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.

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.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

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.

[ MORE: Kompany finds new/old club ]

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