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.

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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.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

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Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.

Serie A: Napoli rout Inter, leaving UCL race wide open heading into final week

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The race for the third and four places in Serie A, and with it, a berth in the UEFA Champions League next season, remain open heading into the final week of the season, thanks to a stellar performance from Napoli.

Playing at home in the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli thrashed Inter Milan, 4-1, to keep Inter in fourth place in the table on 66 points. That’s just one point ahead of AC Milan in fifth place, which jumped up after a 2-0 win over Frosinone, and three points ahead of AS Roma, which succumbed to a scoreless draw with Sassuolo this weekend. Atalanta meanwhile came ten minutes from beating Juventus in Turin, and even with a point in a 1-1 draw, Atalanta is still only in third place by 66 points.

[READ: Bayern Munich still too good for the rest this season]

Piotr Zielinski made a statement with a 30-yard blast past Samir Handanovic in the 16th minute to put Napoli up 1-0 and then Dries Mertens and a pair of goals from Fabian Ruiz gave the Neapolitans a massive lead, while leaving Inter in a precarious position. Mauro Icardi scored late to give Inter a small reprieve, but the defeat was set and it leaves Inter essentially needing to win in the final week of the season to secure a place in the Champions League next year.

Elsewhere, Josip Ilicic scored his 12th league goal of the season as Atalanta took Juventus down to the wire in Juve’s final home match of the season. Juventus fans serenaded Andrea Barzagli, playing his final game for the Bianconeri, and even had a message of support for Daniele De Rossi.

Gianluigi Buffon was even in attendance.

Also in action in Serie A, Parma beat Fiorentina, 1-0 and Empoli defeated Torino, 4-1.

Report: Former Chelsea great Clarke set to be new Scotland manager

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The Scotland FA is set to appoint a former Chelsea star as its new men’s national team manager.

Former Chelsea midfielder, and West Bromwich Albion and Reading manager Steve Clark is reportedly in talks with the Scotland FA to take over the national team. Clark has a difficult job ahead, with Scotland already having lost, 3-0, at Kazakhstan in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying.

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Although Scotland finished top of their group in Level C of the UEFA Nations League and earning promotion to League B, the team’s play was very up and down under Alex McLeish, back in the job after a one-year spell in 2017. McLeish eventually lost the federation’s support after the 3-0 defeat at Kazakhstan, ranked then 117th in the world, made Scotland look like Europe’s whipping boy. Though Scotland saved some face with a 2-0 win over San Marino, the damage was done.

Clarke, after disappointing tenures at West Bromwich and Reading in his first full managerial roles, has since found success in Scotland. He’s led Kilmarnock this season to third place in the table and a spot in the Europa League, an impressive feat considering the club’s budget is dwarfed by Celtic and Rangers. Hibernians and Hearts of Midlothain have also recently spent big on new signings, yet Kilmarnock finished above them this season.

Clarke, who only played a half dozen times for Scotland during his playing career, will now have to galvanize the squad ahead of two crucial qualifications in June and quickly imprint his tactical ideas and plan in a short amount of time. During his time at Chelsea, Clarke won the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup Winners Cup between 1987 and 1998.

Germany: Below-par Bayern Munich still too good for the rest

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BERLIN (AP) Even a below-par Bayern Munich side was just too good for the rest.

Bayern’s record-extending seventh consecutive Bundesliga title confirmed the distance between the Bavarian powerhouse and its rivals after a season in which it failed to impress as before.

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For the first time in ten years the title race went to the last day of the season, with Niko Kovac’s side missing the chance to wrap it up a week earlier after being held to a goalless draw in Leipzig. His team wasn’t going to miss another chance as it routed Eintracht Frankfurt 5-1 to clinch a 29th German championship on Saturday.

In the end, Bayern’s 5-0 win at home over Borussia Dortmund, its closest and only challenger, on April 4 illustrated the gulf in class between the sides and effectively decided the league outcome. Bayern should have won by more after racing into a 4-0 half-time lead, but Kovac’s team eased off in the second half with Dortmund in damage-control mode.

It proved to be the title that Dortmund gave away. Lucien Favre’s side had a nine-point lead over Bayern at one stage, but buckled under the pressure of a title challenge and gave away points in games it should have won.

Dortmund developed an unfortunate tendency to concede late goals, and was frustrated in successive draws against Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and lowly Nuremberg, which was relegated at the end of the season.

Bayern President Uli Hoeness had suggested in February that Bayern could “sacrifice the championship for one year” to give veteran players like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Rafinha a worthy farewell.

“I have won more than 50 titles in my lifetime, so one or another doesn’t matter,” Hoeness said at the time.

Hoeness needn’t have worried. On Saturday, he was able to give the players a perfect sendoff, with Robben and Ribery both coming on as substitutes to score in their final Bundesliga appearances.

Beer flowed among the tears and confetti and the Bayern veterans bade their farewells and celebrated another championship – for Ribery it was a record ninth league title in 12 years at the club.

It was a happy end to a difficult season. The 36-year-old Ribery made no secret of his wish to stay at Bayern and will have heard how the 40-year-old Claudio Pizarro, who also scored Saturday, agreed a one-year extension to his contract at Werder Bremen the same day.

Kovac has had to endure ongoing speculation over his future after ambiguous comments from his superiors.

“We’ll see,” sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic said to repeated questions over Kovac’s future recently, while chairman Karl-Heinz-Rummenigge could only say he has “no problem” with Kovac.

Kovac himself said on Saturday that he was sure he would remain after receiving first-hand information from those responsible, but the lack of public endorsement from the club has done little to stop the speculation.

Even a win over Leipzig in the German Cup final next Saturday might not be enough for Kovac, who has fans’ backing but has struggled for authority at the club since Bayern went four games without a win in late September-early October.

The club lashed out at the media on Oct. 19 for “derogatory, slanderous reporting” of its poor form, while Hoeness was booed and whistled at the club’s AGM in November for the first time over sponsorship deals with Qatar, his railing against the media, and personal tirades against former players and coaches.

Amid the squabbling, Bayern has lost its aura of invincibility. The side’s meek Champions League exit to Liverpool after a 3-1 defeat at home highlighted the need to refresh the squad.

The process is already underway with World Cup winners Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard arriving from Atletico Madrid and Stuttgart, respectively, to shore up the defense. The 23-year-old Hernandez is costing a Bundesliga-record 80 million euros ($90 million) while Pavard is joining from Stuttgart for a reported 35 million ($40 million).

Bayern is also reportedly interested in Germany striker Timo Werner, while Hoeness has hinted at a host of other signings.

After strengthening in the summer, Bayern is likely to be even harder to catch for Dortmund and the rest next season.

“I know the chance was huge this season,” Dortmund captain Marco Reus said.

More AP German soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/Bundesliga and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ciaran Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP