MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of Sunday’s visit to RSL

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Previewing the first left of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final (Sunday, 9 p.m. Eastern), here are the must-knows about the Portland Timbers ahead of their trip to Real Salt Lake:

  • Portland’s reached another level

The Timbers will go into Sunday’s match unbeaten in 10 — their second double-digit run of that type this season — but if you need something more concrete to measure their progress, consider their season series with Seattle. Portland played their Cascadia rivals five times this year, the first three games playing out as low scoring coin flips: two 1-0s (split between the teams) and a 1-1. In the playoffs, though? Portland was up 2-0 into the 90th minute in Seattle (2-1 final) and 3-0 at one point at JELD-WEN (3-2 final).

In that sense, Portland seems to be improving. Or peaking. Whatever you want to call it, their improvement makes sense. This is a team that was remade in the offseason. Most of their players have yet to complete their first year under their new coach. If Portland’s results have improved at the end of the season, it’s because the team’s taken a natural course. The more they know each other (and what each other’s capable of), the better they perform.

  • So how relevant is their history with Salt Lake?

Back in 2011, Portland won their first meeting with Real Salt Lake, a 1-0 victory that snapped RSL’s 18-game regular-season unbeaten run. Since, the Timbers are 0-5-3 against Jason Kreis’s team, swept in 2011 before going 0-2-2 this year under Caleb Porter.

Given Portland may be at “another level” (as we claim, above), how relevant is that past? Well, the frequency with which the sides played is hard to ignore. Three hundred sixty minutes isn’t meaningless, even if the final scoreline (9-6, RSL) sees the teams closer than the record may hint.

source: AP
Caleb Porter (right), seen here with Timbers owner/president Merritt Paulson, see Seattle’s use as a midfield diamond as helpful, given his team’s lack of preparation time for Real Salt Lake. (Photo: AP.)

At a minimum, the results provide a baseline. With the exception of the team’s last regular season meeting in Sandy (4-2, RSL), the games were always close, but even in that game, injuries, absences, and suspensions let to Porter trying a 3-6-1 formation – the only time all year he’d do so. That result can  go out the window.

If Portland truly has stepped up this postseason, RSL is close enough for them to catch.

  • But for that matter, how relevant is Seattle?

The big takeaway from the Seattle series (beyond the final result) is how the Sounders set up. They played a diamond midfield, a shape Portland will also see against RSL.

Caleb Porter:

“So we’re really in a rhythm playing basically (against) a similar system. I think that’s a real key in a quick turnaround.

There’s not a ton of tactical changes that we’re going to have to make. A lot of the same things we will want to exploit against Salt Lake are things we wanted to exploit against Seattle.

I think our guys will have a lot of confidence knowing we just faced a really talented team in Seattle, playing a diamond and now we go face another really talented team playing a diamond.”

The main difference, though: Seattle had been playing the diamond for a matter of weeks. For them, it was the formation that slowed their October collapse. For Real Salt Lake, it’s the formation they’ve mastered. With it, they’ve never finished lower than third in the West over the last four seasons.

  • Travel; turnaround; altitude

As Saturday’s match in Houston showed, this turnaround is ridiculous. All four conference finalists played mid-week, had two days rest, and are expected to play conference final legs this weekend. On Saturday, the result was a bunch of rubber legs. Don’t expect Sunday’s match to be much different.

Portland and Kansas City have (or, had) the extra challenge of travel, taking a big chunk out of their preparation and recovery time. Add in the fact that the just-above-sea-level Timbers are traveling to Salt Lake — around 4,200 feet high — and Portland had to overcome on more small wrinkle.

The question for Porter is how he manages his squad. At forward, does Max Uruiti or José Valencia get the call over Ryan Johnson? Or was bringing Urruti on for Johnson in Thursday’s second half enough? How long can Diego Valeri go? To what extent are players like Diego Chara, Will Johnson, and Jack Jewsbury going to slow come minute 75? And does the whole team adopt a different approach knowing they’ll be more susceptible to being spent come full time?

Another small factor: Both of Portland’s semifinal legs were played on turf. The recovery time coming off the fake stuff just isn’t the same. Anecdotes about injury frequency or how terrible some turf plays may have become apocryphal, but recovery time on turf versus grass can still be a real issue.

By the end of this match, the Timbers could be dead, flatted by a series of small factors that have stacked up against them.

  • source: Getty Images
    In his first year in Portland, Will Johnson set career highs in goals, assists, shots, and minutes played. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    A different Will Johnson

One year ago, Johnson had just played his last game with Real Salt Lake, his team eliminated in the conference semifinals by the Seattle Sounders. Now the former RSL midfielder, who spent five years in Utah, returns as captain of the team trying to keep the hosts from their second MLS Cup final.

But the change of uniform isn’t the only difference with Will Johnson. The 26-year-old Canadian international set career highs in goals (nine), assists (five), and shots (55). Perhaps not coincidentally, he also played more minutes (2520) than he ever has before.

Yet look around, see all the other players having their best MLS seasons in Portland, and Johnson seems to be one of many players in the right place at the right time. All of Darlington Nagbe (nine) and Rodney Wallace (seven) set career highs in goals, Ryan Johnson (nine goals) was more productive than he’s been since 2009, while Diego Chará was more influential than he was throughout his first two MLS seasons.

So maybe Will Johnson hasn’t changed that much. Maybe his surroundings are bringing the best out of him. Regardless, Johnson (like many of his teammates) is the best year of his career. And in that light, he’s not the same player RSL sent to Portland this winter.

Josef Martinez scores vicious overhead kick in Atlanta United loss (video)

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If this is the last goal of Josef Martinez’s (likely) final season with Atlanta United, it will be very appropriate.

So for Martinez, even in a losing effort, to go airborne for an overhead kick that is a simply sensational feat of athleticism and power, well, it just feels right.

The 29-year-old Venezuelan forward joined the Five Stripes in 2017 in what seemed a massive capture for the club at the time and now seems downright gargantuan, but he’s fallen out with current manager Gonzalo Pineda and was even suspended for a match last month.

[ MORE: West Ham beats Wolves | Klopp reacts to latest setback ]

Martinez has nine goals and four assists in an injury-abbreviated 25-game season, giving him 111 goals in 156 appearances for ATL UTD. The former Torino and Young Boys striker is still being capped for Venezuela and would leave with an MLS Cup, Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and Campeones Cup as well as a boatload of individual honors.

Atlanta lost 2-1 to New England on Saturday and returns home for their season finale next weekend versus New York City FC. The Five Stripes won’t make the playoffs unless at least two teams decide not to field teams, so if the NYCFC game doesn’t go well, let’s pretend this one was his final appearance for the club.

Leeds vs Aston Villa: How to watch live, stream link, TV, team news

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Leeds vs Aston Villa: Two sides in desperate need of a victory to stop their ongoing slides will meet at Elland Road on Sunday (watch live, 11:30 am ET on USA Network and online via NBCSports.com). 

STREAM LIVE LEEDS vs ASTON VILLA

Leeds came flying out of the gates to begin Jesse Marsch’s first full season in charge as they went 2W-1D-0L in their first three games. Since then, two defeats and a draw.

Seven games into their own season, and Aston Villa appear on the verge of stabilizing the ship after an incredibly rocky start which included four defeats from their first five games.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Leeds vs Aston Villa

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Leeds vs Aston Villa live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 11:30 am ET, Sunday
TV channel: USA Network
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

As expected under Marsch, Leeds have taken a high-volume approach to their tactics — lots of pressing and challenges, lots of counter-attacking and lots of scoring chances created. Their 1.57 expected goals (per 90 minutes) ranks 7th in the Premier League. Leeds haven’t played a game (in any competition) since Sept. 3, one day shy of a month come Sunday, due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ensuing fixture postponements. Leading goal-scorer Rodrigo remains out with a shoulder injury, but the Spaniard could be back in the next week or two.

Goal-scoring has been a major issue thus far for Aston Villa, who have scored multiple goals in a game just once this season. Six different players have scored a goal, but no one has scored two. Unsurprisingly, Steven Gerrard’s side sits 19th in the PL for xG (0.76 per 90).


Leeds team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Rodrigo (shoulder), Stuart Dallas (thigh) | QUESTIONABLE: Adam Forshaw (ankle)

Aston Villa team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Diego Carlos (achilles), Lucas Digne (ankle), Boubacar Kamara (knee) | QUESTIONABLE: Matty Cash (hamstring), Cameron Archer (adductor)

Follow @AndyEdMLS

West Ham gets breakthrough win, goals for Scamacca and Bowen

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West Ham United won a proper scrap with Wolves on Saturday at London’s Olympic Stadium, using a beautiful goal from Gianluca Scamacca and a clever finish from Jarrod Bowen to post a 2-0 win.

WATCH WEST HAM vs WOLVES FULL MATCH REPLAY STREAM

The Irons win their second match of the year to move clear of the bottom three with seven points.

Wolves now occupy 18th place on the Premier League table with six points, but will feel hope at the performance of Diego Costa off the bench for the final 32 minutes.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


What we learned from West Ham vs Wolves

Gianluca Scamacca is feeling comfortable: He was spotted visibly angry when a teammate’s sloppy first touch destroyed an early chance, and Scamacca is obviously not sheepish about his role in the team. He also clearly wanted to take a start over Michail Antonio to make his case to start every week. His thunderous goal from the edge of the 18 should’ve adequately made it.

Diego Costa flashes: The big, tempestuous veteran striker still knows where to be on the pitch and was just put off enough on a powerful header that went wide of the goal. Costa was a fine hold-up man, something Wolves have used to thrive when Raul Jimenez is at or near his best. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Costa become the positive difference in 3-4 matches this season… maybe even next Saturday against old pals Chelsea?

Declan Rice: Speaking of the positive difference, Declan Rice is a force from endline-to-endline.

West Ham vs Wolves
fotmob.com

Jarrod Bowen reaction: ‘Just what we needed’

“It’s just what we needed. We haven’t had the start we wanted, and we had an international break to regroup our thoughts and go out on the front foot. We suffered without the ball but what this manager does is we’re a tough team to break down and we can counter. Massive three points for us, and we’ve got a lot of games now.”


Gianluca Scamacca reaction: First Premier League goal ‘amazing’

“It was an amazing feeling, for the fans. We needed to win. Today we worked very hard and made a good victory.”


Tactical focus

Declan Rice, Lucas Paqueta, and Tomas Soucek going up against Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves, and Matheus Cunha was a grind and we think all deserve ice baths. Not so much a midfield muddle as a melee, Neves and Paqueta were kept from their creative best in order to snap into tackles, though Rice stepped forward to seize the day on several occasions

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]


Stars of the Show

Declan Rice

Jarrod Bowen

Rayan Ait-Nouri


What’s next?

Wolves have a trip to Anderlecht for Thursday action in the Europa Conference League before Fulham visits London’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 9.

Wolves will reunite Diego Costa with Chelsea come 10am ET Saturday.


How to watch West Ham vs Wolves live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 12:30 pm ET, Saturday
TV channel: NBC
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

For both sides, the goal-scoring woes are a result of not only a failure to convert scoring chances, but also their inability to create them. West Ham and Wolves both rank in the bottom five of the Premier League in expected goals with identical paltry 0.9 xG averages (per 90 minutes). No other side in the Premier League is anywhere close to underperforming their expected numbers by more than 50 percent.

Goals have come much more easily for West Ham in the Europa Conference League, where they have scored three goals in all four games thus far — six in two games against Danish side Viborg, and three apiece against Romanian runners-up FCSB and another Danish side in Silkeborg.

Wolves made the effort to be a better attacking side this season, as they spent $18 million on Sasa Kalajdzic, but the Austrian international striker tore his ACL on his debut for the club. Raul Jimenez, meanwhile, has played just 211 minutes in three Premier League appearances (none since Aug. 31) and has just one goal, in the League Cup. The Mexican international is now in a race against time to be healthy and fit for the 2022 World Cup eight weeks from now.


West Ham team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Nayef Aguerd (ankle), Benjamin Johnson (hamstring)

Wolves team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Raul Jimenez (groin), Sasa Kalajdzic (torn ACL), Nathan Collins (suspension), Chiquinho (knee)

Follow @AndyEdMLS

Liverpool vs Brighton goal fest features Trossard hat trick

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Brighton and Hove Albion refused to go away, giving new manager Roberto De Zerbi a memorable debut in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday.

Leandro Trossard scored twice early to give the Seagulls a 2-0 lead and completed his hat trick after the hosts had rallied behind a Roberto Firmino brace and an Adam Webster own goal to lead 3-2 with 27 minutes left in the 90.

WATCH LIVERPOOL vs BRIGHTON FULL MATCH REPLAY STREAM

Brighton remains fourth and now has 14 points through seven games, good for fourth and no worse than fifth depending on the result of the Manchester derby on Sunday.

Liverpool sits ninth with 10 points through seven games. Both clubs have a match-in-hand on most of the field.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


What we learned from Liverpool vs Brighton

De Zerbi’s dynamic start: Life after Graham Potter was plenty good going forward for Brighton and Hove Albion, but Roberto De Zerbi’s buzz might wear off when he watches the Seagulls defending. Only a little, though, because every team gives up chances to Liverpool and the Reds were pretty due to bang some home (Mohamed Salah is now very much overdue for a big, big game of finishing… bookmark that one).

Liverpool’s defense messy, messy, messy (Yes, Jurgen, especially Trent): There Is not a level-headed person alive who would deny Trent Alexander-Arnold his status as one of the best right-sided playmakers in the world. There’s an argument that he’s could become his generation’s Andrea Pirlo as a central midfielder. But he’s not playing central midfield, and teams are targeting his side of the pitch and finding joy. As Jordan Henderson ages out and Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho exist as cover, how long before Jurgen Klopp finally says, “Yes, okay, here” to those who see what everyone else sees: a dynamic player who turns 24 on Friday and isn’t improving at the defensive duties of a right back but intercepts passes so well.

That said, his performance is less of a talking point if Virgil van Dijk connects on a clearing attempt of the Brighton cross that became Trossard’s third goal. This game could’ve been 6-5 and while we would’ve loved that entertainment, Klopp has to wonder what’s next. Andy Robertson and Ibrahima Konate were missing but Liverpool’s spent plenty for depth that’s been disappointing (and Joel Matip isn’t exactly paid like a depth piece, is he?).

Trossard top of his game: The Belgian international now has five goals and two assists through seven Premier League games for Brighton this season, which is pretty, pretty good. The 27-year-old is now an every-game player and part-time starter for Belgium, and what a nice place he’s made for himself at the Amex.


Jurgen Klopp reaction: Liverpool problem ‘not in our DNA’

“Directly after the game it is a massive knock,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “N, slowly but surely, we feel that is just the situation and we will get through. We got a point and not what we wanted.

“We are a dominant team and want to have the ball so when you give these goals away I know it is a problem. We have to find the solutions. We have to keep going. It is nothing in our DNA. It just happens and now it happens more often. This is a period where we struggle. We have to fight through this situation. We cannot fight anymore today though we just have to admit.”


Tactical focus

Maybe it’s the increased focus on the performances of Trent Alexander-Arnold, but it sure does seem like teams are targeting the right side of Liverpool’s defense.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]


Stars of the show

Leandro Trossard: Away hat tricks at Anfield are pretty rare.

Roberto Firmino: Guess that Darwin Nunez signing really can be for the (near) future, as Firmino has five goals and three assists in his last four Premier League outings.

Thiago Alcantara: 10-of-12 duels won and two key passes while drawing six fouls.


What’s next?

The challenge isn’t going to get any easier for Liverpool, who hosts Arsenal in eight days after a Champions League visit from Rangers on Tuesday. Brighton gets stung Tottenham in another test of top-four mettle.


Liverpool vs Brighton score

Liverpool: 3 (Firmino 33′, 54′, Webster o.g. 63′)

Brighton: 3 (Trossard 4′, 17′, 83′)


Leandro Trossard goal video(s): Belgian gives De Zerbi dream start

Roberto Firmino goal video: Liverpool pulls one back

Leandro Trossard hat trick video: Seagulls overcome blown lead for point


How to watch Liverpool vs Brighton live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10am ET, Saturday
TV Channel/Online: Stream via Peacock Premium


Key storylines & star players

Is Liverpool ready to turn chances into goals at a more familiar rate? The Reds’ expected goal total for this season is close to leaders Manchester City and Arsenal but its actual goal production is fifth and somewhat-inflated by their nine-goal beatdown of Bournemouth previously this season.

Brighton, meanwhile, has to show that it’s getting a handle on life after Graham Potter, as De Zerbi’s credentials say things might not look too different. The former Sassuolo and Shakhtar Donetsk boss craves possession in his teams and delivers chances as a boss in the manner you’d expect from a former attacking midfielder.


Liverpool team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Calvin Ramsay (lower back), Curtis Jones (tibia), Ibrahima Konate (knee), Naby Keita (thigh), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (thigh), Andrew Robertson (knee), Caoimhin Kelleher (groin), Ibrahima Konate (knee),

Brighton team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Jakub Moder (knee), Adam Lallana (lower leg), Enock Mwepu (illness).