What We Learned from Real Salt Lake’s dismantling of the Portland Timbers

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In the wake of Real Salt Lake’s 4-2, opening leg win over Portland, here’s What We Learned after leg one of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final:

  • Javier Morales is no Clint Dempsey

Where Portland did a reasonable job of containing Seattle’s focal point in the conference semifinals, they completely failed to restrain Javier Morales – a player who has mastered the tip of a diamond midfield in Major League Soccer. The Argentine attacker played a part in three of his team’s goals, finishing the night with one score and two helpers. As much as any performance since his 2011 ankle injury, this was classic Javier Morales, creating seven scoring chances while leading his team in passes (49).

So why was he so successful where Dempsey wasn’t? It didn’t appear as if Portland gave him less attention than they showed Dempsey. Of course, whereas Seattle’d been playing their diamond for about a month, Real Salt Lake’s been doing so for years, leaving them far more familiar with how to deal with the Timbers’ pressure. Sometimes that resulted in Morales dropping deep to spur connections around Portland’s pressing. Other times that meant running into space behind the midfield, making himself into an outlet for Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, and rest of the RSL players tasked with handling Portland’s pursuit.

Bottom line: Morales was much more effective than Dempsey. For Portland, the difference was huge.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake Man of the Match: Javier Morales]

  • Short passing out of problems

The virtues of Real Salt Lake’s approach paid off on Sunday, their skill on the ball helping them exploit Portland’s pressure. Numerous times we saw play, particularly down RSL’s right, connect two or three short passes in succession, pulling Will Johnson or Diego Chara toward the ball before a teammate was found higher up. Putting theory into practice, RSL used Portland’s pursuit against them.

The team’s first and third goals provide examples. Play down the right side just past the half-hour mark ended with Javier Morales behind Portland left back Michael Harrington, who was helping to apply pressure higher up. Morales won the corner, delivered a perfect ball to Chris Schuler, and saw his team go up one.

On the team’s third goal, Diego Chara missed Rodney Wallace with a pass, and as Portland pursued a quick turnover, the play went from Luis Gil wide to Tony Beltran and in to Javier Morales, who quickly found Robbie Findley making a run deep on the right. This time, however, Findley gets his cross through the box to Devon Sandoval, who gives RSL a two-goal lead.

[MORE: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

  • source: Getty Images
    Real Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley took advantage of Portland’s Futty Danso for his team’s second goal. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    There’s only so much midfielders, goalkeepers can do to  protect defenders

As the Timbers went from mild curiosity to MLS Cup contender, many looked at their star-deprived defense and asked how they produced the second-best goal prevention record in Major League Soccer. Futty Danso was a backup on last year’s team. Pa Modou Kah was an emergency, mid-season signing. How did a team that lost their top two central defenders forge such a great defensive?

Will Johnson, that’s how. And Diego Chara. And Donovan Ricketts. Provide protection in front, cover their mistakes at the back, and a central pairing can look a lot better than they actually are.

But there’s only so much a midfield or goalkeeper can do. In one-on-one assignments on set pieces, defenders have to do better than Danso did on Chris Schuler. And that Kyle Beckerman long ball minutes later? Danso can not make that into a goal scoring chance for Robbie Findley. You don’t get assists on the other team’s goals.

Danso picked a bad time to have his worst night of the season, and while you’d like to give RSL some credit on those first two goals, those scores are on Portland’s central defender. In both cases, those goals are prevented by most MLS central defenders.

  • 2013 postseason = Chris Schuler’s coming out party?

Real Salt Lake conceded twice, but neither can be hung on the 26-year-old defender, who is playing at a national team-caliber level. That seems knee-jerk given Schuler only played 16 games in the regular season, but this is a player whose talent has been evident for some time. It allowed Real Salt Lake to trade Jamison Olave this offseason, and this postseason, it’s allowed Schuler to be MLS’s best defender.

It goes beyond the two goals he’s scored, though those help. Of the three goals RSL’s allowed this postseason, he had a part in none, while his discipline has allowed him to make crucial clearances against Los Angeles (leg one), help contain the league’s best counter (also leg one), and co-anchor a defense that held the Galaxy to two shots on goal in an elimination game. Tonight, Schuler made a game co-leading three interceptions, his effort helping hold Portland to three shots on Nick Rimando.

More succinctly: Schuler is doing everything you want. From his distribution to his positioning, his reads and his execution, he has been one of the postseason’s standouts, giving RSL a central pairing capable of carrying them to a title.

source: Getty Images
Caleb Porter, seen talking to an official Sunday night, saw his team concede four goals for the second time this season. Both times, it was against RSL. (Photo: Getty Images.)
  • Portland still have no plan for Real Salt Lake

After eliminating Seattle, Portland’s players downplayed RSL’s dominance of the teams’ season series. Some didn’t even realize the Timbers haven’t beaten RSL since 2011. The postseason’s different, the general feeling held. Whatever happened before is irrelevant now.

As such, it’s worth noting the similarities between tonight’s game and the 4-2 loss Portland suffered in Utah on Aug. 30. Those are the only times Portland’s given up four goals under Caleb Porter, and each time late consolation prevented the scoreline from being worse. The games were more one-sided than the final scores say.

Even if we don’t know the exact cause, it’s naive to think there isn’t something special about RSL – a characteristic that makes them particularly difficult for Portland to conquer. Of the seven losses the Timbers have suffered this season, three have been to Jason Kreis’s team, who’ve failed to lose to Portland in five 2013 meetings (counting Open Cup).

My theory: A stylistic like-for-like leaves the side with years’ experience in their system at a huge advantage over a team that’s played together for eight months. RSL’s players know Portland’s tendencies because the teams are of the same mind. They know where the Timbers can be exploited, and they have the experience to execute.

How does Caleb Porter beat that? He can’t fast forward his team’s progress. He can’t jump to the point where his team is as familiar with this approach as Real Salt Lake.

For all the talk of Plan As and Plan Bs, there may be no plan for RSL. Porter may need a master stroke.

Mexicans Abroad: Rodolfo Pizarro’s goalscoring start headlines handful of debuts

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A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.

The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.

Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.

Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid —  Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.

Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.

Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.

La Liga roundup: Celta spoil Hazard’s return in Real Madrid draw

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Real Madrid’s draw against relegation-battling Celta Vigo highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Madrid 2-2 Celta Vigo 

Celta’s Santi Mina scored in 85th minute to give a depleted Celta Vigo a precious point at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoiling Eden Hazard‘s return to Real Madrid’s lineup after a notable absence.

Madrid’s eighth draw of the season moves champions Barcelona just one point behind Zinedine Zidane’s side.

Returning from ankle injury that kept his out of action for three months, Hazard returned to the pitch in fine style, leading all players on the field in chances created with three and earning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Real Madrid ahead.

Hazard – and all of his flair – left the field in the 70th minute, granting Vinicius Junior the final 20 minutes of the match.

Ramos’ sixth goal of the season builded on Toni Kroos’ left-footed strike early in the latter half of the match. Real Madrid, more or less, were cruising against Celta, who had a goal to their name following Fyodor Smolov’s early opener.

Celta, who had arrived in Madrid in 18th place and had lost their last seven at the host’s home, were destined to do the unthinkable. Denis Suarez and Mina – both utilized as substitutes – paired up for the equalizer with five minutes to go, spoiling Hazard’s return.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-2 Espanyol

Leganes 0-0 Real Betis 

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Osasuna

Teammates appear to stop Marega leaving after racist slurs

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LIBSON, Portugal — FC Porto striker Moussa Marega, who tried to walk off the field after being the target of racist slurs from fans, faced apparent attempts Sunday by his own teammates and opposition players to prevent him from leaving.

Marega, who is black and from Mali, was visibly angered by monkey noises targeting him after he scored Porto’s second goal in a 2-1 win at Guimarães in the Portuguese football league.

But when Marega started to walk off the field, several players from both Porto and Guimarães appeared to argue with him. Porto coach Sérgio Conceição also went on the field and spoke with Marega.

It took Marega several minutes to leave the field when he was substituted.

Marega held his thumbs down at the crowd as he went into the tunnel to the changing rooms. The crowd responded with loud jeers.

The attitude of the other players has drawn criticism on social media.

“We are indignant with what has happened. Moussa was insulted from warmups (before kickoff),” Conceição said after the match.

“We are a family. One’s nationality, color, or height does not matter. We are human beings. We deserve respect and what happened was despicable.”

Marega received a yellow card following his goal in the 61st minute when he appeared to respond to the slurs by pointing at his skin and by picking up a seat that had been thrown on the pitch.

Timothy Weah returns to action with Lille after lengthy| absence

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Timothy Weah was back in action in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille on Sunday after a 183-day absence.

The American attacker played the final 10 minutes of the defeat after being inactive since Lille’s second match of the season back in August 17 in which he suffered a “very bad hamstring tear“.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Weah arrived at Lille in June on a $12 million deal from Paris Saint-Germain, placing high expectations on the 19-year-old son of Ballon d’OR winner George Weah.

Since, however, the U.S. men’s national team player has had little activity with the French side, accumulating less than 100 minutes over a three-game stretch.

Lille manager Christophe Galtier will likely ease Weah’s way into the a starting role moving forward – which is largely contingent on his performances at practice and in official play.

Lille, who’ve accumulated 40 points in 25 matches, are currently fourth in Ligue 1.