MLS Season Preview: Portland Timbers

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Odd to say about a team with a “genius” coach, the fewest losses in MLS and the best goal differential, but it’s hard to get a confident read on the Portland Timbers. Caleb Porter clearly knows how to coach up a team, and the Timbers cleaned up at the MLS Awards, but who were they really in 2013? And who might they be this year?

The reason to put it that way is the Timbers tied a remarkable 15 matches last season. That’s nearly twice as many as any playoff team and four more than the club with the second-most ties (FC Dallas).

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In a Western Conference where their first place point total was just six points higher than the San Jose club that missed the playoffs, Portland may have very well been the best team in the entire league… or just another squad. Their 15 ties are the highest in two entire seasons of MLS play, so were they a goal away from the Supporters Shield or a couple goals away from missing the playoffs entirely?

Likely the former (See: the playoffs), but something to keep an eye on before we go all gushy on a team loaded up for 2014. Darlington Nagbe, Will Johnson and company will have their say yet again this year, but how loud will they roar?

Transfers In: Gaston Fernandez (transfer from Estudiantes de La Plata), Norberto Paparatto (transfer from Tigre), Steve Zakuani (Re-Entry draft), Jorge Villafana (trade from Chivas USA), Andrew Weber (free), Schillo Tshuma (MLS SuperDraft), Taylor Peay (MLS SuperDraft)

Transfers Out: David Horst (option declined), Ryan Johnson (out of contract), Andrew Jean-Baptiste (traded to Chivas), Sal Zizzo (trade to Sporting KC), Milos Kocic (retired), Mikael Silvestre (contract terminated), Brad Ring (out of contract), Jose Valencia (loaned to Club Olimpo)

Key Player: Diego Valeri

How will the reigning MLS Newcomer of the Year improve on a 11-goal season (10 regular season, 1 playoff)? That’s the big question, and I’d expect to see Valeri be even more a playmaker than a finisher this season. Yes, it’s nice to see Nagbe move in tight spaces and the Akron family reunion (Zakuani, Zemansky, Porter) will likely pay dividends, but Valeri slots in just above Will Johnson in position and importance as to whether the numbers go the way of PDX.

source: AP
Caleb Porter (right), with Timbers owner/president Merritt Paulson (Photo: AP.)

Manager: Caleb Porter

He’s got all the tools you’d like in a manager, plus the brash attitude to reshuffle his deck at will. Remember the incredible flipped roster of last season? Well, Porter’s brought in a big center back in Paparatto and slick Fernandez from Argentina. He continues to make the right moves in the Pacific Northwest.

Outlook:

I’ll admit to having my concerns about the Timbers repeating their success, but the numbers say that Porter and Portland should challenge for the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. In fact, if Porter is who many think he is, this could be the season where he starts getting whispers for jobs even “bigger” than the one supported by the wonderful world of Timbers Army.

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

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Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

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Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

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West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.