MLS Playoff Preview: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake

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(Originally posted Saturday night)

The Western Conference semifinals saw hope triumph over expectation, with the league’s most talented and accomplished sides (Seattle, LA Galaxy) eliminated by teams few pegged as MLS Cup contenders at the beginning over the season. Yet eight months later Portland and Real Salt Lake are one step away from playing for Major League Soccer’s title, the West’s top two seeds set to begin their conference final Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern at Rio Tinto Stadium.

With both teams spending most of the year near the top of the Western Conference, we’ve long become accustomed to RSL and Portlands’ unexpected contenders’ status, but with each team now in MLS’s final four, it’s worth a moment’s reflection on how far they’ve come. As RSL head coach Jason Kreis reminded everybody ahead of the conference semifinals, if you would have offered him a spot in the playoffs against the LA Galaxy at the onset of the season, he would have taken it, salary cap considerations having forced the 2009 champions to wave goodbye to Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola this offseason. As for Portland, one year ago it appeared owner Merritt Paulson had scrapped his three-year, expansion plan for MLS Cup contention. Instead, the dismissal of John Spencer (and eventual hire of Caleb Porter) proved merely an unexpected bump in the title-contending road.

Now, Portland is not only the West’s top see but the league’s hottest team ahead of their trip to Utah. Starting with a 4-0 win over Toronto on Sept. 7, Portland is unbeaten in 10 games, recording seven wins in a stretch that saw them to the top of the Western Conference, the league’s best goal difference (+21), and an MLS record for fewest losses in a season (five). Their two wins over Seattle in the conference semifinal made Portland the only team to win both of their conference semifinal games.

Unfortunately for the Timbers, all those results are mitigated by their performance against Real Salt Lake. In four 2013 meetings with RSL (three in league, one in Open Cup), Portland are 0-2-2. Their last loss came to Kreis’s side on Aug. 30 (4-2, in Sandy) while the teams’ last meeting was hailed by the Real Salt Lake coach, who saw their 0-0 draw at JELD-WEN Field as the type of tough, pragmatic performance his team would need to give come the postseason. Winless against Real Salt Lake since the franchises’ first meeting (back in 2011), the Timbers clearly have a specific, isolated problem with their conference final opponent, one they haven’t been able to identify.

source: Getty Images
Timbers’ captain Will Johnson is in his first season with Portland after five years in Salt Lake, winning an MLS Cup with RSL in 2009. (Photo: Getty Images.)

“For me, the record in the playoffs is even,” said former RSL, current Portland midfielder Will Johnson, optimistically. “Whatever the regular-season statistics are, they are what they are, but this is the playoffs now so it’s a brand new slate.”

Still, when trying to explain a streak that spans three seasons, the things to look for are commonalities, and there’s nothing more endemic to Salt Lake than how they play. Though players like Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Nick Rimando have been stars throughout their run, different cast members have been able to step into what’s been a consistent approach. Throughout Kreis’s time in charge, the team has remained committed to a short passing style, usually played out of a formation reliant on a diamond midfield.

RSL did change out of that approach for their first semifinal leg in Los Angeles, something Kreis would later call a mistake. Against Portland, expect RSL to stick with what works.

“The nice thing is that we played Seattle and they play a diamond,” Porter explains. “There’s not a ton of tactical changes that weíre 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.”

That’s if truly exploiting RSL is even possible. Theirs is an approach that’s seen them finish no lower than third in the West since winning the title four years ago. Yet after eliminating the two-time defending champions in the previous round, this may be RSL’s best chance since 2009 to regain that title. In addition to their dominance over Portland, RSL beat Houston in the teams’ only meeting this year, and although they fell at home to Sporting in July, the game was a controversial one – the type of aberration that’s unlikely to be replicated should the teams meet on December 7.

But first things first. If Real Salt Lake are going to challenge for their second league title, they’ll have to dispatch the league’s hottest team. Fortunately for them, recent history tells us Portland’s yet to figure out how to get past RSL.

USMNT projected starting lineup vs Saudi Arabia

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The USMNT face Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain in their final warm-up game before the 2022 World Cup kicks off in November and there are plenty of question marks around their best starting lineup.

Especially at center back and up front.

[ MORE: Player ratings | What we learned | Reaction ]

Following the shocking defeat to Japan (where a 2-0 scoreline in Japan’s favor heavily flattered the USMNT), Gregg Berhalter has plenty to think about as he juggles his roster around ahead of this final audition.

Yes, this final camp before the World Cup has seen the USMNT without six key players (Weah, Steffen, A. Robinson, Carter-Vickers, Richards and Musah) but the most concerning thing is that nobody took the opportunity given to them against Japan. Will anybody step up against Saudi Arabia and cement their spot in the roster, or even the starting lineup?

Below is our projected lineup, plus analysis on what Berhalter should do for the final 90 minutes he has with the team before they kick off their World Cup campaign against Wales on Nov. 21 in Qatar.


USMNT projected starting lineup vs Saudi Arabia (4-3-3)

—– Horvath —–

— Scally — Zimmerman — Palmer-Brown — Dest —

—- Adams —- McKennie —-

—- Reyna —-

— Aaronson — Pepi — Pulisic —


What should Berhalter do?

It’s clear that Gregg Berhalter will make plenty of changes as eight players (six outfield, two goalkeepers) didn’t have any minutes against Japan last time out. That said, he needs key players on this team to find some rhythm playing together less than two months before the World Cup kicks off. This starting lineup should be a mixture between giving players a final chance to impress and letting star players alongside each other as they look to build momentum ahead of the World Cup.

Goalkeepers

Matt Turner proved he’s the undisputed No. 1 as he excelled against Japan (perhaps the only player to leave that game with any credit) and although Zack Steffen is better with the ball at his feet, Turner appears to have the upper-hand. That leaves Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson to battle it out for the final goalkeeping spot on the roster. Expect them both to get a chance in this game.

Defenders

In defense, Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie should both get plenty of minutes to make their final claim for a spot on the roster but it may be a surprise to see them line up together. Perhaps they will have 45 minutes each alongside Zimmerman (a guaranteed starter at CB) to see who fares better as a duo?

At full back Joe Scally should get a run out at right back, while Sergino Dest will likely show off his versatility and play left back. The likes of Dest, and others, need the game time given they’re on the fringes of their starting lineup for their club teams. We now what DeAndre Yedlin can do and he is a leader on this team who is going to Qatar no matter what.

Midfielders

In midfield, I’d start Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie together again. They looked awful against Japan which was very surprising. This duo have to get some kind of partnership going and 60 minutes together here could see things click back into place for them. We know what Luca de la Torre and Kellyn Acosta offer, while Johnny Cardoso and Malik Tillman could both get another, longer, chance to push for a spot on the roster.

Forwards

Gio Reyna playing in a central role as a No. 10 should be something Berhalter prioritizes, while Christian Pulisic is fit and will start (according to Berhalter) so he should start on the left and Brenden Aaronson should start on the right. Getting Aaronson, Reyna and Pulisic used to playing together and interchanging is something that has to be done.

Up top, Berhalter has confirmed that Ricardo Pepi will get his chance to start and his physicality and speed should combine very well with the trio underneath him. Expect Josh Sargent to get a good chunk of minutes too, while Jesus Ferreira is the other option up top but maybe we could see Pulisic or Reyna playing up there as a false nine at some point of the game?

Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits

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With the 2022 World Cup fast approaching, plenty of World Cup kits are starting to be released and there are some intriguing looks.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA  

From Mexico’s snazzy away number to Germany going for a solid new look for their home kit and Puma rolling out a very specific and similar look for their national teams, just like they did for their club teams on their away kits, there is a lot to unpack here.

When November rolls around and the World Cup kicks off, which one of these jerseys will you be wearing with pride? And which one will you be wearing because it looks really cool?

Below is our rankings of the World Cup kits which have been released.


Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits

1. Mexico

This is a lovely away kit and will become a classic. Expect these beauties to fly off the shelves and be a jersey that neutrals love just as much as El Tri fans. The home kit is very decent too.


2. Portugal

Absolutely sensational work. The home kit is unique enough but still sticks to Portugal’s bold colors, while the away kit is a classic too.


3. Poland

Oh, wow. This is absolutely beautiful. The away shirt is majestic and the home shirt is classic but with some intriguing detail on the sleeves. Nicely done.


4. Japan

Well, this is another classic. Japan’s home kit is inspired by anime and the design is bold and recognizable. The away kit is fantastic too, especially the long-sleeved version.


5. France

The home and away kits are both lovely and the colors just work together. Well done.


6. Argentina

The home kit is classic. You can’t really mess up the blue and white stripes. Again, another lovely away kit. The purple is perfect and this just looks slick and silky. Much like Lionel Messi’s footwork.


7. Wales

These are beautiful. The right color red on the home shirt and just enough going on without overdoing it. The away shirt is also bold and the collar is lovely. Well done.


8. Brazil

Home kit looks like a classic and the away shirt is pretty decent too, but some people may not like the funky print on the shoulders.


9. England

The blue panels on the home kit are a bit meh but the away kit is a retro beauty.


10. Croatia

They kind of ruined a classic with the home kit. It’s still cool but only having the checkered design on part of the home shirt is weird. The away kit is majestic.


11. Saudi Arabia

Pretty nice designs here. They could have gone with the plain white for the home and plain green for the away, but the snazzy designs work. Especially for the away kit.


12. Netherlands

The home shirt looks kind of velvety? Not the usual bright orange, which will upset some. The blue away kit is sleek and the real winner here.


13. Senegal

This is the best of the Puma jerseys, as Senegal’s away kit is very distinctive and the green is lovely. This big panel on the middle of the kit is something we will get used to seeing a lot of during the World Cup.


14. Ghana

Again, another Puma away kit but this Ghana shirt has plenty of personality.


15. Germany

This is fine. Expect a bit better from Die Mannschaft and it feels like they should have an all white jersey for their home kit.


16. Qatar

The hosts have a simple, clean look. The away shirt has a nice golden pattern on it. Not bad.


17. USA

The home shirt has not been received well by fans, and some players, for being too boring. But the away shirt is pretty nice.


18. Morocco

A bit plain, but like the collar and sleeve trims and the circular pattern around the middle is very cool.


19. Spain

Eh, this could have been so much better. Spain’s home kit looks bland and the away kit is just too much with that pattern.


20. Australia

Not quite sure what to make of this. The same velvety style as the Netherlands home shirt on Australia’s home shirt. Just doesn’t work. The away kit is also just very bland.


21. Belgium

These home kits are just a little too plain and the flame pattern on the shoulder isn’t great and looks like a shirt I’d wear to my midweek bowling league. A missed opportunity. The same applies for the away kit. Belgium’s golden generation won’t look golden this World Cup.


22. Uruguay

Again, another Puma away kit which looks very similar. Uruguay’s iconic sky blue could have been used a lot better on this away shirt.


23. Serbia

Lovely gold in the design and makes the white away kit pop a little.


24. Switzerland

Just very bland. Not a lot going on and the panel in the middle is just a bit of an eyesore.

World Cup 2022 rankings: Who are the favorites?

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With less than two months to go until it all kicks off, it is time to update and release the latest 2022 World Cup rankings.

[ MORE: USMNT react to Japan defeat ]

There are a few clear favorites to win the trophy in Qatar but some of the giants have been handed tougher group stage draws than others which will obviously impact their chances of lifting the famous trophy.

Given that some of the favorites have also been struggling in recent Nations League games and friendlies with plenty of heavy defeats and strange results, there remains no real frontrunner to win the tournament. That is great news for neutrals.

[ MORE: Full schedule for World Cup ]

Keep an eye out on a few underdogs too, as there are some real opportunities which have opened up depending on what side of the bracket you’re on.

We will updates these rankings before and during the tournament in Qatar, which takes place from November 21 to December 18, 2022.

[ MORE: Betting odds for 2022 World Cup ]

Let us know what you think of the rankings below.


Schedule, start time, dates, how to watch live

When: November 20, 2022 to December 18, 2022
Group stage game kick off times: 5am, 8am, 11am, 2pm (all ET)
Location: Qatar
TV channel in EnglishFox
TV channel in Spanish: Telemundo, Universo, Peacock


World Cup Rankings – September 26, 2022

32. Tunisia – Down 1
31. Qatar – Down 4
30. Australia – Up 2
29. Ghana – Even
28. Cameroon – Down 3


27. Saudi Arabia – Up 1
26. Costa Rica – Up 4
25. Wales – Down 5
24. Iran – Even
23. Ecuador – Down 5


22. Morocco – Even
21. Canada – Up 2
20. USA – Down 4
19. Japan – Up 7
18. Poland – Up 3


17. Mexico – Up 2
16. South Korea – Down 1
15. Uruguay – Down 5
14. Serbia – Up 3
13. Senegal – Down 1


12. Switzerland – Up 1
11. Croatia – Up 3
10. Denmark – Up 1
9. England – Down 3
8. Germany – Down 3
7. Spain – Even


6. Netherlands – Up 3
5. Portugal – Up 3
4. France – Even
3. Belgium – Down 1
2. Argentina – Up 1
1. Brazil – Even


UEFA Nations League: Schedule, how to watch, stream, TV, standings

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UEFA Nations League champions France will not go back-to-back, and Portugal is behind Spain in its bid to return to the throne room, highlighting the odds that a new Nations League winner will be crowned at the end of third edition of the tournament.

England and Wales are also coming to terms with the concept of relegation to UEFA Nations League B after underwhelming campaigns. Hungary look set to reach the semifinal round, which is a huge surprise as they faced Germany, England and Italy in A3.

France lost to Denmark and just remained in League A as Austria were relegated, with Croatia pipping the Danes to a place in the semifinal round.

[ MORE: European Nations League hub — Scores, stats ]

Group A4 is the opposite sort of fight, Belgium and the Netherlands have both played very well but the Dutch triumphed down the stretch (thanks to a 1-0 win as Virgil van Dijk scored the lone goal in Amsterdam) to advance to the semifinal round.

UEFA Nations Leagues B, C, and D also have drama built into the final days as Ukraine and Scotland are jockeying for promotion in B1; Russia’s punishment has left B2 promotion open to Israel, Iceland, and Albania. B4 sees Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard, and Norway fighting to join League A for the next cycle.

There’s also drama as Kazakhstan and Georgia currently lead their League C groups, with Latvia and Estonia in League D’s best spots.


UEFA Nations League live: How to watch, stream links

When: June 1, 2022 – March 26, 2024
How to watch: Fox Sports Live, Fubo TV


UEFA Nations League A, Group 1

Croatia– 4-1-1, 13 pts [ADVANCED]
Denmark — 4-0-2, 12 pts
France — 1-2-3, 5 pts
Austria — 1-1-4, 4 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
France 2-0 Austria
Croatia 2-1 Denmark

Sunday
Denmark 2-0 France
Austria 1-3 Croatia

UEFA Nations League A, Group 2

Portugal — 3-1-1, 10 pts
Spain — 2-2-0, 8 pts
Switzerland — 2-0-3, 6 pts
Czech Republic — 1-1-3, 4 pts

Next fixtures

Saturday
Czech Republic 0-4 Portugal
Spain 1-2 Switzerland

Tuesday
Portugal vs Spain
Switzerland vs Czech Republic

UEFA Nations League A, Group 3

Italy — 3-2-1, 11 pts
Hungary — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Germany — 1-4-1, 7 pts
England — 0-3-3, 3 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Friday
Italy 1-0 England
Germany 0-1 Hungary

Monday
England 3-3 Germany
Hungary 0-2 Italy

UEFA Nations League A, Group 4

Netherlands — 5-1-0, 16 pts [ADVANCED]
Belgium — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Poland — 2-1-3, 7 pts
Wales — 0-1-5, 1 pt [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
Poland 0-2 Netherlands
Belgium 2-1 Wales

Sunday
Netherlands 1-0 Belgium
Wales 0-1 Poland