Johnson, Valeri, Danso goals vault Portland Timbers into MLS’s Western Conference finals

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Vancouver Whitecaps may have won this year’s Cup, but after Thursday night at JELD-WEN Field, the Portland Timbers are the kings of Cascadia – and until two late, desperation goals, it wasn’t particularly close. After carrying a 2-1 lead out of Saturday’s first leg in Seattle, Portland saw goals from Will Johnson, Diego Valeri and Futty Danso give them a 5-1 lead by the 47th minute. Late Seattle goals from DeAndre Yedlin and Eddie Johnson closed the gap, but come full time, Portland had seen their Pacific Northwest rivals out of Major League Soccer’s playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference final with a 3-2 (5-3, aggregate) win.

There the Timbers will face Real Salt Lake, with Jason Kreis’s team eliminating the two-time defending champions Los Angeles Galaxy earlier Thursday evening. Goals from Sebastian Velazquez and Chris Schuler gave RSL a 2-0 win after extra time, setting up a conference final between the Western Conference’s top two seeds.

For Seattle, it is the third year in a row the team has suffered a road collapse in the playoffs. In 2011, the Sounders opened the conference semifinals with a 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake. Last year, the opening leg of their Western Conference final against Los Angeles also ended 3-0. Although this year’s final result looks better on the surface, at one point in the teams’ two-legged match, Seattle was down four goals, a fact that will not be easily forgotten by a fanbase growing wary of postseason disappointment.

source: AP
Left to right, Diego Valeri, Futty Danso, and Will Johnson were Portland’s goal scorers in the Timbers’ 3-2 win over Seattle. (Photo: AP.)

The start was an ominous one for Seattle, who gave up a an open chance to Rodney Wallace to in the third minute. The Costa Rican international, left open after work from Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri collapsed the Sounder defense, put his shot into the side netting.

As the half continued, Portland was consistently able to find attackers running through Seattle’s defense, the Sounders play reminiscent of their 5-1 and 4-1 October losses to Colorado and Vancouver. In the 14th minute, Diego Chara was sent through on goal only to see Jhon Kennedy Hurtado’s last ditch challenge prevent a chance, and in the 19th minute, a poor attempted clearance at the back allowed Wallace another crack from near the penalty spot. An aggressive move off his line allowed Michael Gspurning to block the try.

In the 28th minute, however, Portland broke through. Play off a throw-in deep on Seattle’s left saw Jack Jewsbury draw a penalty on Sounders’ left-center back Djimi Traoré. Running onto a ball laid off by Wallace at the edge of the penalty area, Jewsbury’s attempted chip behind the defense saw Traoré make contact with his left arm, leading to Will Johnson’s opener from the spot.

Fifteen minutes later, Portland broke through the left side of defense again, this time taking advantage of a turnover by Adam Moffat to eventually put Diego Valeri into the six-yard box. His sliding right-footer beat Gspurning into the left side netting, giving Portland a 2-0 (4-1) lead at halftime.

Lethargic coming out of halftime, Seattle gave up a third goal within 90 seconds of kickoff, with their slow reaction to a quick restart allowing Futty Danso to get in front of Traoré on a Wallace cross. The central defender’s header into the left of goal gave Gspurning no chance to prevent Portland going up four.

source: AP
Sigi Schmid saw his team give up three goals in 47 minutes on Thursday, the Sounders down 5-1 on aggregate shortly after halftime. (Photo: AP.)

After bringing Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales off the bench (surprise starter at forward Shalrie Joseph brought off before Adam Moffat), Seattle was able to cash in on their desperate pursuit. In the 74th minute, a long throw from the left by Brad Evans was flicked through the six-yard box to Yedlin, who slammed home Seattle’s first goal. Two minutes later, a cross from Yedlin found Eddie Johnson even was the far post, the U.S. international’s header bringing Seattle within two.

Ultimately, Johnson’s goal was a wake-up call, the Timbers’ intensity picking up after near-30 minutes of playing with a four-goal lead. Brought back into the match by Seattle’s late surge, Portland was able to kill off the game, recording their first playoff series win in franchise history.

The result allows their dream season to continue, the eighth-place finisher in last year’s Western Conference now one series away from an improbable MLS Cup final. It’s a level the rival Sounders have never attained, and a season that started with great expectations concluded with one win in 10, big changes may be in store.

Goals

Portland – 29′ Will Johnson, 44′ Diego Valeri, 47′ Futty Danso

Seattle – 74′ DeAndre Yedlin, 76′ Eddie Johnson

Lineups

Portland: Donovan Ricketts; Jack Jewsbury, Futty Danso, Pa Modou Kah, Michael Harrington; Diego Chara, Will Johnson; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace

Seattle: Michael Gspurning; DeAndre Yedlin, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traoré, Marc Burch; Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Adam Moffat, Clint Dempsey; Shalri Joseph, Eddie Johnson

Overlap Magazine chronicles the MLS rise of Caleb Porter

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Caleb Porter probably doesn’t see himself as defining Portland’s 2013 campaign, though if he does, he certainly won’t sell us. The first-year Timbers boss has preached a narrow-minded focus that’s consistently kept his team’s eyes on the next game. For him to pull back and look at what he’s done for the entire Portland organization would be an act of hypocrisy.

For all the qualities you can ascribe to Porter, inconsistency is not one of them. The confidence he’s radiated from the day of his unveiling has translated onto the pitch. Once there, the Timbers tied a record for fewest losses in a 34-game season (five), playing with a commitment to progressive soccer that’s way that’s helped build Porter’s mounting reputation. Ball on the ground and players in motion, the Timbers quickly made their Army forget their misgivings about John Spencer’s dismissal.

Writing for Overlap Magazine, Ives Galarcep seems to have been there the whole way. From his piece in the magazine’s latest edition:

IT’S HALFTIME OF THE FIRST GAME OF THE SEASON and of Caleb Porter’s professional coaching debut. A barrage of early goals has put the New York Red Bulls ahead, 3–1. The sellout crowd at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field is just a little less loud than usual. As Porter walks down the tunnel and into the locker room, he’s formulating his half-time talk.

“I’m a student of psychology and I knew how important that speech was, and how important it was to send the right message in the first game,” Porter will tell me later. “It isn’t always about just screaming at players. You have to get them to believe and buy into what you want them to do.”

There would be plenty of time for screaming at his players. Today, he’s trying to build their trust.

“I’m not a betting man,” he tells his dispirited team during that talk, “but if I were, I would bet everything on you coming back in this game.”

The Timbers did come back, drawing the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners, 3-3.

Fast forward seven months, and Porter’s celebrating a high point – his first win over Cascadia rivals Seattle:

On a perfect night in October, Porter exits Jeld-Wen field through a door on the east side of the stadium and begins walking. Usually, after a game, he drives straight home. But tonight his Timbers have beaten their arch-rival, the Seattle Sounders, in what will probably stand as the sweetest victory enjoyed by Timbers fans since joining MLS. Porter is going to meet some friends for a celebratory beer near the stadium.

The three-block stroll to Kell’s Irish Pub takes a while. Porter is met by grateful fans who thank him. They’re happy about the win, yes. But they’re grateful for something bigger: Porter has imbued their team with heart, with toughness, and they want to let their coach know how much they appreciate him. Porter lets them know that the feeling is mutual.

“I really want to bring a winner for them,” Porter had told me back in March, referring to Portland’s famously devoted fans. “Every single game, they give everything, so I want to make them happy.”

There’s much more in Galarcep’s piece, one that tracks Porter from MLS player to college coach, from his failure to qualify the U.S. for the 2014 Summer Olympics to a possible Coach of the Year season in Portland.

The piece is available right now at NBCSports.com. You can also subscribe to the magazine through iTunes.

ProSoccerTalk’s MLS playoff picks and predictions

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Major League Soccer’s 18th playoff season begins Wednesday. ProSoccerTalk’s writers have a few thoughts on how they might play out:

Who will come out of the East?

Liviu Bird: The New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have proven that they are actual contenders this year. They have only briefly relinquished first place and deserved to win the Supporters’ Shield.

Kyle Bonn: Sporting KC

With the Red Bulls getting all the attention, Sporting KC quietly won six of their last eight matches, conceding just four goals. For all the goals NY is scoring, KC have it in them to be the team that stops the NY hot streak.

Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

I know New York is the hot pick, but SKC has the better defense and better goalkeeper. Plus, lessons learned over the last two years – when good Sporting KC teams got so close – will pay off now.

source:  Richard Farley: New York Red Bulls

As much as I want to pick Kansas City, I think New York has enough to defend that number one spot.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

Expect Sporting KC and New York to battle it out for the Eastern Conference, but New York gets it done.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

I love to watch Sporting KC play and think a potential matchup against NYRB in the Conference Semifinals will be an absolute blockbuster. But as long as the Red Bull’s play up to their potential, they are the superior team.

Who will come out of the West?

Liviu Bird: Portland Timbers

My pick is based on their strong season from start to finish. The turnaround Caleb Porter has engineered is nothing short of sensational, and they are the most consistent team in the league.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

LA did just enough to get in, and I’ll take experience over youth in crunch time any day of the week.

Steve Davis: L.A. Galaxy

The asterisk here is whether Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez are healthy. If they are, the Galaxy and all that collective playoff knowledge will be hard to beat. Plus, Robbie Keane is the best player in the MLS post-season.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

As hard-to-call as the West looks, I’ll take the proven commodity.

Joe Prince-Wright: Portland

I think the Timbers will get it done. Of course they’ve tailed off a bit, but I think they’ll come up big when it matters.

Mike Prindiville: Real Salt Lake

In a wide open and unpredictable West, those who grind the hardest, prevail.

Where we would PREFER to see MLS Cup (based on “best atmosphere,” or “not LA again,” or whatever):

Liviu Bird: Somewhere in Cascadia

Not just because it’s the shortest trip for me — the atmosphere here is the best in the country, and if you want to advertise MLS to the rest of the world, the Timbers Army is probably the best conduit.

Kyle Bonn: New York

What better way to complete the redemption story than in your own house? New York proved this weekend the stadium and atmosphere have what it takes.

source:  Steve Davis: New York

The Big Apple? As Christmas approaches? I mean, it’s so darned romantic! Plus, the Red Bulls were Supporters Shield winners, so there is a beautiful symmetry to it … in addition to all those pretty lights!

Richard Farley: Seattle

It’s all about the numbers. Also, Seattle’s not a bad place to throw a party.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York

It’s about time the Red Bulls won MLS Cup, and I think a sold out RBA would be a great advert for MLS.

Mike Prindiville: New York

A number of other stadiums are considered better atmospheres but to have Red Bull Arena finally filled to capacity and rocking-out for a final would be a thing of beauty.

Where are the dark horse favorites?

Liviu Bird: Seattle

It’s hard to call them dark horses because of the star power on the team, but Seattle could still make a run at the Cup. The Sounders have proven they can beat teams 5-0, be beaten 5-0, and everything in between. Anything can happen in the MLS playoffs.

Kyle Bonn: Portland

It’s not often first-place teams fall under the “dark horse” category, but with everyone off the bandwagon thanks to their poor(er) form down the stretch, they qualify. First order of business in playoffs: don’t lose. They don’t.

Steve Davis: Real Salt Lake

Alvaro Saborio’s scoring rate (52 goals in 97 MLS matches) is prodigious. Nick Rimando is tops in goal. Kyle Beckerman commands that strong midfield and some of those “kids” are going to be something else.  So remind me again why we aren’t talking about this team a little more?

Richard Farley: Portland

Only five losses all year.

Joe Prince-Wright: Colorado Rapids

On their day they can beat anyone in the league. So many good young players, and having come up against Dillon Powers and Tony Cascio in their college days, I know how good those guys are.

Mike Prindiville: Colorado Rapids

Probably the darkest of all dark horses but with Seattle’s poor form, Portland’s playoff inexperience and a little bit of luck, it could happen.

The 18th MLS Cup champion will be …

Liviu Bird: Portland

It’s Portland, for all the reasons I listed above. One final nugget: on only five occasions in 2013 have the Timbers failed to get at least one point on the road and all three at home — and that’s a formula for playoff success if I’ve ever heard one.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

It’s that experience thing again. So hard to pick against. I know, I know. I hate myself for going here too, but with having put New York out in the semifinals, the Galaxy get it done.

source:  Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

The league’s best road team (8-5-4 away in 2013) won’t mind playing in New York, so they’ll get through to the final … and they’ll host MLS Cup in KC.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

In the absence of a truly convincing alternative, I’m picking three-peat.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

I just don’t think the big boys out West, Seattle, LA, and RSL, are in top form heading into the playoffs and the Red Bulls are flying.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

The time has come. Mike Petke’s passion and dedication is what this squad has been in dire need of for a long time. Most importantly, this is a team that’s peaking at the right time. The stars have aligned in New York.

(MORE: Are there too many playoff teams?)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

(MORE: Top story lines for the MLS playoffs)

(MORE: MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

Portland’s Merritt Paulson talks about real grass, adding terraces to Jeld-Wen Field

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Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is clearly always thinking about two of the elements that could further enhance the Timbers brand: a real grass field and just a little more capacity for a great ground that does fall on the “limited capacity” side.

Trouble is, both are tricky, and for completely different reasons.

Speaking on the Soccer Today radio show / podcast (disclosure, a show I host along with Marc Stein), Paulson told me plans are still being explored of adding a terrace to Jeld-Wen’s North End. That would add to the 22,000-seat capacity (always packed) by several thousand.

Paulson was quite cautious in his phrasing of possibly adding natural grass (rather than the artificial turf), understanding how badly some supporters would love to see this major change. He specifically said that he doesn’t want to mislead folks on this one, but did put the chances of grass at Jeld-Wen within the next few years at “50-50.”

Even considering that Portland’s brand of faux field is the best in MLS, and even understanding that chances of real grass bliss beneath the feet are no better than 50-50, that’s still something to sit up and take notice of.

Artificial lighting could answer some of the concerns; a sunken bowl means Portland would be faced with growth issues that have dogged a few grass fields in MLS and elsewhere in the world.

But he biggest impediment, he said, are the Portland State University football games, which take place right around the same time natural grass stops growing (in the fall, of course). Paulson pointed out that his artificial turf field plays more true than some MLS grass fields once fall arrives and big American football players, plus the seasonal growth cycles, begin exacting a toll.

“Something will have to change” he said before the Portland Timbers could consider the other issue of a grass field: the shared arrangement with PSU.

Paulson had plenty to say in the wide-ranging interview, including thoughts on MLS expansion, on scheduling – and a guarded look back at the Clint Dempsey situation.

The changing identity of … Major League Soccer

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In time, Saturday night will be seen as a watershed moment in Major League Soccer, the first time the 17-year-old league was able to convince both a prominent player and his club to play ball on a big transfer from Europe. That the player happened to be the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team makes the occasion more memorable (and Seattle’s circumstances are certainly different from almost every other team’s in Major League Soccer), but luring any player of renown who is still capable of dressing for one of England’s top teams would be celebrated as a league-wide victory.

Euro-centric fans will downplay the significance, and not without  reason, but within the scope of the league, Dempsey’s acquisition is undeniable progress. This is a milestone many fans have wanted to hit for some time. In addition to keeping the Omar Gonzalez-types from jumping once their first contracts play out, fans want to be able to compete for European-caliber talent; specifically, U.S. internationals. That the U.S international is the first to be reeled in makes this a boon.

It’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer, considered by many as more of a selling league, is now a buyer. Put another way, is the immediate future that of an importer, not an exporter? Given MLS’s structure, there’s no single answer to that. Even though they sold Fredy Montero earlier this year, Seattle’s clearly a buyer. When the LA Galaxy (seemingly inevitably) join Seattle and spend big for a third DP, they’ll affirm their status as heavy hitters. But the vast majority of MLS clubs still can’t compete with strong bids from clubs from even mid-tier European leagues. Still, between the established powers, the Pacific Northwest teams, and the two Eastern Canada clubs, more and more MLS clubs are capable of being players, not spectators.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC]

But not everything is sunshine and roses in MLS Land. Seattle’s spending is worrisome for some in the league, particularly those concerned that the growth of a few clubs threatens to dwarf the capabilities of others. Between expanding the Designated Player rules and instituting retention funds, the league’s affluent teams have more avenues to distance themselves from the pack. The extent to which that (as opposed to Seattle’s unique circumstances) influenced the Dempsey deal is debatable, but as part of the overall landscape, some see it as cause for concern.

Then there’s fan frustration, most present in Portland, who not only are Seattle’s chief rivals but sat on top of the allocation order when Dempsey rejoined the league. Many’s readings of the rules assumed the Timbers should get the rights to the returning U.S. international, even though those rules conflicted with the Designated Player guidelines. The Claudio Reyna precedent of 2007 seemed to solve that matter (the former U.S. captain returned straight to Red Bull on a DP deal), but for those suspicious of the league’s motives, the conflict was enough to fuel ire …

Ire that was on display Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field:

Infuriated by their rival’s coup, Timbers fans may be taking an excessively literal, inflexible view of the rules, which is not to say they don’t have a point. The written rules available on MLS’s web site do conflict, so much so that the league felt the need to issue a clarification after Dempsey was signed. The explanation was clear, consistent, and may have answered many’s questions, but for those who’d already decided the Dempsey deal was shaky, there was no tearing the tin foil from their heads.

[MORE: In pictures, Clint Dempsey is unveiled in Seattle.]

If Major League Soccer really is in that adolescence we discussed in the Seattle post, this is their teenage naivete. And like all mistakes of our high school days, this is mostly innocent – something to learn from. It is, however, a small reminder that it’s time to grow up. There are responsibilities and expectations that come with adulthood, and any hint that you’re making things up as you go along will lead people to question your maturity.

But this isn’t a matter of two steps forward, one step back for MLS. The Dempsey capture is a decided leap forward, even if there’s a stubbed toe on the landing. For all the confusion people found in MLS’s rules, the league is in a notably better place today than they were two days ago. That’s almost the definition of progress.