and more

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Rog and Davo recap a spite-fueled, snear-filled, peak Phil Jones FA Cup Final, preview this weekend’s Champions League tilt between Liverpool and Real Madrid and eulogize Big Sam… gone the opposite of too soon. Plus, World Cup rosters and MLS.

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