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

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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]

Castillo, Jackson score 2nd-half goals, Rapids tie Galaxy

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CARSON, Calif. (AP) Edgar Castillo and Niki Jackson scored eight minutes apart in the second half, and the Colorado Rapids tied the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-2 on Tuesday night.

Castillo tied it at 1 for Colorado (6-12-6) in the 74th minute after sending a loose ball in from distance. Jackson knotted it at 2 in the 82th with a deflected shot over the head of David Bingham.

Ashley Cole scored his first goal of the season for Los Angeles (10-8-7). He got a friendly bounce at the edge of the area, split two defenders to get to the corner of the 6-yard box and sent it past Tim Howard in the 59th minute. Sebastian Lletget scored in his second straight game to give Los Angeles a 2-1 lead in the 78th by bending a shot around Howard.

It was the second meeting in the last 10 days, with Colorado winning 2-1 at home.

Serie A 2018-19: Empoli, Parma, Frosinone make return

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MILAN (AP) The Italian league begins this weekend with Parma returning to the top flight only three years after being declared bankrupt.

Empoli and Frosinone are also back in Serie A.

The three promoted clubs replace Crotone, Hellas Verona and Benevento, which were relegated last season.

Spal was the only promoted team not to go back down last season.

[ MORE: Ramos takes shots at Klopp ]

Here’s a look at the new teams in Italy’s top division:

EMPOLI

Empoli, which is in the city of Florence, bounced back up to Serie A after only one season in the second division.

The Tuscan team won Serie B with four matches remaining and went on to finish 13 points ahead of second-place Parma.

Much of the credit goes to former Roma coach Aurelio Andreazzoli, who replaced Vincenzo Vivarini in December, with the team in fourth place.

It was Andreazzoli’s first managerial role since 2013 but, under the 64-year-old coach, Empoli went on a remarkable 23-match unbeaten run to the end of the season.

When it was last in Serie A, Empoli spent three seasons in the top flight before being relegated on the final day of the 2016-17 campaign after it failed to beat Palermo.

Andreazzoli has made astute signings, bringing in defenders Luca Antonelli and Matias Silvestre as well as young forward Antonino La Gumina.

Francesco Caputo was the top scorer in Serie B last season with 27 goals, six more than teammate Alfredo Donnarumma, who has since moved to Brescia.

The 31-year-old Caputo has scored only one Serie A goal, for Bari in the 2010-11 season.

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings ]

PARMA

Parma earned promotion to Serie A only three years after being declared bankrupt, becoming the first Italian club to earn three straight promotions.

Parma beat Spezia on the final day to finish second in Serie B after Frosinone conceded a late goal to draw 2-2 at home against Foggia. They finished level on points but Parma clinched second because of its head-to-head record.

Parma also became embroiled in an attempted match-fixing case after it was revealed forward Emanuele Calaio had sent text messages to Spezia defender Filippo De Col, encouraging him and another former teammate to not try too hard in the game.

Calaio insisted he was joking but Parma risked being demoted back to Serie B. It was deducted five points from the upcoming season but that was reduced to a fine on appeal.

Calaio, who was originally banned for two years, is suspended until Dec. 31.

Parma has signed a number of players, including Portugal defender Bruno Alves and Inter Milan trio Jonathan Biabiany, Federico Dimarco and Alessandro Bastoni.

It could also sign Antonio Cassano, who is looking to make a comeback after two years out of the game.

[ MORE: VAR at World Cup changed our brains ]

FROSINONE

Frosinone recovered from missing out on automatic promotion to win the playoffs and earn a second season back in Serie A.

Frosinone, which is south of Rome, advanced with a controversial 3-2 aggregate victory over Palermo. It had lost the first leg but won the return match 2-0, although players were accused of intimidating the referee, while substitutes threw balls onto the field to delay play.

Palermo complained but the Italian soccer federation ruled that the promotion was not going to be overturned. However, Frosinone will have to play its first two home games on neutral ground.

Frosinone opened its Benito Stirpe Stadium last season, more than 40 years after construction began, including 30 years of inactivity.

In its only previous campaign in Serie A, Frosinone finished 19th out of 20 clubs in 2016.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

VAR at the World Cup cemented its place in our soccer brains

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Feel how you will about Video Assistant Referee, but this summer’s World Cup changed how we feel when we watch club soccer.

That’s not a slight or a compliment to the tournament, which was in fact quite amazing, but rather a deep dive into that word: Feel.

V-A-R, you guys.

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings ]

While review wasn’t perfect at the World Cup in Russia — cough, Aleksandar Mitrovic versus Switzerland, cough — it cut down on red cards and was a part of the most exciting tournament in some time (perhaps ever).

And on opening weekend in the Premier League it was hard to not find yourself, for better or worse, thinking that the lack of video review played a role in some clubs earning and losing valuable points (They’re worth the same in August as they are in April, you know?).

Consider:

— Saints forward Danny Ings nearly earned a winning debut on his homecoming, only for the should-be penalty call to not arrive at St. Mary’s.

Mamadou Sakho takes down Fulham’s Andre Schurrle in the box, no PK, with Crystal Palace leading 1-0 en route to a 2-0 win over the Cottagers.

Moussa Sissoko stepping on the leg of Kenedy before halftime of Spurs’ 2-1 win at Newcastle (in front of referee Martin Atkinson for what it’s worth).

This wasn’t an unusual weekend for controversial plays at all, and certainly soccer has survived and thrived for years with plenty of human error.

But after a World Cup with an unusually low number of red cards — presumably because players knew there was an eye in the sky — and high amount of correctly awarded penalties, it’s going to take some time to get used to human error again.

That’s fine. Again, we’ve done it this way for years and can continue to do so for a long, long time. But it’s going to be interesting to see if we ever feel like the genie is back in the bottle.

Sarri relaxing rules around Chelsea to court players

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Several reports out of Arsenal have the Gunners getting accustomed to big changes in coaching style from longtime boss Arsene Wenger to new manager Unai Emery.

Wenger was viewed as a players-first, freedom-giving manager and Emery is a major step up in intensity and rigidity.

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings ]

Chelsea, it seems, is flipping that script. Whereas Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte were very strict, Maurizio Sarri is trying to bring the positive vibes to Stamford Bridge.

For one thing, he’s changed the unpopular rule of players staying in a hotel the night before home matches.

And then there’s the food. From The Telegraph:

Sarri has also permitted a wider choice of food in the training ground canteen and also in hotels when they are away from home to try to create a better atmosphere than that which existed in the previous ten months. Conte was very strict on nutrition, with relatively little choice for the players, and while Sarri also feels that there are gains in that area for any coach, his priority is to get the squad in the right frame of mind.

It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam, and it’s another thing to see it all through, but clearly giving players a bit of what they want isn’t a bad thing. And considering this group has already quit on a boss or two, perhaps it’s an especially good idea.