Real Madrid's coach Mourinho gestures during his Spanish First Division soccer match against Malaga in Malaga

Real Madrid loss forces consideration of the unthinkable

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Given the quality Málaga has shown this year, it’s not a huge surprise that Real Madrid would lose in Andalusia. That they gave up three goals, never led, and benched their captain for a game that left them 16 points behind league-leading Barcelona adds emotional weight to the bottom line results.

Real Madrid aren’t just struggling. They’re sliding, and with the lack of urgency in the squad, it’s not difficult to imagine them free falling without a severe change of approach.

After a scoreless first half at the Rosaleda, Málaga midfielder Isco opened the scoring before an own goal pulled El Real back even. Substitute Roque Santa Cruz was resurrected to post a second half double, with a consolation goal from Karim Benzema leaving Real Madrid 3-2 losers.

The win moves Málaga fourth in Spain with 31 points through 17 games. They’re two points back of Real, who’ve only managed one point from their last two games.

Real Madrid’s closer to 13th place Sevilla than their rival Barcelona. If José Mourinho was dubious of Real’s title chances last week, he can no longer have any doubts. All that’s left for Los Blancos is Champions League (and, at this rate, qualifying for next year’s Champions League).

MORE: Implications of benching Iker Casillas

It’s almost unthinkable to suggest this, but you have to wonder if the José Mourinho-Real Madrid marriage is destined to end before the sides’ anticipated summer divorce. Still, all trends are pointing in that direction. An already down season is starting to get worse on all fronts. Real’s losing touch with Atlético in league, let alone Barcelona. They’re trailing in Copa del Rey to Celta Vigo, and they were clearly second best to Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League group.

For a club obsessed with winning a 10th European title, the team’s current slide is unacceptable. Were Los Merengues struggling yet still looked a good bet to win in February, the team’s current struggles could be accepted. But Mourinho seems to have no answers to a side that’s failing to execute. Their play suggest that, despite advantages all over the pitch, Real Madrid may struggle to get past Manchester United in Champions League’s knockout round.

The situation is starting to mirror the one that befell Mourinho at Chelsea. Despite the coach’s obvious qualities, Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich was put in a situation where the otherwise ludicrous notion of change for change’s sake could actually help. While decisions to fire a coach have to be considered in light of who’s available, the decision-making process changes when a coach’s message is starting to fall on deaf ears. A new man with new ideas might help, even if under most circumstances those ideas would be inferior to Mourinho’s.

MORE: Mourinho sends best wishes to Tito Vilanova

Eventually, Mourinho and Chelsea parted ways. The Blues went on to the 2008 Champions League final with Avram Grant, one of the worst managers in English soccer over the last five years. A year later, Carlo Ancelotti moved to London from Milan, and Chelsea reclaimed the league title.

The amazing part of the parallel is the speed with which things changed. True, Mourinho was coming off his first non-title year at Chelsea when he was dismissed, but in only three seasons, the man had crafted a legend. That he would leave the team within a year-plus of a title was shocking. But in Madrid, the turn has been just as quick. Just eight months ago, Real Madrid seemed destined for a domestic title and a Champions League final meeting with Barcelona (a meeting that never happened).

MORE: Kaka likely to stay, according to coach

Now, Real’s grasping at straws. They benched Iker Casillas today, a seemingly desperate attempt to inject some fear into a team that’s lacked urgency all season.

Soon, Florentino Perez may try the same plan. If Mourinho, destined to leave in May regardless, can’t get more out of this team, rolling the dice on change for change’s sake becomes a low risk move for El Real.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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