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All aboard the Rafamobile! Benítez suddenly coach of Chelsea (for now)

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Hours after they parted ways with the man who won them their first European title, Chelsea’s moved on to a man whose reputation hinges on his UEFA Champions League success.

With the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez today, Chelsea’s replaced Roberto Di Matteo, if only in the short-term. Given the job of seeing out the 2012-13 season, Benítez appears to be doing little more than keeping a seat warm for Roman Abramovich’s true ambition – Pep Guardiola.

Here’s the club’s statement:

Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season.

The owner and the Board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.

The 52-year-old Spaniard is due to meet the players at the training ground in Cobham tomorrow

Those objectives are unlikely to include UEFA Champions League, where Chelsea’s fate now depends on Juventus losing in Donetsk on matchday six. Of course, that could happen, and if it does (while Chelsea beats Nordsjaelland), the Blues will have a man whose reputation has come to rest on his Champions League accumen. If not, there’s always the league, two domestic cups, and Europa League.

It’s a good appointment for everybody except Di Matteo, who likely would be in a job today had Benítez been either unavailable or unwilling to subjugate himself to a temporary position.

Such has been Benítez’s fall. After guiding Liverpool to second in the Premier League in 2008-09, he allowed Liverpool to slip to seventh place, the failure to make Champions League beginning a slide from which the club’s still recovering. Benítez’s subsequent inability to replace José Mourinho at Inter Milan meant the former Valencia boss’s best route to a marquee job was a situation like Chelsea’s.

Let’s also not forget the nature Benítez’s failings in Milan, because they’re particularly relevant to his potential success at Chelsea. We should take managerial hubris and put it aside, because Benítez has likely been dissuaded of notions that had him shrug off his part in Liverpool’s downfall. The state he left Internazionale in was bad enough.

There he inherited an old team coming off a Mourinho-led European title and not only changed how they played but ran his veterans into the ground. There’s more than one similarity to be drawn between that Inter side and Benítez’s new charge. By the time the Nerazzurri took off for 2011’s Club World Cup, they were depleted, mutinous, and out of chances for their ill-fitting coach.

While Benítez is not directly replacing Mourinho in London, he will again be faced with expectations raised by the Special One. Even after Di Matteo delivered the one prize José couldn’t claim, standards at Stamford Bridge reflect the demands of a man five years gone. If Benítez is going to retain his job, he has to claim the league, FA Cup, or Europa League. And as Di Matteo’s travails show, even that might not be enough.

Because if Benítez is to win silverware during his Stamford Bridge residency, it will likely be through the same pragmatism that characterized his most successful times at Anfield. It’s not ugly, it’s not anti-football, but it’s also not Barcelona. And for whatever misguided reasons Roman Abramovich is using to fuel his decisions, Chelsea’s owner won’t be happy until his team is playing the brand of soccer he’s wanted since the day he bought the club.

The lack of style undid Mourinho. It undid Di Matteo. And it will likely undo Benítez, regardless of results.

The one thing that could keep Benítez in London past May 2013 is if Guardiola goes elsewhere, because for everything we’ve heard about Abramovich’s lust of Pep, we’ve heard little of reciprocation from the former Barça boss. We know he prefers England. We know he prefers London. We also know that he’s unlikely to make any decisions until early-2013, if not later.

All of which makes the treatment of Di Matteo more curious. Replacing a club icon with a former rival is precarious enough (though Chelsea fans will likely recognize Benítez’s qualities). To do so when it’s unclear if lack of a striker or thin central midfield are the real problems hints Di Matteo was never going to be embraced by Abramovich. It didn’t matter that Di Matteo’s Champions League troubles came in a group with two of the top eight teams in Europe. That he lost provided Arbamovich an out from a man he never truly wanted, even if it made more sense to keep him until the Guardiola question was resolved.

With no answers in sight, Chelsea fans are best served concentrating on the present. They aren’t the best team in England, but they’re capable of competing for the title. Perhaps Benítez will bring something new out of them. Cup competitions have taken on a special meaning for the Blues. They’re still alive in both. And even if Europe only offers Europa League, the team has enough young, exciting talents to make that congestion-inducing tournament worth a Chelsea-supporters’ time. There’s still plenty of light in this 2012-13 tunnel.

Roberto Di Matteo won’t be driving them through it, but it’s time to move on. All aboard the Rafamobile.

Report: NASL’s New York Cosmos terminate all player contracts

SO KON PO, HONG KONG SAR - FEBRUARY 19:  Daniel Szetela (R) of New York Cosmos and Siu Kwan Chan of South China in action during the 2015 Lunar New Year Cup match between South China and the New York Cosmos at Hong Kong Stadium on February 19, 2015 in So Kon Po, Hong Kong.  (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
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As we await the future of both the North American Soccer League and its champion New York Cosmos, another dark cloud arrived regarding both.

Empire of Soccer reports that the Cosmos have terminated all of its player contracts, putting a 2017 season into the neighborhood of improbability.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs second DP ]

New York’s staff is on furlough, and the club has been “on the brink of collapse” for weeks (if not longer).

The USL avoided having its champion collapse by finding new owners for the Rochester Rhinos in the offseason. Will New York be able to do the same?

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U.S. Soccer announces Players of the Year nominees

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 01:  John Brooks #6 of United States and teammates Clint Dempsey #8,Michael Bradley #4,Geoff Cameron #20 and Julian Green #16 wait for the corner kick in the second half against Turkey during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on June 1, 2014 in Harrison, New Jersey.The United States defeated Turkey 2-1.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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U.S. Soccer unveiled the finalists for its top 2016 Male, Female, and youth awards on Monday.

MLS stars Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey are joined by Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood as top men’s player nominees. The winner will be announced on the eve of Saturday’s MLS Cup Final.

[ MLS: Best XI has historic American low ]

Stoke City’s Cameron and Hamburg’s Wood are the European-based players on the list, while Fabian Johnson did not make the cut. Dempsey has been limited by heart problems, but still found a way to the list.

John Brooks and Christian Pulisic are also notable exceptions, though the latter is a finalist for the younger award.

The five-woman list for Female Player of the Year sees Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, and Becky Sauerbrunn vying to finish second behind Carli Lloyd (Sorry, we couldn’t resist even with Heath’s incredible season).

The Young Male award promises to be a showdown between Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund) and Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), though it’s difficult to see the latter edging the former. Also in the frame are Spurs back Cameron Carter-Vickers, Atlanta United teenager Andrew Carleton and U.S. U-17 star Josh Sargent.

The Young Female nominees are midfielders Emily Ogle and Andi Sullivan, defenders Kaleigh Riehl and Karina Rodriguez and forward Ashley Sanchez.

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MLS Best XI has just two Americans (and that’s fine)

FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges, center, heads the ball near Seattle Sounders defender Zach Scott, second from left, in the second half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Seattle. The Sounders beat FC Dallas 3-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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MLS released its season’s Best XI on Monday, and it’s the least American bunch in the history of the award.

Some have asked whether this be a concern. The short answer is: As long as you’re not a xenophobe, probably not.

There’s no question the league is better than ever, so in that sense no one should worry that only Matt Hedges and Sacha Kljestan earned nods in the league’s 3-4-3.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs second DP ]

Several times the league saw five Americans in its Best XI, and once it was four, but this year’s duo marks a new low.

MLS Best XI
GK – Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union / Jamaica)
D – Matt Hedges (FC Dallas / USA)
D – Jelle van Damme (LA Galaxy / Belgium)
D – Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids / Sweden)
M – Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas / Argentina)
M – Giovani Dos Santos (LA Galaxy / Mexico)
M – Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls / USA)
M – Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact / Argentina)
F – Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls / England)
F – David Villa (New York City FC / Spain)
F – Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC / Italy)

Now of course the next question is, “Where do players 12-24 come from?” Let’s make a quick second XI (and include Nicolas Lodeiro despite his half-season status because, well, did you watch any MLS this year?):

GK – David Bingham (San Jose / USA)
D – Ronald Matarrita (New York City / Costa Rica)
D – Laurent Ciman (Montreal / Belgium)
D – Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas / USA)
M – Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle / USA-Cuba)
M – Darlington Nagbe (Portland / USA)
M – Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC / USA)
M – Diego Valeri (Portland / Argentina)
M – Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle / Uruguay)
F – Dom Dwyer (Sporting KC / England)
F – Ola Kamara (Columbus / Norway)

A bit better, huh? And Dwyer could be American in under a year. Next up would probably be several Americans (Dax McCarty, Luis Robles, Michael Bradley, Jordan Morris, Drew Moor).

The idea of better players shouldn’t be about Americans racking up the top spots, rather U.S. players being improved by the level of competition.

Look at the Premier League’s Best XI, the PFA Team of the Year, which had a total of four Englishmen (five if you include English-born Jamaican back Wes Morgan). While some will argue for a cap on foreign players — which MLS has — you don’t mess with what makes it great.

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After latest loss, Hull City gets blunt: “We need help”

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05:  Curtis Davies of Hull City jumps with Calum Chambers (25) and Victor Valdes of Middlesbrough (26) during the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Hull City at Riverside Stadium on December 5, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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Hull City players and staff are not being bashful.

Mired in the drop zone and following yet another loss, this one a relegation six-pointer at the hands of hosts Middlesbrough, Tigers were speaking out on the talent at the KC Stadium.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Manager Mike Phelan said “hopefully” there will be action by the club in the January transfer window, as the club continues its quest to stay in the Premier League.

Phelan said the club is lacking “firepower”, and veteran defender Charlie Davies put it even more plainly.

From the BBC:

“We need help. We made signings in the summer and they have done their bit but they were all last-minute. We are thin up top and we need someone who can put the ball in the net.”

Hull went through a mess during the summer, with player acquisition problematic and manager Steve Bruce quitting the club. After a hot start led to Phelan getting the job on a permament basis it’s clear that, like Swansea boss Bob Bradley, this isn’t about who’s in the dugout.

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