MLS Playoff Preview: Timbers look to finish off rival Sounders

4 Comments
  • Portland won series opener in Seattle, 2-1
  • Timbers are unbeaten at home since March
  • Sounders expect injured Yedlin, Martins to be available

PORTLAND, Ore. — Maybe we’re over-thinking this. Seattle has been a consistent postseason participant and have an absolutely loaded squad, but they’ve also won one of their last nine games, and traveling to JELD-WEN Field on Thursday, they’re facing a Portland team with all the indicators in their favor: nine games unbeaten; two straight wins over Seattle; 15 games unbeaten at home; the league’s best goal difference; only five losses in 35 games. Between two teams tending in opposite directions, is there any reason to believe Seattle can knock off the Timbers on Thursday?

Of course there is. Seattle shouldn’t be considered favorites, but with weapons like Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey, they certainly have a puncher’s chance. A clicking Osvaldo Alonso is the best defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer, Brad Evans has gone from massively underrated to finally appreciated, and on Saturday, Mauro Rosales showed he can still influence a game. The Sounders have enough weapons to land a punch, especially if an inexperienced Timbers team proves willing to expose their chin.

Watch the game tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN or watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra

There are, however, a few reasons to think Seattle will be better than Saturday and, by inference (they only lost by one), capable of getting a result in Portland:

  • Seattle should be significantly healthier. Right back DeAndre Yedlin, who turned his ankle in the Sounders’ first round game against Colorado, will almost certainly play, and the team is optimistic Obafemi Martins will return from a groin injury. Each could provide an upgrade on Thursday, be it as a starter (Yedlin’s most likely role) or off the bench (Martins, who could yet start).
  • The Sounders could switch formations, going away from the narrow diamond midfield that cost them on Saturday. A move back to their typical 4-4-2 could allow them to move Rosales into the starting lineup, moving Evans to the left and Clint Dempsey up top. With Lamar Neagle suspended (yellow card accumulation), the decision could come down to whether Martins is able to start.
  • Seattle will have also learned from Portland’s tactics, with people now starting to realize the possession-dependent Timbers that’d been adored throughout the season disappeared two months ago. Against a Timber team willing to cede possession, the Sounders must be willing to play the extra pass and try to create better chances. On Saturday, they should have chosen quality over quantity.

But whereas Seattle will institute some of those tweaks, Portland’s not hard to predict. The only lineup question ahead of Saturday’s game was who would start at striker. But with Ryan Johnson getting on the scoresheet in Seattle, the Jamaica international seems likely to get the call on Thursday, particularly given the Sounders are unlikely to make any changes in central defense.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Seattle Sounders ahead of Thursday’s visit to Portland]

“We felt his strength in the air, his physicality, ability to hold the ball up, his athleticism, his pace and power was a good matchup against [Sounders defenders Jhon Kennedy] Hurtado and [Djimi] Traore,” Caleb Porter explained, asked for the reasons he selected Johnson Saturday night.

source:  Even if Portland stays with the same XI, one change is guaranteed: The crowd. The over-20,000 who’ll sellout JELD-WEN will strive to impress against their regional rivals, Seattle’s fans having had their chance to do the same on Saturday. Then, the Sounders’ Emerald City Supporters’ weekend tifo featured a large skull beneath a banner reading “WELCOME TO YOUR NIGHTMARE” (right). The Timbers Army will certainly try to outdo their rivals in support.

But beyond personnel and lineup choices, changing tactics or shifting venues, the implicit question people seem to be asking is whether Portland’s for real. Their final standing in the West says one thing, as do all the underlying numbers, but having never made it this far before (and having undergone such a steep and unexpected rise to get here), people are understandably incredulous. Not only has Portland never won before, but we’ve never really see a team like this — a collection of disparate parts assembled under a neophyte boss — succeed in MLS. Until that happens, people will compare them to the Los Angeleses, Real Salt Lakes, and Seattles of the world, teams they’re used to seeing in the postseason, and wonder whether they can get it done.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of their visit from Seattle]

On Thursday, Portland will either continue all the trends or justify the doubts, but given those doubts have been proven wrong throughout the season, it might be best to acknowledge the data, see a team that’s lost only five times this year, and recognize Portland are probably much bigger favorites than we’re giving them credit for.

MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s visit from New England

6 Comments
  • League’s best defense needs to play like league’s best defense.

Kansas City gave up less than a goal-per-game this year (0.88 goals/game) and didn’t concede in 180 regular season minutes against New England, but in a 13-minute span of Saturday’s second half, Sporting conceded twice. The outburst ended a near-three month span where Kansas City had failed to concede multiple goals (last doing so on Aug. 3, vs. New York).

The first goal? Perhaps the team could have done something to stop it, but there was a degree of chaos and controversy to Andy Dorman’s opener that makes it hard to blame the defense. The second, however, came when Kansas City needed their defense to step up most, and after their midfield turned the ball over near the center line, nobody kicked up Kelyn Rowe until it was too late. The second-year pro lingered on the right while the Revolution moved toward Kansas City’s penalty area. Just when it seemed that Seth Sinovic was in position, Rowe created enough room to poke Lee Nguyen’s pass beyond Jimmy Nielsen.

Part of that is Kansas City’s want to release their fullbacks early, but it was also an issue with execution. Nobody stopped Juan Agudelo from pushing forward after the turnover. Nobody stepped to Lee Nguyen as the creator tried to find the right ball. A team with two defensive midfielders and two all-league caliber defenders may as well have been D.C. United.

Matt Besler seemed conscious of the problem in a mid-week radio interview, knowing the next mistake may be their season’s last.

“We cannot give up a goal on the counterattack because it puts us in the same position as last year, needing two just to tie,” Besler told Kansas City’s SportsRadio 810. “A lot of focus is going to be not allowing the counterattack goal, and if a couple of us focus on that and do our job, I’m confident in the rest of the guys that they’re going to be able to get a ton of chances and get goals.”

  • Using that midfield shield.

The postseason’s best example of the virtues of two defensive midfielders came in Los Angeles, where Jason Kreis’s use of Yordany Alvarez next to Kyle Beckerman kept the Galaxy counter at arm’s length for the first 60 minutes. In theory, if Kansas City’s guarding against counter attacks, their formation offers the same virtues, with Oriol Rosell and Lawrence Olum’s replacement (potentially Paolo Nagamura) sitting in front of the defense.1 But on Rowe’s Saturday goal, Olum allowed himself to be drawn toward Rosell, abandoning the space in front of Aurelien Collin, giving Lee Nguyen a place from which to create the goal.

So it’s not foolproof, but if Rosell and Nagamura do their jobs, fears of Nguyen and Rowe doing damage in transition should be mitigated, allowing Besler and Collin to track Agudelo while play’s slowed higher up the pitch. How they slow play, well, we’ll talk about that below, but if the defensive midfielders do their job, counters need not be as dangerous as Rowe’s was on Saturday.

Then again, if we see the return of Benny Feilhaber (and Kansas City doesn’t use two defensive midfielders), Besler’s right to be concerned about the counter.

  • It’s all about chances. It’s all about goals.

Sporting need two to avoid penalty kicks (one to tie), eminently possible but made more difficult by a New England team that’s capable of holding out. The Revolution kept 14 clean sheets this season and  notably went into shut down mode in the season finale at Columbus, scoring first then playing prevent to keep a clean sheet in Ohio.

That’s one concern for Kansas City. Others: Their goal scorers. Where they have depth (Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, … Claudio Bieler?) they lack the kind of quality you envision winning a one-on-one battles with Jose Goncalves. No, that’s not the only way to score goals, but it does illustrate Sporting’s problem. Graham Zusi can create as many chances as he wants in front of the line (and tonight, expect New England to be better about containing that), but unless somebody steps up to finish, it’s all for naught. Sporting’s left relying on penalty area chaos that finds the likes of Collin.

This isn’t the type of game Kansas City likes to play, but champions have to succeed outside their comfort zone. Sporting need to implement a plan that creates better chances. Instead of protecting a lead, they have to be able to hunt one, because tonight at Sporting Park, they may get a taste of their own medicine.

  • This is where style could hurt.

Beyond a want to sit on leads, one of Sporting’s distinct characteristics is their, umm, “strategic physicality”. Another way to read that: Fouls. They pulled away from the pack as the league’s most foul prone team, and while that tendency wasn’t in full effect on Saturday, the game did feature seven cards.

Here’s a problem for KC: What if the whistles aren’t going their way? What if the cards start flying early, Rosell, Nagamura,and Collin can’t take their usual liberties, and they’re left trying to keep New England on two without the ability to play to their strengths? All of a sudden, the likes to Agudelo, Rowe, and Nguyen are going to seem particularly quick.

Or, what happens if they keep picking up yellow cards? Those inevitable accumulation suspensions aren’t going to hurt them in the next round?

While we’re throwing out theories as to why Kansas City’s can’t translate regular season success into postseason glory, this is part of the picture. Maybe it’s not about total whistles and cards, but maybe it’s about a physical approach that’s much better suited to playing from ahead. And in the postseason, against better teams, you’re just more likely to fall behind.

  • Obligatory note about history.

About those postseason problems:

  • In 2010, Sporting finished first in the regular season, got by Colorado in the conference semifinals but lost at home to Houston in the East’s title game.
  • In 2011, Sporting finished first in the East and lost in the conference semifinals to Houston.
  • In 2012, they return home down 2-1 after leg one in New England.

It’s time to reverse the trend.

1 – Thanks to a reader’s comment, below, we were reminded (a.) we went too fast, and (b.) didn’t note Lawrence Olum’s injury. The man’s done for the season. Thanks to dreadpirate82 to picking up a mistake we should have caught before posting the story.

What We Learned from Portland’s first leg win at Seattle

7 Comments

SEATTLE — The Sounders may have pulled one back late, but the Timbers will be happy with the result. After their 2-1 win Saturday at CenturyLink Field, the West’s top seed find themselves in the driver’s seat ahead of Thursday’s second leg in Portland.

Here’s what we learned after the match-up’s first 90 minutes.

  • 1. Seattle still has a first leg problem.

When the Sounders outplayed Real Salt Lake to open last year’s Western Conference semifinals, their first leg issues seemed to be solved. Though the game ended 0-0, Seattle had dominated, forcing Nick Rimando into one of the better goalkeeping performances in MLS history to keep the tie level. Even though Seattle still hadn’t scored in the opening leg of a playoff series, they’d now shown the ability to do.

But in last year’s Western Conference final, the Sounders were blitzed in Los Angeles, losing 3-0. On Saturday in Seattle, they were down 2-0 before Osvaldo Alonso pulled one back, bolstering what would have been faint hopes had they taken a two-goal deficit to JELD-WEN.

So maybe Seattle’s first leg syndrome’s still present? Portland’s a very good team, and against them, there’s no shame in being on the wrong side of a 2-1. But Seattle’s now faced Portland four times this season. They know what to expect. Only in the first leg of a playoff series did they fall behind by two goals.

  • 2. Inexperience? A non-issue for Portland.

We asked about it in the preview. For a team that had very few tested playoff performers, would inexperience be a factor? It seemed to affect Colorado on Wednesday. It seemed to affect Montréal on Thursday. In front of 38,507 in Seattle, would the Timbers’ be able to match Seattle’s intensity?

They did, but more so than merely bringing the right energy level, Portland brought the kind of poise that allowed them to be second-best for 15 minutes before scoring the opener. They brought the kind of focus that produced a second goal after halftime, a score that proved extremely valuable come the 90th minute.

The Timbers remain a relatively inexperienced side in terms of MLS’s playoffs, but on Saturday, that wasn’t a factor. They did not look like a team playing their first playoff game together.

  • 3. That diamond we heard so much about? It cost Seattle tonight.

If Seattle’s playing their normal, 4-4-2 — one that features traditional wide midfielders — they’re in a better position to prevent each goal. On the first score, Jack Jewsbury got too much time to create a chance down the right flank, with Adam Moffat unable to help Leo Gonzalez prevent the cross to Ryan Johnson. On the second, Portland wins a battle on the left, circulates a ball to the right, leaving Moffat little time to get out and contain Kalif Alhassen.

Post-game, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid hinted the formation may have been a factor in the goals. He also said Seattle may go back to their normal setup in Portland, one that’s a better fit for Mauro Rosales.

Of course, on JELD-WEN’s narrow field, the diamond may not be as much of an issue. (Author’s note: Whoops! See comments for factoid debunking this piece of speculation!)

  • 4. Portland’s shield proved stronger than Colorado’s.

Clint Dempsey had his best match of the season Wednesday against Colorado. On Saturday, however, the Seattle playmaker didn’t have as much influence. Although he continued to be a focal point in attack, he was almost always met by Diego Chara.

Whereas Seattle made life difficult for German Mera on Wednesday, Portland central defenders Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso were far less tested. Seattle’s only goal came from a ball flicked on in front of a deep defensive line. Of the rest of Seattle’s threats, very few originated in the middle of the park.

  • 5. Attrition will be a factor for Seattle.

DeAndre Yedlin will almost certainly play on Thursday (Schmid hinting tonight’s decision to withhold his right back was one of caution). Obafemi Martins may also play a role. Elsewhere, however, Seattle continues to lose players.

Zach Scott, Yedlin’s replacement, left in the 62nd minute after picking up a rib injury in the first half. If he can’t go, Yedlin’s health becomes even more important. But if the 20-year-old doesn’t continue to improve (or maybe it’s raining on Portland’s turf the day of the game), Seattle could be forced to move Brad Evans out of midfield.

The team also has to compensate for Lamar Neagle’s absence, the starting forward having picked up a second yellow card. If Martins isn’t able to start, Schmid may be forced into moving Clint Dempsey back up top. That will almost certainly lead to a change in formation.

If all does well, the Sounders should be able to choose a strong XI for Thursday’s game. Their bench, however, may be as thin as Saturday’s, leaving them little room to adjust should they encounter new misfortune.

WATCH: Managers react to a wild weekend in the Premier League

Leave a comment

From the way Alan Pardew starts, you wouldn’t know he’s talking about the man whose secured Newcastle’s first win of the season.  When you’re basking in the glow of victory, you don’t usually take the time to detail the ways a player’s difficult to manage. Pardew, however, felt Saturday’s post-match interview was the right time to talk about his issues with Hatem Ben Arfa, though he does so in a relatively light-hearted matter. Still, it’s a strange way or recognizing a players contributions.

That’s part of this week’s compilation of manager reaction, post-match thoughts which include Sam Allardyce’s reflections from Upton Park, Ian Holloway’s thoughts on Crystal Palace’s first win, and Brendan Rodgers’ response to his team’s North West Derby victory.(among others).

Not everybody’s as critical as Pardew, but then again, not everybody manages Hatem Ben Arfa.

Your quick, neophyte viewer’s guide to Premier League Saturdays

8 Comments

The Premier League makes its debut on NBC Sports in a little over three weeks, giving fans in the United States an unprecedented amount of access to games from the world’s most popular soccer league.  For sports addicts, however, that can be a dangerous thing, with early kickoffs allowing fans to roll out of bed and straight into the peak of another country’s soccer weekend.

There’s a sublime pleasure to starting your sports weekend before people in your life have even considered coffee, but it can also be the start to a full day in your pajamas, with soccer bleeding into college and pro football, bleeding into fall evenings of basketball and hockey. Kiss your wife on the cheek, say goodbye to your children, and get used to ignoring their agape mouths when they comeback from Ice Age 12 to see you’re still on the couch. You’ll be sympathetic at first, but soon you’ll be tired of apologizing for incorporating the Premier League into your weekend ritual.

Don’t worry. We’re here to help. No, we’re not going to help you find a balance. All that’s over. We’re here to help you get the most out of your Premier League weekends; specifically, those Saturday mornings where the league’s early kick offs will really test your commitment.

Heed the following:

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THAT EARLY KICKOFF

That 7:00 a.m. Eastern start is daunting. That’s what time most Premier League weekends will begin each Saturday, usually with a game that’s worth your time (Aug. 17th’s features Liverpool). While that commitment may seem imposing, there is something mundane about two hours you’ll spent on the quiet of morning watching soccer before the life around you stirs.

But don’t underestimate that commitment. With most big college football games kicking off in the early afternoon (at the earliest), we’re talking about moving your day’s new kickoff up five or six hours – the perfect amount of time to take in the Premier League Saturday before transitioning to your other favorite sports.

If you’re an alarm clock person Monday through Friday, you’ll want extend that routine an extra day. If you’re not an alarm clock person, you might consider the investment.

PREGAME IS NOW PART OF THE PACKAGE

For those familiar that routine, the days of waking up to the teams’ handshakes are over. Early games on NBC Sports Network will be preceded by Premier League Live – a 45-minute pregame show that will lead in each day’s matches. While most early games are going to kickoff closer to 7:45 a.m. Eastern, your weekend starts at the top of the hour.

KEEP SUPPLIES ON HAND

If you need your coffee, have it on the shelf Friday before you go to bed, and if you’re somebody that needs to snack on something through the games, make sure the Captain Crunch is in supply before kickoff. Once the games start, you’re not going to want to venture far from your screen. With Saturdays typically featuring three successive kickoff times (7:45 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m. Eastern), you’re either going to remember to stock up or become famous at the local pizzeria for being the person who calls at 11:00 a.m. on the nose.

HAVE YOUR LAPTOP, MOBILE DEVICE HANDY

If you get NBCSN at home, you also have access to NBC Sports Live Extra, where games will be streamed live to your desktop, mobile device, or tablet. If somebody’s monopolizing the televisions in your house, you’ll still have a way to catch games, and if you’re lucky enough to have your set tuned to NBC or NBC Sports Network, your laptop or tablet becomes a great way to check for stats and updates at NBCSports.com or keep track of the conversation at ProSoccerTalk.

But don’t underestimate the power of soccer and social media. Twitter, in particular, has a dense and ardent soccer community. For U.S.-based fans often watching in that morning’s peace, Twitter becomes a great way to connect (and complain) with others.

THOSE COMPUTERS WILL COME IN HANDY AT 10 A.M. EASTERN

Enjoy that 7:45 a.m. game and the luxury of watching one game at a time, because the next kickoff time (10:00 a.m.) will feel like watching the early NFL kickoffs. On a typical Saturday, you’ll get five or six games starting at the same time, leaving you monitoring NBCSports.com to keep track of the latest goals, cards, and controversies.

So keep that laptop or tablet handy, because whatever games aren’t available on NBC Sports Network, you’ll be able to stream via NBC Sports Live Extra. If your game looks like it’s over, you can jump to another spot in the league to see England’s evening games wind down.

SWITCH TO NBC FOR THE MAIN EVENT

Most Saturdays, the day’s final match will be featured on NBC – big, national broadcast, over-air NBC. On the season’s first weekend, that means defending champions Manchester United will kickoff at 12:30 p.m. Eastern against Swansea City. In the weeks that follow, Everton-Chelsea, Swansea-Arsenal, Arsenal-Liverpool, and Manchester City-Tottenham will get that regular, prime spot on NBC.

AND BACK TO NBC SPORTS NETWORK FOR THE POSTGAME SHOW

After each day’s matches, Premier League Live will wrap up the action from NBC’s International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn., part of the over 600 hours of studio programming set to augment the network’s live coverage. That total includes Match of the Day – a two-hour highlights show modeled after the BBC program of the same name, set to air after Saturdays’ games.

RECHARGE, RESET

Premier League addicts are going to get a full Saturday worth of programming, every Saturday. And for those who will incorporate Premier League soccer into their existing rituals, NBC’s offering a full day’s worth of action to fill that morning void before you favorite sports start.

But regardless of how much you take in, there’s always Sunday, were the league typically allocates two high profile games. And in the soccer world, Monday Night football’s also a thing.

And no matter who much Premier League you take in each weekends, Saturdays take a little getting used to. As well as some preparation.