Early goals, toothless Crew SC send Timbers to MLS Cup coronation

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From being inches — literally, on not one, but two posts, on the same kick of the ball — away from elimination in the first round of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs more than a month ago, to lifting the Philip F. Anschutz trophy at midfield of MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, the 2015 postseason was one Portland Timbers fans won’t soon remember forget.

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Sunday’s triumph over Columbus Crew SC in the 2015 MLS Cup final was yet another example of a crazy, unpredictable title-decider, in that it went completely against everything we thought we could forecast for this game. That tends to happen, though, when less than 30 seconds are on the clock and one team has already scored, doesn’t it?

Timbers quickest out of the blocks

Which is where we’ll begin our anlysis tonight. Portland weren’t just quickest out of the starting blocks on Sunday; they were the quickest team on the scoreboard in MLS Cup’s 20-year history. Diego Valeri’s goal 27 seconds into Sunday’s final was a sucker-punch to the proverbial jaw of Crew SC. Such a confident team all season, free-flowing and wide open with the belief that a goal was always just around the corner, Crew SC were shell-shocked and never really recovered from the early blow. They conceded the eventual winner six minutes later.

Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter:

“I think you could see a little bit of nerves. Steve [Clark] gets hundreds of balls, thousands of balls played to him during the course of the season and he rarely makes a mistake like that and you have to live with it. We support him and mistakes are part of the game. The start wasn’t good, the start was certainly not good. What I am pleased about is that we didn’t give up.

In fairness to Portland, the early goal won’t have changed all that much about Crew SC’s gameplan — they wanted to play quickly and aggressively beforehand, so nothing debilitating there — but it did allow the Timbers to defend with numbers, rather than to engage the Black and Gold in a counter-attacking track meet.

[ FULL RECAP: Timbers top Crew SC to take home first MLS Cup ]

They helped Diego Chara — a whole lot

My biggest worry for Portland ahead of the game was that Chara would be but a lone man constantly contending with a quartet of dangerous attackers, and would eventually succumb through no real fault of his own. As a knock-on effect of the early goal, those defensive numbers aided Chara more than anyone else in Green and Gold. Darlington Nagbe (and Valeri, to a degree) sagged deeper and deeper into midfield and forced Federico Higuain into a dismal performance when his side needed him at his most sublime.

Rodney Wallace and Lucas Melano provided serious cover for the full backs, Jorge Villafana, who was absolutely immense, and Alvas Powell. In the end, it was a full-team defensive effort from Portland, when the threat of them being stretched wide and made to chase the game seemed so real prior to kickoff. Crew SC, a side that led MLS in shots on target during the regular season (5.3 per game) managed just one in the biggest game of the season. Set pieces, of which there were alarmingly few for Crew SC, also failed them on Sunday when they had been such a weapon all season long.

[ MORE: PST staff predicts MLS Cup 2015 — how’d we do? ]

Timbers’ defensive shape picture-perfect

My other gigantic worry for Portland was that center backs Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell, neither of whom are particularly quick or athletic, would be torched when dragged out into open space to defend wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, both of whom were exceptionally poor by their standards and subbed off in the second half. The entire “why” for that duo, which combined for 18 goals and 18 assists during the regular season, being so poor was the defensive shape of the Timbers’ backline.

Villafana and Powell rarely ventured forward — thanks again, early goals! — and put in their best defensive shifts of the season. That meant Borchers and Ridgewell, 34 and 31 respectively, weren’t rushing out into space to emergency-defend against Finlay and Meram. Those two largely nullified, Kei Kamara, who scored 22 times during the regular season and three more times in the playoffs before Sunday, and he was feeding on scraps. Kamara managed just one shot all night — his goal — on 31 total touches over 90 minutes.

Leicester City’s Rodgers: ‘Good news’ on Vardy injury

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Brendan Rodgers says there’s good news when it comes to the injury suffered by Jamie Vardy in Leicester City’s 4-1 blowout of West Ham United on Wednesday.

Vardy hurt his glute in the win, temporarily returning to the match after treatment from the trainer but ultimately subbing off before halftime.

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“It wasn’t his hamstring, so that’s good news for us,” Rodgers said, via The Leicester Mercury.

“He just felt a twinge in his glute, so we just have to wait and see on that in the next day or so. Thankfully his hamstring is okay and he just felt some pain in his glute, so we will have to assess that over the next few days.”

Vardy has a Premier League-best 17 goals, one more than Man City’s Sergio Aguero.

He was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho, who assisted one of Ayoze Perez’s two goals on the day. Perez’s seven goals are second on Leicester, while James Maddison‘s six are third.

Iheanacho has six goals and three assists in 485 minutes and there’s reason to believe he can feast off Leicester’s playmaking if Vardy needs a match or two to heal.

Whether he can fill Vardy’s shoes in the long-term is a big question, especially as Leicester aims to return for the Champions League.

Transfer rumor roundup: Willian Jose to Spurs, Bournemouth after Croatian CB

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London could get itself another Willian.

Willian Jose, 28, was left out of Real Sociedad’s squad at his request on Wednesday, with the club Tweeting that he’d prefer not to play until his situation is resolved.

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Jose Mourinho said he would not comment on another team’s players, but Willian Jose could help Spurs bridge the gap to Harry Kane‘s return.

Willian Jose has been a double-digit scorer for Real Sociedad in La Liga for the previous three seasons, and is well on his way to another 10-goal campaign. He’s got eight goals in 20 matches this season.

Bournemouth needs defensive help, and is reportedly rivaling Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers for Portuguese giant Toni Borevkovic.

The 22-year-old Croatian has one goal in just over 3000 minutes with the side since arriving from domestic side NK Rudes.

He’s averaging 1.3 interceptions, .9 tackles, and 3.3 clearances per game in league play.

Rio Ave sits seventh in Portugal’s top flight and is managed by former Premier League boss Carlos Carvalhal.

Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

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In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Mourinho: Spurs don’t have attacking depth, but do have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

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Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.