What We Learned from Portland’s Thursday night win over Seattle

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  • Portland can still execute their Plan A

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Timbers’ performance in Seattle got so much attention for their change approach (one that actually happened two months ago), people may have forgotten: Portland’s still capable of playing that high-pressure, constantly moving brand of soccer that became associated with Caleb Porter as his name came to prominence. On Thursday, that style was Seattle’s undoing.

Initially, it looked like Portland was going to settle into Saturday’s approach, the match’s first 10 minutes seeing Seattle dominate possession. But then (and in hindsight, suddenly), Portland switched gears. Through the half’s final 30 minutes, Portland’s pressure created turnovers, breaks, and ultimately, goals. The passing and possession numbers were practically even at halftime, but Portland had monopolized the chances, with much of the game played in Seattle’s half.

Last month, Porter labeled his team’s reactive approach as Plan B – the one plan they used in Seattle. Tonight, the Timbers increased their lead to 5-1 because of Plan A. They’ve still got it in them.

  • Seattle’s attack just never gelled

Injuries and absences kept the Sounders’ big names from seeing much time together. Even tonight, the team only played 32 minutes with all of Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Obafemi Martins, and Mauro Rosales on the field. Arguably the most talented team in the league, Seattle never had time to gel.

The extent to which the team should have adapted can be debated, but the effects were evident in this series. The team scored three goals in two games, but two came on long throws, and all of them came decidedly after Sigi Schmid’s kitchen sink had been thrown onto the field.

It’s fair to expect a team with this much talent to be better, hardships be damned. It’s also fair to note more time together’s likely to produce better results. If the band’s back together in February, they’ll be more effective.

But if you’re a Sounders fan, it must be disturbing to note the team were outscored by five during this series while Mauro Rosales was on the bench. With him in the game, Seattle was +3.

  • And their defense wasn’t any better

Through 47 minutes, the defense looked just as bad as they did on Oct. 5 against Colorado (5-1 loss) and Oct. 9 against Vancouver (4-1 defeat). Almost any time Portland hit their line with momentum, the Timbers created a good chance, the one notable exception being Jhon Kennedy Hurtado’s last ditch tackle on Diego Chara in the 14th minute.

In years’ past, Seattle’s decent defensive talent had been protected by their midfield, saved by their goalkeeping. But the midfield shakeup necessitated by Clint Dempsey and Adam Moffat’s arrivals unsettled that protection, while Michael Gspurning’s dip in form meant more mistakes would result in goals.

  • You can’t overlook Jack Jewsbury

Quietly, Jack Jewsbury had a huge series. Though Portland’s right back was beaten on Eddie Johnson’s 76th minute goal (though really, who expects him to win an aerial duel with Eddie Johnson), Jewsbury had already played a part in four Timbers goals during the series:

    • Jewsbury assisted on Portland’s  opener on Saturday, beating Leo Gonzalez to get his cross in to Ryan Johnson.
    • On Portland’s second in Seattle, Jewsbury’s run up the right flank pulled Gonzalez wide, opening up space for Kalif Alhassan, who eventually found Darlington Nagbe.
    • On Thursday, Jewsbury drew the penalty that led to Will Johnson’s goal, his chip beyond Djimi Traoré tempting the Malian defender to raise his left arm to the ball.
    • And on Portland’s second goal, another run up the flank opened up space in Seattle’s defense, with Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace able to create the series-winning goal.

Some of these are just things right backs are supposed to do, but that’s the point. At the beginning of the season, Jewsbury was a central midfielder. When he moved to his new position, it was viewed as a way to get the former captain into the team. Now, the 32-year-old seems like an honest-to-goodness right back, even having an impact going forward.

  • Still some naivete left in these Timbers

If Caleb Porter needed something to keep his team grounded, conceding two goals in three minutes does the trick. That they were two eminently preventable goals will only add tension to the likely Friday film session.

The Sounders’ first came off the same type of long throw that produced the goal in Seattle. Surely the Timbers worked on that during the week? On the second goal, Michael Harrington gets beat by DeAndre Yedlin, the resulting cross seeing Eddie Johnson matched up on Jewsbury.

In both cases, it’s simple stuff, the exact type of mistakes you can point to and wonder if your team temporarily lost focus. In Seattle, it happened when the Timbers were up two. In Portland, they were up four.

Perhaps inexperience didn’t cost Portland against Seattle, but it was still evident in how they closed out the series’ two legs.

  • Sigi Schmid didn’t do himself any favors

Being down 3-0 would have felt too familiar to Sounders’ fans, who may have been asking themselves how many times the team has to be in this situation before they see change.  If Sigi Schmid had the benefit of the doubt before Thursday’s match, a resounding playoff loss to Seattle’s arch rivals (where Schmid elected to start Shalrie Joseph at forward) changed that. It’s going to be hard for the Sounders to justify retaining their coach.

Ricketts family, owner of the Chicago Cubs, interested in purchasing AC Milan

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The Ricketts family, who purchased a controlling stake in the Chicago Cubs back in 2009, have interest in further pursuing ownership in financially troubled Italian club AC Milan.

According to a family statement, “The Ricketts family brought a championship to the Chicago Cubs through long-term investment and being great stewards of the team … They would bring this same approach to AC Milan.”

First reported by the Chicago Tribune, the news of the Tom Ricketts’ interest in the team comes on the heels of news that current owner Li Yonghong had failed to meet a Friday deadline for a $37 million loan payment. According to reports, the missed payment means that Li will cede control of the club to Elliott Management, who loaned the Chinese businessman the money to complete his initial purchase of the club last April.

The Chicago Sun-Times also reported the family’s interest in the club, and quoted their source as saying, “The Ricketts put together the management team, resources and training facilities [for the Cubs]. [They did] everything you need top to bottom to be successful.”

Ricketts has plenty of history in soccer ownership, having previously been a part of the group that owned English club Derby County before selling back in 2015. This May, Ricketts also announced he was leading an investment group that is looking to bring a USL expansion team to Chicago.

Forbes values AC Milan at $612 million – a massive 26% 1-year decline – and ranks them the 17th most valuable soccer club in the world. That valuation could be further on the decline, as the storied club missed out on Champions League qualification for the fifth straight year, although they qualified for their second straight Europa League appearance with 6th place finish in last year’s Serie A table, eight points behind Lazio in fifth.

AC Milan also faces heavy sanctions from UEFA regarding Financial Fair Play, although those fears could be eased with the financially-troubled Li selling the club.

The Ricketts family’s wealth comes largely from investment banking, with Tom’s father J. Joseph Ricketts having founded Ameritrade back in 1975. Tom is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, while his father has an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion.

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.

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.

Switzerland captain and new Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner came to the defense of his two teammates after the match. When asked about the celebrations, he said to Goal.com, “We had a lot of pressure, it was not an easy game for us. We have a lot of Albanians, so there is a lot of history between Serbia and Albania. It was a very tough game for them mentally.”

“It was good. Why not? This is the history for them,” Lichtsteiner continued. “The war between them was so difficult. I spoke to the father of one of our players who is Albanian, and he told me about this history. This is more than football. This is more than football because they have this period, this war that gave them both big problems. I understand them. I think it’s normal, it’s part of their life. There was also big provocation ahead of the game from them [Serbia], so I think it’s normal.”

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.

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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.