Matt Hedges

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Valeri scores twice as 10-man Portland eliminates Dallas

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Diego Valeri scored twice, the second when Portland was down to 10 men, as the Timbers won their first match of the MLS Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 defeat of FC Dallas in Texas on Wednesday.

Larrys Mabiala was shown a red card in the 58th minute for the Timbers, and Matt Hedges scored in stoppage time for the hosts’ lone goal.

For Valeri, the goals were his third and fourth in MLS Cup Playoff action, and his 76th and 77th as a Timber.

Portland will face Sporting KC if LAFC beats Real Salt Lake on Thursday, or Seattle if Real wins.

[ MORE: MLS MVP’s 5 finalists ]

Reto Ziegler looked to have pushed Dallas in front, but the 15th minute goal was overturned by VAR for offside.

Valeri’s goal couldn’t be overturned, though perhaps the refs would’ve liked to sneak a look at the replay just for entertainment’s sake.

The match headed to half 1-0, with Diego Chara and Carlos Gruezo shown yellow cards for a scuffle before the break.

That was a prelude to a straight red 13 minutes into the second half, albeit not one for brawling. Mabiala was shown off as last man back for a takedown of Dominique Badji.

Portland would have to make it a half-hour plus with a one-goal lead and 10 men on the pitch, and they would thanks to hard work from Jeremy Ebobisse to set up Valeri for his second.

3 things we learned from busy MLS Saturday night

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1) FC Dallas is king of the West

FC Dallas has had road issues of late. Sporting KC is rock solid at home.

Not tonight.

The top team in the Western Conference asserted its dominance with a 3-1 victory, marked by a moment of brilliance from Michael Barrios 23 minutes in. And then another 62 minutes in. And then another 74 minutes in.

The defense bunkered in from there. Matt Hedges is playing at the top of his game, and had another fantastic night. FC Dallas didn’t have a clean sheet this month until tonight, and they earned it…until they didn’t. That’s when Dallas stepped up. With the game level shortly after halftime, Barrios got his second of the game and second of the season on an lol from Tim Meila, and his third/third on a turn and shoot. The second half wasn’t always pretty, but it got the job done, and that’s what the best teams do. With its road woes shut down – temporarily, at least – the team to beat is clear.

2) Josef Martinez showing no signs of stopping

The Venezuelan is having one of the most historic seasons in MLS seasons, plain and simple, full-stop. Now with 24 goals in 23 matches after another brace in a 2-1 win for Atlanta over Montreal on the road, Martinez is scoring in every way possible.

On his first tonight, he smartly backed off a tempting through-ball knowing he was offside, drifting back while a teammate chased. Sure enough, he returned to a legal position and snuck behind the center-backs with a brilliant little step back at the moment the cross was delivered, and easily dispatched the chance. It was the perfect display of superior striker senses, understanding not only his position on the field relative to everyone else, but how to anticipate opponent movement to be in the proper place.

His second goal was as messy as they come, tapping home a scrum in the Montreal box after hilariously poor defending from the hosts. It was one of those that makes you think “of course it’s that guy again…of course.” When a guy is having such a stunning year, there’s plenty of talent and always just a little luck. With just three goals needed to tie the single season goalscoring record and 11 matches to do it, this season feels like the Martinez Show.

3) Is Toronto FC back? Can they make a run?

Toronto FC is back, right? A 3-0 clobbering of the Chicago Fire has Sebastian Giovinco and company at 22 points, and the Italian grabbed a goal alongside Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Osorio to put the Canadian club clean through. With the result, they’ve won two straight, both against Chicago and by a combined 5-1 score. It’s tough to get a bead on if they’re truly put together given both results have come against the same opponent, but just six points back of a playoff spot, they’re most certainly not out of it should things turn around for real.

“We’ve got four in a row now,” Gregory van der Wiel said after the game, referencing the pair of MLS results bracketed in between two Canadian Cup wins against Ottawa FC. “The team is in a good way.” They are…if it’s for real.

Three things from the USMNT’s 2-0 win over El Salvador

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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The United States of America is not winning the Gold Cup.

At least that’s not how things look despite Bruce Arena’s much-needed call-ups of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Darlington Nagbe, and Clint Dempsey.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore bit | Player ratings ]

Don’t let the clean sheet fool you: The defense was a mess again, the finishing was off, and any other remaining team in the tournament would’ve dismissed the U.S. at the quarterfinals given the same chances.

Agree or disagree, read on…

Back line blues

Tim Howard bailed out Eric Lichaj for a miserable early giveaway, but the play was far from an aberration for the Yanks’ defense.

Lichaj, solid in his first match of the tournament, struggled with giveaways in this one. Center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Hedges were caught out of position and sometimes out of the camera, with the former’s missed clearance of a cross nearly allowing El Salvador back into the game in the 63rd minute.

With this roster and Costa Rica on the other side Saturday, Hedges probably needs to slide back onto the bench and Gonzalez needs to be paired with his World Cup mate Matt Besler. We’d still like to see more from Matt Miazga, but unsure a semifinal against the team that got your last coach fired is the spot for a relative rookie.

Now what does Arena do with the fullbacks? Neither Lichaj nor Morrow shone in defense, but Graham Zusi has been very poor and Jorge Villafana is yet to put forth a complete performance in this tournament. Looking back to the Martinique charade, defense is slated to send the Yanks away from the Gold Cup without a title and probably without a Final. Find a fix, Bruce.

The roster changes were needed

While it wasn’t Clint Dempsey’s best night, he provided a key assist and made sure that each of the five roster changes — third string goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez is six — showed why Arena made the changes after the group stage (though who he sent home, *cough* Kelyn Rowe *cough*, remains up for debate).

Michael Bradley is simply the best option in the center of the park right now, and showed that the captain is still the man even if Dax McCarty is a fine backup. Darlington Nagbe was clean on the ball as usual, Tim Howard made an early calming stop of a horrible Lichaj giveaway, and Jozy Altidore showed that he remains the player to game plan for if you’re a CONCACAF team. While only Howard and Bradley will really love their games, all five will be necessary to a Gold Cup Final run.

Adjustments haven’t been great

Maybe Arena doesn’t have the options he needs to show “master tactician” status, and his work is far from the biggest team problem, but the second half was a problem.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

One substitution in particular was questionable: Arena took off Paul Arriola and replaced him with forward Jordan Morris. Now perhaps this was somehow due to Arriola’s sneaky groin kick earlier in the match, and that’s about the only way I can handle the sub (Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed watching Arriola, so if you think he’s been poor then call this post “Two things” and move on).

The move disrupted Nagbe’s great night and the Yanks never really rebounded to threaten a third goal. In fact, they probably should’ve seen their lead knocked down to one at least once. The Kellyn Acosta for Gyasi Zardes sub was welcome, for sure, so it’s not like Arena was a disaster. And the side hasn’t looked aimless as it did under Jurgen Klinsmann, so this isn’t a witch hunt. But the Americans need better.

USMNT Player Ratings from a disjointed 2-0 win over El Salvador

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The United States men’s national team is onto the Gold Cup semifinals again, but defensively put in a performance that would’ve gotten them eliminated against pretty much any other team remaining in the tournament.

[ MORE: USMNT 2-0 El Salvador | Altidore bit ]

Did anyone shine? Yeah, the “new” boys were good. But confidence isn’t high heading into Texas for a semifinal date with Costa Rica on Saturday.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — Didn’t have to do much, but made a key save early to help avoid a disastrous start.

Justin Morrow — 6 — Good going forward and with the ball, but lost his marks a few times. Still, one of two defenders who won’t totally hate their defending.

Omar Gonzalez — 5 — Scored again, which is really good. Also drifted out of position on several occasions, struggled with his marks, and butchered a headed clearance that should’ve seen El Salvador pull within one.

Matt Hedges — 5 — Not a starring role, but improved from a poor performance in his last outing. Relative to his defensive peers, he was fine.

Eric Lichaj — 5 — Like Gonzalez, he scored. And this one was a very nice goal, but the Nottingham Forest star committed a horrible giveaway early and made a big mistake in the second half as well. Poor.

Michael Bradley — 8 — Much maligned in U.S. circles, had a standout night in the middle of the park that showed why he’s ahead of decent Dax McCarty in the pecking order. Good service on all but one set piece, and an assist to boot.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 87′) — 6 — More than decent work, and trademark clever footwork. Didn’t have that one singular moment of danger to earn a higher mark. Shouldn’t have been taken off unless Bruce Arena plans to use him heavily again on Saturday.

Paul Arriola (Off 66′) — 6 — Industrious evening getting himself into position to make key passes, but accuracy was missing. Also kicked an El Salvadoran player between the legs, which is not good.

Gyasi Zardes (Off 71′) — 6 — If you wanted to give him high marks for some electrifying moves you’d be justified, but still something missing from his final passing.

Clint Dempsey — 7 — Far from perfect, and didn’t match Landon Donovan on the all-time goals mark, but his moment of brilliance to set up Lichaj’s goal was vintage ‘Deuce’.

Jozy Altidore — 6 — A physical menace who deserves credit for not reacting violently to being bitten, he still didn’t create that moment

[ MORE: Three things from the 2-0 win ]

Substitutes

Jordan Morris (On 66′) — 5 — Made a good run upon subbing into the game, then drifted away.

Kellyn Acosta (On 71′) — 6 — Active, now let’s see him with Bradley?

Chris Pontius (On 87′) — N/A

Three USMNT players leave camp, two with injuries

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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Less than a week from Bruce Arena’s second debut as USMNT boss, we know three players who won’t be in the Starting XI.

Injuries have felled FC Dallas duo Kellyn Acosta and Matt Hedges, while Vancouver attacker Kekuta Manneh is leaving the squad to join his ‘Caps teammates for preseason in Wales.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League Playback ]

Acosta has a mild left ankle sprain and Hedges has a mild right knee sprain.

While Manneh may have been a long shot to see significant playing time on Sunday against Serbia or Feb. 4 versus Jamaica, Hedges had a chance to start at center back and Acosta has been capped before as well.