MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers, with the Western Conference title on the line

2 Comments

PORTLAND, Ore. — Given two weeks, your mind can figure out how to screw things up. It’s funny like that. No matter how much how positive you think you are, how focused you think you can be, the bad stuff has a way of getting in. Strong minds have ways of dealing with that, but most of us can’t help dwelling. We’re always aware of the worst-case scenarios.

For the Portland Timbers, those worst-case scenarios are no longer just mental. Down by three goals at one point in the first leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final in Sandy, Utah, the playoff neophytes had to starefailure in the face. That they responded with a late goal from Frederic Piquionne salvaged their chances of making their first final (making it 4-2 just before the referee blew for full-time), but chasing two goals ahead of Sunday’s kickoff, Portland’s already had to deal with disappointment.

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

Real Salt Lake, however, could have carried leg one’s energy into JELD-WEN Field, but instead of three or six days between games, the international break happened. With 14 days between legs, their momentum has cooled. Over a shorter period of time, they could have willed themselves to stay focused, concentrated on their short preparation period, and fed off of the positive between Utah and Oregon. Staying in their normal routine, it would have been easy to put blinders on. Instead, the 2009 champions had to ramp down, occupy all that time, and try to avoid thinking about all the ways Portland could crawl back into this match.

In that sense, there’s nothing good that can come out of this break for Real Salt Lake. All these 14 days have done is Caleb Porter a chance to figure out what went wrong in leg one. While Jason Kreis is trying to maintain his team’s focus, Porter can spend two weeks building his squad’s confidence. By Sunday’s kickoff, Portland will have walked through every scenario where they can get back into this contest.

[MORE: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s match]

What if Portland scores early on Sunday, a goal that would change the whole dynamic of the tie? And I’m not just talking about something freaky that happens shortly after kickoff. What if Portland scores in the 44th minute? Only down one with 45 minutes left at home, the second half looks completely different.

source: Getty Images
Javier Morales put in a Man of the Match performance in leg one, recording a goal and two assists in Real Salt Lake’s 4-2 victory over Portland. (Photo: Getty Images.)

If that happens, the Timbers don’t have to open up too soon. They don’t have to take undue chances against an attack that put 13 goals on them in five games. Portland can stay with their regular approach, one that will limit the exposure of their center backs and use their pressing high through the midfield to limit RSL’s access to playmaker Javier Morales. Whether you’re protecting or chasing a lead, it’s the type of modest scenario that starts to look very realistic when you’re given 14 days to dwell.

Still, how much that matters in the face of what we know about these teams is debatable. Between the regular season, U.S. Open Cup, and leg one in Sandy, these teams have met five times in 2013. Portland has not only failed to win, they’ve only led for 40 minutes – less than nine percent of the time. They’ve never led by two. Against a team they haven’t beaten since April 2011 (the first time the franchises ever met), Portland not only needs to win. They need to win by three. A two-goal margin only gets them to penalty kicks.

[MORE: Notes on Portland ahead of the West’s decider.]

Real Salt Lake’s leading scorer, Álvaro Saborío, will be out, but he didn’t play in leg one, either. The Costa Rican international also failed to get on the board in the team’s last meeting in Portland, a 0-0, October draw that Jason Kreis called the type of game his team would need to play in the postseason. If they pull off the same trick on Sunday, they’re back in the finals.

Just as every indication ahead of Portland’s finale with Seattle said the Timbers should win that match, there’s nothing in these teams’ recent history that says Portland’s going to their first MLS Cup final. They have a large, unconvincing body of work against RSL – a collection of evidence that tells us they have no answer for Salt Lake. Two weeks might give RSL time to entertain some doubts, but they’re going to have to do a major psych-out job to offset the advantages they’ve shown throughout the season.

Unless Caleb Porter found a magic bullet during the last two weeks, history’s likely to repeat itself, though in a season that’s seen Portland claim their first playoff appearance, postseason win, and conference final berth, it’s not difficult to imagine a breakthrough win over RSL landing them in their first MLS Cup final.

[MORE: Sporting Kansas City punches ticket for MLS Cup; downs Houston in Eastern Conference final]

PSG signs American defender Alana Cook from Stanford

@PSG_Feminines
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain’s women’s team has signed American defender Alana Cook from Stanford University.

The 21-year-old Cook, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, has signed until June 2022. She was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year this season for her performances with Stanford and has represented the U.S. at Under-20 level.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

She played 93 games and scored five goals for Stanford.

PSG’s women’s team is second in the French first division and sits two points behind five-time European champion Lyon after 15 rounds.

Cook says “I really wanted to play in a European club and to play against the best teams in the world.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MLS notes: Zimmerman spurns Europe, Vazquez sold, DC youngster in remission

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Let’s sweep up some good, somewhat-expected, and wonderful news from around Major League Soccer.

DC United defender and Maryland product Chris Odoi-Atsem announced that he is in remission after a fight with Stage Two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

Odoi-Atsem was expected to undergo four months of chemotherapy, and the announcement comes just under three months into the journey.

At 23, Odoi-Atsem hopes to rejoin the team after his final round of chemo later this month. He was the 12th overall draft pick in 2017.

Another defender is extending his stay in Los Angeles.

USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman was a huge part of LAFC’s success as an expansion club following his arrival from FC Dallas, and was reportedly ready to test the waters of European soccer with interest from the Premier League, Ligue 1, and the Bundesliga.

But Bob Bradley pushed the right buttons and LAFC will have its 25-year-old mainstay back in the fold via a Targeted Allocation Money contract running through the 2022 season.

Finally, one of the key pieces to Toronto FC’s 2017 MLS Cup triumph is on his way out of Ontario.

Victor Vazquez is going to be sold to an unnamed Qatari club, pending a physical according to TSN’s Kristian Jack.

The 32-year-old scored posted 18 goals and 15 primary assists for TFC.

Transfer rumor roundup: Pellegrini to Man Utd? Dabbur wants Liverpool

Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
Leave a comment

As Arsenal might be losing its head of recruitment, other Premier League movers and shakers are looking to bring big names to the Top Four fight.

If Northern Ireland is the hub for transfer movement, January is going to be a wild ride for one of the Premier League’s flagship clubs.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

The Belfast Telegraph is reporting that Manchester United is pursuing young Roma midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini in addition to the whispers linking the club to former Liverpool wizard Philippe Coutinho.

Pellegrini, 22, has two goals and six assists for Roma this season, having become a regular call-up for Italy. He reportedly has a $35 million release clause in his contract, though he is cup-tied in the Champions League (Roma next faces Porto).

His 2.6 key passes per game lead Roma and only AC Milan’s Suso and Atalanta’s Alejandro Gomez average more across Serie A. Pellegrini is second on Roma in crosses with 1.5.

How does $115 million sound for an elite 27-year-old defender? That’s what Napoli would reportedly accept from Real Madrid to bring Kalidou Koulibaly west to Spain.

The report, which also links Real with interest in Roma’s Kostas Manolas and Porto’s Eder Miliato, says United remains interested in the player despite the exit of admirer Jose Mourinho.

Anything more than $97 million, the fee Liverpool paid for Virgil Van Dijk, would break the world transfer record for a defender.

Meanwhile, Israeli striker Munas Dabbur is angling to bring his 20-goal season to Anfield.

Reports that Dabbur has turned down a move to Valencia in the hopes of joining Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino at Liverpool.

The Red Bull Salzburg striker has scored half of his 20 goals in the Champions League and Europa League, and has 11 Israel caps.

The cost for Dabbur is said to be $28 million, but is there any guarantee Dabbur can produce at a level that would demand playing time. Divock Origi has three goals in six matches and can hardly get time for the Reds, and Daniel Sturridge has only found 576 minutes in the first half of the season.

Arsenal to reportedly lose head of recruitment Mislintat

Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The man expected to usher in an era of exciting new young talent at Arsenal may be leaving the club after less than 14 months.

Arsenal head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, 46, has been hailed as the man who discovered Christian Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang while at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

Well-connected reporter Raphael Honigstein says Mislintat is frustrated by a change in recruitment policy since Ivan Gazidis left the Emirates Stadium. Gazidis hired Mislintat to use analytics and stats to find diamonds, whereas new head of football Raul Sanllehi prefers to work his own network for players.

Mislintat is considered the key to bringing in Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, as well as clear connections like former BVB center back Sokratis Papastathopolous.

His departure would be a shot across the bow of an organization which enjoyed stability under Gazidis and Arsene Wenger for years.