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]

Bundesliga: Thorgan Hazard goes off as Gladbach jumps to second

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While Eden Hazard has torn it up in the Premier League, his brother is quietly leading Borussia Monchengladbach to a stellar season.

Thorgan Hazard scored a goal and assisted two others as Gladbach clobbered Mainz 4-0, jumping to second in the Bundesliga table. Jonas Hofmann had the hat-trick, putting Gladbach in the lead 21 minutes in, but Hazard made things happen. He threaded the pass to Hofmann through the three-man defensive line for the game’s opener.

Hofmann put them 2-0 up on another Hazard assist minutes after halftime, and then he bagged his own on a pinpoint cross from Nico Elvedi that left Hazard all alone to roof it past a helpless Florian Müller. Hofmann pulled in his hat-trick by the 63rd minute to seal the game.

Thorgan Hazard has now been directly involved in 11 goals in nine games for Gladbach this season, the same amount as his brother Eden has for Chelsea so far.

Elsewhere, Hertha Berlin and Freiburg drew 1-1 on a pair of first-half goals. Ondrej Duda scored for Hertha just seven minutes into the match thanks to an absolutely delicious feed from Per Skjelbred on a through ball from just past the halfway line. That was it for Hertha though, as they struggled to create more good chances. Freiburg knotted it up just past the half-hour mark, as Robin Koch delivered a howitzer into the top corner, a truly fantastic goal.

Hertha failed to truly take advantage of the crowded top of the table, but the point pushed them up to sixth in the table, level on 15 points with RB Leipzig. Freiburg, meanwhile, moved to nine points, just three above the relegation zone.

Report: Lopetegui out at Real Madrid after historic slide

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Julen Lopetegui may not be entirely at fault for the historic skid Real Madrid has found itself in the midst of, but if reports are accurate, he will be taking the fall for it.

According to Sky Sports, Lopetegui is out at Real Madrid, and the change at the helm is imminent. Whether Lopetegui is the main culprit or not, the optics of the last few weeks have been far from pretty.

Madrid has gone five matches without a win across all competitions, four of those losses. They suffered through a club-record 481-minute scoreless streak, which ended on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to Levante.

Earlier in the day, Spanish outlet Marca reported that Lopetegui is on thin ice, saying that he will be fired soon, “if it is not today, it will be tomorrow, or in the next week, or after El Clasico.”

Lopetegui maintained his safe mindset after the Levante loss, telling reporters, “Right now that is the last thing that I’m thinking about. I feel more encouraged than ever to continue because the team gave their heart and soul on the pitch. Sooner or later we will come out of this. The dressing room was sad but the players are keen to lift themselves up and look to the next game. The players gave everything and we will get out of this situation.”

However, there was a Lopetegui quote following the loss to Levante that may reveal a little more about his current mindset. Lopetegui said, “Football will give back everything it has taken from us,” or, in other words, Lopetegui believes that Real Madrid’s performance will advance back to the mean. He clearly believes what is happening at Real Madrid does not need fixing, and if he continues to plow forward eventually things will correct themselves. While that may or may not be true, the points Madrid has lost in the La Liga table, and the positioning it has lost in Champions League play, cannot be recovered. There is serious ground to be made up in league play now with Barcelona four points ahead of Madrid, plus three other teams between the two sides in the standings.

While it was always going to take time to adjust for the loss of star player Cristiano Ronaldo, that alone is not the reason why Madrid has failed to put the ball in the back of the net. There is some bad luck involved as Lopetegui mentioned, considering they put up 3.26 expected goals and hit the woodwork three times in the loss to Levante, but they also had less than stellar performances against Alaves and Atletico Madrid, and they were soundly beaten by Sevilla.

It’s been a rough few months for Lopetegui. His acceptance of the Madrid position this summer resulted in a messy and embarrassing split from the Spanish national team less than 48 hours before the start of the World Cup. He lost his opening match in charge, falling to Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup in extra time, and while the club won four of its first five league matches, the dry spell eventually struck, and here we are.

It’s no surprise that Florentino Perez, the firecracker in charge of Los Blancos, has made a move in the midst of the struggles. No matter where the blame ultimately lies, the manager is always going to be the first to take the fall, and that appears to have taken place at Madrid.

VIDEO: Goal kings Rooney, Shearer sit down for special interview

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No player in Premier League history has scored more goals than Alan Shearer (260); the only player to score more goals than Wayne Rooney (208) is Shearer.

[ MORE: What did we learn in the Premier League, Week 9? ]

Suffice to say, it was a very special occasion when the two England legends — Rooney’s 53 international goals make him the Three Lions’ all-time leader, while Shearer’s 30 place his sixth — got together for a sit-down interview about Rooney’s whirlwind year of 2018.

From his largely failed return to Everton, to leaving the PL and England behind for D.C. United and MLS, followed by the raging success he’s enjoyed with the Black and Red thus far, Rooney and Shearer had plenty to catch up on.

ATLUTD aim to capture Shield without two key players

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Second-year Atlanta United is closing in on its first trophy but will likely continue the chase for the Supporters’ Shield without two key players when they host the Chicago Fire on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Midfielder Miguel Almiron sustained a hamstring injury in the first half against New England on Oct. 6 and midfielder/forward Hector Villalba suffered an unknown injury with the Paraguayan national team last week. Neither trained with the team Thursday.

Atlanta (20-6-6, 66 points) leads its Eastern Division rival, the New York Red Bulls, by a point for the Supporters’ Shield, emblematic of the best team in Major League Soccer, with two matches left for both.

Chicago (8-17-7, 31 points) has been a disappointment but is 2-2-2 in the past six matches after an eight-game losing streak.

“The last four games we committed to a plan of giving the best possible image for the club and ourselves so we can finish strong with performances that we would like to start the next season with,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said.

Any combination of six points won by United or lost by the Red Bulls will clinch the best record for Atlanta as well as home field throughout the postseason. Atlanta has set the season attendance mark with an average of 51,826 fans per game so far, bettering its mark of 48,000 in the inaugural season of 2017.

Villalba has seven goals and nine assists, but the engine in the attack is Almiron.

He is tied for 11th in MLS with 12 goals and his 14 assists are tied for fourth. Many of his setups have been to Josef Martinez, who has 30 goals to set the league season record. Almiron’s replacement could be 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco.

“You can’t just replace Miguel with one guy — it’s too big of shoes to fill,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “The important thing is that (Barco) doesn’t have that pressure that he has to do what Miguel does.”

Atlanta coach Tata Martinez said his team learned how to play without Almiron last season when he was injured.

“We know that if Miguel is out, the guys around him are going to have to step up,” Martinez said. “Maybe they aren’t as talented as he is, but they will have to do it with a lot of hard work and sacrifice.”