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.

Report: Six Barcelona board members quit, recommend new election

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Barcelona might be atop La Liga, but the behind the scenes atmosphere is ugly.

A day after reports that president Josep Maria Bartomeu asked four board members to leave the club, the quartet and two others have resigned and called for new leadership.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Marca translated the letter signed by Emili Rousaud, Enrique Tombas, Silvio Elias, Josep Pont, Maria Teixidor and Jordi Calsamiglia (Spanish report here). The first four were asked to leave, with Teixidor and Calsamiglia joining them.

That leaves the board at 13 members.

“We ask that once the results of the audit entrusted to PWC are presented, all responsible to be swept away with the eventual corresponding compensation.

“As a last service to our club, we recommend that as soon as circumstances allow it to call new elections to allow to direct the club, with all the ‘authority’ and in the best possible way in the face of the important challenges of the most immediate future.”

It’s been a terrible season for Barca off-the-field, and Bartomeu’s leadership simply must be questioned given the actions of him and some of the people under his watch. Former players and legends have spoken out against the club’s hierarchy, including Pep Guardiola.

The ouster of Ernesto Valverde was handled without much class, and director Eric Abidal threw the players under the bus for the managerial change. The club has also dealt with “Barcagate,” in which a contracted social media company was fired for posting Tweets against Barca’s players.

Both drew the ire of Lionel Messi, who can exercise a clause to leave the club this summer (though that seems unlikely). Messi also admitted he “sees weird things happening” after Bartomeu spoke to the players after “Barcagate.”

Messi also refuted Thursday rumors of a move to Inter Milan in a since-deleted IG post.

Bartomeu has been Barca’s president since January 2014, and the club has won the 2014/15 Champions League and four of five La Liga crowns during his full seasons in charge. There have, however, been a lot of misses in the transfer market.

It might get uglier before it gets better, but there isn’t too much room for worse.

Premier League March Madness: Handicapping the Final

Premier League March Madness
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There was a thriller when Wolves and Everton met at Goodison Park on Sept. 1, and we’re hoping for the online poll equivalent when our Premier League March Madness concludes on Friday.

Wolves already gave us one on Thursday, blowing a lead they held for most of the day to see a 50-50-to-the-vote deadlock before a sizeable win in extra time (30 minutes of added voting).

Everton had an interesting win of its own, destroying Merseyside Derby rivals Liverpool with more than 80 percent of the vote.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ] 

Before we go any further, if you’re unfamiliar: To make sure you’re not missing out on either March Madness or the business end of the PL season, we’ve gone ahead and merged the two competitions. The March Madness Final Four and Championship game were due to take place this weekend in Atlanta but now you will be voting on Tottenham v. Arsenal instead of Duke v. Kansas.

Teams are seeded from 1-16 based on their current spot in the table, with Aston Villa winning the relegation playoffs on Monday to remain in the Premier League.

Road to the Final

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final – Aston Villa prevailed, Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford relegated
TuesdaySweet 16 results
WednesdayElite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

The Toffees are the favorites here, having knocked off Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool.

But this will be the first time in the tournament where Everton won’t have the benefit of a club many other teams hate as the opposition.

Wolves’ extra time win over Sheffield United was a first real scare of the tournament, and the Molineux set will hope its extra time performance was a showing of what it will do when faced with elimination.

It’s difficult to choose against Everton here, even if the Anfield faithful will move to the side of the Wolves. We’ll call it 54-46 to the blue side of Liverpool.

RESULTS: Premier League March Madness Final Four

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Everton has its first Merseyside Derby since 2010 thanks to the voters of ProSoccerTalk.

The Toffees’ 21-match run without a win over Liverpool “ended” Thursday in Premier League March Madness, the fusion of two of our favorite sporting competitions.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

We hinted at this win on Wednesday given the exits of all the Premier League giants besides Liverpool, as supporters of Manchester United, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, and Chelsea might leap at the chance to take the Reds off any throne.

But to say we saw this margin? The Toffees didn’t just beat their rivals; Carlo Ancelotti’s men stomped the Reds into online oblivion.

So who will Everton meet in the final after knocking off Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool?

The winner of Sheffield United and Wolves came in nail-biting fashion, the two sides nearly as evenly-matched as their 1-1 draw at the Molineux on Dec 1.

Wolves led for much of the day but saw their lead slip to 50.4-49.6 with minutes left in voting.

At 6:30 p.m. ET, it was dead-even. 50-50.

So we extended voting to extra time, and Nuno Espirito Santo must’ve deployed a ridiculous substitute because Wolves ran away with the thing to the tune of 59.6-40.4. #Swing.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ]

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final – Aston Villa prevailed, Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford relegated
TuesdaySweet 16 results
WednesdayElite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

Much-chased Havertz reportedly prefers Bayern move

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The latest transfer gossip regarding rumor mill regular Kai Havertz pours a lot of cold water on the hopes of several Premier League giants.

Havertz, 20, has been linked with Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City this season with his odds of leaving Bayer Leverkusen at an all-time high. He’s also been connected to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham to cover most of the Top Six bases.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

But Sky Sports says the German playmaker is keen to stay in his home country and make a move to Bayern Munich, who has been linked with Havertz, Leroy Sane, and Timo Werner in a bid to revolutionize its UEFA Champions League credentials.

Havertz has 10 goals and eight assists in 34 matches this season after exploding for 20 and seven in 42 last year. He doesn’t turn 21 until June.

The youngster provides little defensively but averages 2.3 key passes and 2.3 dribbles per match in Bundesliga play while passing at a tidy 87 percent despite living in the danger areas.

Whoever gets Havertz has a gem on its hands, but perhaps the Premier League will amp up their interest and recruiting efforts after these reports (if they haven’t already).