Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

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When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

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Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

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Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

China’s women’s team quarantined in Australia over virus fears

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BRISBANE, Australia (AP) China’s national women’s soccer team has been quarantined in Australia ahead of an Olympic qualifying tournament as fears spread about the outbreak of a new virus that has killed more than 130 people.

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Health officials in Queensland state said on Wednesday that 32 people, including players, coaches and staff, traveled through the virus-effected Chinese city of Wuhan a week ago. The team was placed in isolation by border officials after arriving in Brisbane from Shanghai on Tuesday, and will be confined to a Brisbane hotel until Feb. 5.

Queensland Health said the squad was traveling with a team doctor and none has shown symptoms.

The Olympic regional qualifying tournament had been relocated from Wuhan to Nanjing before the Asian Football Confederation moved it to Sydney, Australia, because of concerns over the deadly coronavirus. Now it likely will be delayed.

The tournament had been scheduled to kick off next Monday with a double-header of China against Thailand followed by Australia against Taiwan.

It’s the final stage of regional qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, which begin in July. The top two teams were supposed to advance to a home-and-away playoff for the last spot at the Olympic tournament.

Football Federation Australia on Wednesday placed a hold on ticket sales for the tournament.

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The Chinese team trained in isolation before departing for Australia and players and staff all underwent testing before departure.

“They went through all the same checks that any Chinese national flying in from China would have gone through,” FFA chief executive James Johnson was quoted as saying by Australian Associated Press. “We’re confident in the government’s checks and balances.”

The FFA said it was notified of the latest advice from Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, that health experts believe the coronavirus is contagious before people show symptoms, and contacts of any confirmed cases must be isolated following exposure.

China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further. The outbreak has infected more than 6,000 on the mainland and abroad. British Airways and Asian budget carriers Lion Air and Seoul Air have suspended flights to China and other airlines are reducing the number of flights to the country as demand for travel drops because of the outbreak.

Arsenal sign defender Mari on loan from Flamengo

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Amid an ongoing and injury crisis at center back, Arsenal have signed defender Pablo Mari on loan from Brazilian club Flamengo until the end of the season.

[ MORE: Spurs complete Bergwijn transfer from PSV ]

Th 26-year-old Spaniard spent three seasons on the books at Manchester City, where he never made a first-team appearance and instead was sent out on loan three times, before moving to Flamengo last summer. Flamengo won both the Brazilian league title and the Copa Libertadores during his six months at the club.

Mari’s loan agreement has an option to make the move permanent this summer.

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Arsenal have been without defenders Calum Chambers, Sead Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney, for quite some time due to injuries. Shkodran Mustafi went down with an ankle injury during Monday’s FA Cup victory over Bournemouth and will miss some time as well.

Spurs complete Bergwijn transfer from PSV

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After 18 months without signing a single player, Tottenham Hotspur sure are making up for lost time.

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The club announced on Wednesday that 22-year-old Dutch winger Steven Bergwijn has been signed from PSV Eindhoven, marking Tottenham’s second signing of the January transfer window. Midfielder Gedson Fernandes arrived from Benfica earlier this month.

Bergwijn is a dynamic wide attacking player who put together the best season of his younger career last term (14 goals in 33 league appearances) and followed it up with another solid six months at PSV (5 goals in 16) before Spurs came calling. He arrives a day after Christian Eriksen officially departed Spurs for Inter Milan, and Bergwijn will wear the no. 23 shirt, which stood vacant for less the 24 hours in Eriksen’s wake.

The fee for Bergwijn has been reported at $32 million, making him a relatively low-risk signing in the world of today’s transfers, though his mere presence signals a significant departure from the club’s standard operating practices of the past.

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Do Spurs fans have Jose Mourinho to thank for chairman Daniel Levy’s newfound free-spending ways? Not even Harry Redknapp could convince Spurs’ frugal owner to spend in this manner, let alone the likes of Mauricio Pochettino or an Andre Villas-Boas. While requesting and demanding — and getting — big-money signings has been a common theme of Mourinho’s management career, Spurs didn’t seem like a place he’d simply continue to operate in that way.

Rather than learn a new trick himself, it would appear Mourinho taught Levy one instead.

USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with win over Haiti

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The USWNT was rusty, that much was clear. Vlatko Andonovski still made sure they took care of business.

Four different goalscorers delivered a 4-0 victory over Haiti to begin CONCACAF Olympic qualification, putting the United States in front of Group A early. Lynn Williams picked up a goal and assist, proving useful on an otherwise sputtery evening for Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

Just 78 seconds into the game, Williams charged down the right flank and crossed to Christen Press at the far post for the opening goal. Williams’ assist came without the use of her left shoe which she lost while holding off a defender for the bobbling ball.

Despite the early lead, the United States seemed somewhat sluggish as Haiti built themselves into the match. There were few chances on net after the opening goal through the half-hour mark.

Haiti nearly caught the U.S. napping on a corner as the ball found the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the goal was somehow ruled out. It appeared to be for offside, but since it’s impossible to be offside from a corner, there must have been another reason for the official ruling. Nonetheless, it was a clear sign for the USWNT that they needed to pick up the level of play.

The U.S. continued to struggle after halftime, creating very little in front of net. There was a half-chance for Lloyd near the penalty spot but a quality tackle by Kethna Louis put that to bed. Then finally they put the game to bed on a corner, not coincidentally coming just five minutes after Megan Rapinoe entered the fray. Rapinoe delivered a corner to the doorstep where Williams headed in well under pressure, moving her upper body away from goal against the motion of her lower body to reach the delivery.

Another Andonovski substitute paid dividends however as Lindsey Horan scored, again coming off a corner. They played it short and Horan headed from a significant distance out, the ball squirting past the goalkeeper Kerly Theus and Louis who tried to clear off the line. It was clear that Haiti had begun to tire and the USWNT was taking advantage. Up front, Carli Lloyd had a poor game, unable to get involved in attacking play, but she found the scoresheet in stoppage time, bagging a header off a Rapinoe cross in the 93rd minute to finish out the scoring.

Emily Sonnett replaced Kelley O’Hara with 10 minutes to go for Andonovski’s final change, and the USWNT saw the rest of the match out. They have two matches remaining before the knockout stage, set to take on Panama on Friday before the group stage finale against Costa Rica on February 3. The top two teams in the group reach the knockout phase with the semifinals to begin on February 7.