No surprises as Major League Soccer announces Best XI

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A little more on this year’s MLS Best XI (which Steve linked you to earlier).

For the first time in 10 years, Major League Soccer’s Best XI has three forwards.

For the first time in 10 years, the team has three forwards, even if a number of the team’s midfielders saw time farther up the field during the 2012 season. But positions have always been a loose thing when it comes to recognizing the season’s best. If there’s any flexibility to be had, you can guarantee a player’s going to be pushed into midfield.

Among the players to make this year’s team, there were no real surprises. Each player that was announced by Don Garber had been discussed among your favorite analysts. Every name appeared among the selections made by your three favorite Pro Soccer Talk content hamsters.

So while there’s sure to be debate about the selections (well, the non-Wondo ones), none of this year’s best XI should surprise anybody:

Goalkeeper

Jimmy Nielsen, Sporting Kansas City

This spot seemed allocated to Nielsen early in the campaign, with Kansas City’s hot start and great defensive record (fewest goals allowed in MLS) giving Nielsen a pole position he never conceded.

PST’s picks: Nielsen (N. Davis); Andy Gruenebaum (S. Davis, Farley)

Defense

Victor Bernardez, San Jose Earthquakes
Matt Besler, Sporting Kansas City
Aurelien Collin, Sporting Kansas City

We knew Bernardez and Besler (the league’s Defensive Player of the Year) would be here. Collin was likely, though competition from the likes of Vancouver’s Jay DeMerit and Chicago’ Arne Friedrich made that less of a certainty. Again, no controversy here.

PST’s picks: Gonzalo Segares, Bernardez, Kevin Alston (N. Davis); Bernardez, Besler, Collin, DeMerit (Farley); Bernardez, Besler, DeMerit (S. Davis)

Midfield

Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle Sounders
Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy
Chris Pontius, DC United
Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City

It’s an interesting midfield, the only qualm with it being the lack of actual midfielders. Again, that’s the norm around these parts. All of Donovan, Pontius and Zusi saw their fair share of time as forwards, but given the crowded field up top, it’s hard to blame voters for sliding some of the league’s best players into midfield.

PST’s picks: Donovan, Pontius, Dax McCarty, Zusi (N. Davis); Kyle Beckerman, Alonso, Patrice Bernier, Zusi (Farley); Alonso, Zusi, Roger Espinoza, McCarty (S. Davis).

Forwards

Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls
Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy
Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes

It’s only the third time in league history three forwards have made the best XI, the trio combining for 58 goals and 28 assists. Kenny Cooper and Alvaro Saborio also had strong seasons, but it’s difficult to argue anybody should unseat these three.

PST’s picks: Keane, Henry, Wondolowski (N. Davis); Henry, Wondolowski (Farley); Keane, Henry, Wondolowski (S. Davis)

Europa League: Arsenal, Marseille host semifinal 1st legs

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Arsenal’s Champions League dreams could be in for a rude awakening against tournament-tested Atletico Madrid.

The Premier League vs. La Liga match-up is one of two Europa League semifinal first legs set to be served up Sunday, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg meeting in the other.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

There’s something romantic about Arsene Wenger closing out his time at Arsenal against French opposition in Lyon, but Atleti and Salzburg won’t step aside for poetics.

Both matches kickoff ay 3:05 p.m. ET

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid

It’s a bit stunning that this tie has no history considering both club’s statures in their leagues and Europe, but that’s what we’ll se when Arsenal welcomes Atleti for the first leg.

Arsenal boasts two of the top 10 performers in the UEL this season — it would be three had the Gunners not sold Theo Walcott — and are paced by Aaron Ramsey, who has four goals and an assist. Mesut Ozil, who’s ready to return to the pitch, has the reverse with a goal and four helpers.

The Gunners have outscored UEL opposition 29-10 this season.

It’s no surprise that Antoine Griezmann has been Atleti’s best attacker since the Madrid side dropped out of the UCL to run rampant through the UEL knockout rounds. Atleti beat Copenhagen 5-1, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1, and Sporting Lisbon 2-1 for an aggregate score line of 15-3.

Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Don’t expect this to be a simple case of Ligue 1 bossing inferior opposition: This pair met in the group stage, with the Austrian side winning at home and drawing 0-0 in France.

Salzburg has shown its mettle in various ways during the UEL. After allowing just one goal in an unbeaten group stage, they’ve won 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 versus Lazio. That’s no easy road, and Marseille represents another big challenge.

Marseille is bidding to make its first European final since 2004, and has been led by Dimitri Payet‘s three goals and four assists, and Lucas Ocampos’ four goals and one assist. Marseille has knocked off RB Leipzig, Athletic Bilbao, and Braga after the group stage.

Names you’ll need to know from Salzburg: defenders Stefan Lainer and Paulo Miranda have been spectacular, and Munas Dabbur and Valon Berisha have each scored five times in the tournament.

Mourinho on longtime nemesis Wenger: ‘We can be friends in future’

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Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had a poor relationship, but the former thinks he’s soon to get along with the latter.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Manchester United boss Mourinho, 55, heaped praise on the departing Arsenal manager ahead of the two sides’ Sunday meeting at Old Trafford (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), saying the Frenchman has earned much respect.

Branding Wenger “iconic,” Mourinho says his fiery rivalry with Wenger stemmed from Arsenal’s stature in the Premier League when the Portuguese took over Chelsea.

“If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future,” Mourinho told Sky Sports News. “I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.”

Mourinho said he’s tried to show his respect for Wenger, 68, over the past few seasons. It may become a passable relationship, but we find it hard to believe the pair will be dining together on a regular basis as the sun sets on their managerial careers (Mou has a while to go, we think).

Real’s Modric on Bayern feeling unlucky: “That’s their problem”

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Bayern Munich produced far more chances than visiting Real Madrid in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg in Germany, but lost 2-1 at the Allianz Arena.

Franck Ribery butchered an open shot at goal, Robert Lewandowski beat Keylor Navas but didn’t score late, and Thomas Mueller missed getting contact on a shot inside the six.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

It was that kind of day, and Mueller is baffled that his team did not finish more than Joshua Kimmich’s opener.

“Everybody is wondering why this game is 1-2 for Madrid,” Mueller reportedly said. “We still cannot believe it.”

The quote comes from BeIN Sport’s Tancredi Palmeri, who has a stinging rebuke from Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric.

Real wasn’t great on Wednesday, but also limited their big mistakes to one: Marcelo’s lapse of judgment which helped Kimmich to open the scoring for Bayern Munich.

The hosts had a huge giveaway from Rafinha on the match-winner, and backup backstop Sven Ulreich didn’t have a phenomenal day on either goal. Throw in Arjen Robben’s injury requiring an 8th minute substitution, and Bayern did not have much good fortune on the day.

This one, though, doesn’t seem over, even with the tie moving to the Bernabeu.

McKennie, Adams, Miazga in top tier of US Soccer player pool

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CHESTER, Pa. (AP) Midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams have played their way onto the top tier of the U.S. player pool along with defender Matt Miazga, according to interim coach Dave Sarachan, who says the trio would receive strong consideration for a World Cup roster if the Americans were headed to Russia in June.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

With the U.S. rebuilding following its failure to qualify for the tournament, Sarachan will continue to rely on youth for upcoming exhibitions against Bolivia, Ireland and France.

Veterans such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley could have a role either in friendlies this autumn or when competitive matches resume in the summer of 2019.

“I do think those guys, some of them, will factor in, in terms of the Gold Cup, in terms of the next round of qualifying,” Sarachan said Wednesday. “I think it would be important to bring some of those veterans guys back.”

Dempsey, who turned 35 last month, is tied with Landon Donovan for the U.S. record of 57 international goals.

“The older guys, they’re valuable in the succession of everything, to mentor, to show these young guys what it really takes and what it is to be a part of the national team,” Sarachan said. “But as far as that goes, you know, sometimes a tie is all right, right? Share the spoils.”

Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ 19-year-old star midfielder, will be on the roster for the May 28 match against Bolivia in the Philadelphia suburbs. Pulisic, who is from Hershey, Pennsylvania, has not played for the national team since the 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago in October that eliminated the U.S. from World Cup contention.

While U.S. training starts May 21, Pulisic will report late so he can remain with Borussia Dortmund for a postseason exhibition at LAFC on May 22.

“He was pretty gutted after that game,” Sarachan said of the loss in Trinidad. “There’s a lot of demands of a guy like Christian. He’s being pulled in a lot of different directions. There’s still some speculation – this didn’t come from him directly – but I know that there’s some speculation that maybe he’ll move from Dortmund. So I know there’s a lot going on. And I’m trying to be helpful in the process to allow him a little wiggle room in terms of the national team now.”

Josh Sargent, the 18-year-old forward who joined Werder Bremen this year, also will be on the roster. The U.S. plays at Ireland on June 2 and at France on June 9, and Sarachan said many Europe-based players may skip the Bolivia match.

Sarachan was the top assistant to Bruce Arena, who quit after the U.S. failed to qualify. Sarachan would like to be considered for the job going forward, but new U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro plans to first hire a general manager for the men’s national team, a new position.

“I would only be guessing at this point if it’s someone in place before or after the World Cup,” Sarachan said of the GM.

The 63-year-old Sarachan coached Cornell from 1988-97 and the Chicago Fire from 2002-07. He does not consider himself to be an interim coach.

“I don’t like that term personally. I hate using the word interim,” he said. “I’m the men’s national soccer coach until they tell me I’m not. I’m not naive to think that I’m a slam-dunk candidate or not. I try not to even think through that other than at some point I have to figure out my next move if it’s not going to be this.”

Since World Cup elimination, the U.S. has played a road draw at Portugal and home ties against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Paraguay. Sarachan has given national team debuts to nine players, including Adams, McKennie, defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, forward Andrija Novakovich and midfielder Tim Weah – son of former FIFA Player of the Year and current Liberia President George Weah.

“I feel since November, when you could arguably say it was rock bottom in terms of U.S. soccer and the perception of it, I’d like to think that there’s a little more hope, a little more hope with the program, the direction we’re going, with the exciting young talent that’s emerging,” he said. “And that makes me feel proud, because I think the work kind of speaks for itself at this point, meaning young guys are getting great minutes.”