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New MLS off-season improvement rankings

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In assessing which teams have done the most to improve in MLS through December, there’s no one really close to New York.

The new regime, headed by the brand’s director of football Gerald Hollier, has moved aggressively to improve the team around Thierry Henry, who probably only has one or perhaps two seasons as a premier MLS man.

So on the Red Bulls build. Here is our second ranking of MLS off-season betterment:

1. New York Red Bulls 

Dumping salary (Sebastien Le Toux, Teemu Tainio, Victor Palsson and Jan Gunnar Solli) helped make room for DP Juninho Pernambucano, the creator long missing around Red Bull Arena, someone to get Thierry Henry the ball in the right places. (So Henry doesn’t have to retreat into midfield and do it for himself.) The big move, of course, is capping Marquez backflow by releasing their troublemaking millionaire. In addition to the salary relief, it sheds the drag and the weight of all his drama. Meanwhile, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola are potential impact men who have been added. Additionally, Tainio’s departure clears room for even more growth from Dax McCarty, one of the most underrated men of 2012 in MLS.

2. Sporting Kansas City

The club’s first major-signing Designated Player, Claudio Lopez, provided precious little return for the DP dollar. Then came Omar Bravo, who did score some goals (including one very important strike) and had his worthwhile moments, even if he never became the front page star and a guy to necessarily build around. Now SKC may be moving even further forward in the DP success equation with Argentine forward Claudio Bieler. Playing in the formation ahead of quasi-U.S. international Benny Feilhaber (just acquired in a trade with New England) and MLS All-Star Graham Zusi gives Kansas City the makings of a stunning attack. Yes, Roger Espinoza’s impending departure hurts. A lot. But officials at Livestrong appear to have found a way to become stronger despite it. Once promising center back Ike Opara, still looking for top professional form, has been for defensive depth.

3. Philadelphia Union

Two big moves make Philadelphia’s off-season strong and intriguing. First came the addition of veteran center back Jeff Parke, who had proven to be such a reliable figure for Seattle over the last two years around CenturyLink Field. But he wanted to be closer to home, and Seattle accommodated. Yes, the Sons of Ben surely still miss their captain, Danny Calliff, who left for Chivas USA in the 2012 Philly shuffle. But if you’re comparing center backs, tit for tat, Parke is the younger and better of the two. The defense fortified, Philly also brought home Le Toux, who has bounced around without much success since leaving Philly two years ago. Now he’s back and (fingers crossed, Philly fans) ready to flourish again at PPL Park, where the Frenchman enjoyed that breakout 2010 All-Star season (14 goals and 11 assists). Union coach John Hackworth, not the tactical restrictor plate that former coach Peter Nowak was, will know how to get the best from Le Toux’s instincts to freelance – most likely at striker alongside young Jack McInerney. There’s also a chance he could partner with Conor Casey, who was taken by the Union during December’s re-entry draft process.

Brazil will play Colombia in friendly for air crash victims

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 03:  A fan pays tribute to the players of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real at the club's Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, on December 03, 2016. The players were killed in a plane accident in the Colombian mountains. Players of the Chapecoense team were among the 77 people on board the doomed flight that crashed into mountains in northwestern Colombia. Officials said just six people were thought to have survived, including three of the players. Chapecoense had risen from obscurity to make it to the Copa Sudamericana finals scheduled for Wednesday against Atletico Nacional of Colombia.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Brazil will play Colombia in a friendly match at the end of January to help victims of the air crash that killed most of the players, staff and directors of soccer club Chapecoense last week.

Spokesman Douglas Lunardi also said on Monday that the Brazilian football confederation will donate about $ 1.5 million to Chapecoense.

Nineteen of Chapecoense’s players were killed in the crash just outside Medellin, Colombia, as the Brazilian team headed to the first of two matches against Colombian club Atletico Nacional to determine the champion of the Copa Sudamericana – Latin America’s No. 2 club tournament.

[ MORE: U.S. Soccer’s Player of Year finalists ]

Earlier, South America’s football confederation Conmebol officially gave the title of the 2016 edition to Chapecoense, as Atletico Nacional requested.

Lunardi said the venue will be decided by Chapecoense directors and that all the ticket office revenues will go to the families of the victims. The most obvious choices, he said, are the historic Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro and Chapecoense’s Arena Conda.

“The decision will be between making that tribute at home or get a bigger revenue for the victims,” Lunardi told The Associated Press. “We will let them take their time to make that decision.”

Maracana has a capacity of 78,000 and has hosted two World Cup finals as well as the opening ceremony of the last Olympic Games in August.

Arena Conda is a 22,000-seater. It hosted a memorial service on Saturday for 50 of the 71 victims.

Chapeco, the city of the club impacted by the tragedy, has 200,000 residents and sits about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Rio.

In a press conference in Chapeco, Chapecoense’s president Ivan Tozzo said the club will decide the venue for the match in the next few days. He also said that the donation from the confederation will help cover the expenses for the memorial services.

UEFA Champions League preview: Arsenal in Basel, Man City hosts Celtic

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: Raheem Sterling of Manchester City takes on Stuart Armstrong of Celtic during the UEFA Champions League match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
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The final week of group stage matches in this season’s UEFA Champions League are upon us, and only a pair of berths remain in Tuesday’s groups.

Those are in Group B, where Napoli, Benfica, and Besiktas enter the day a point a part. Only Dynamo Kyiv has been eliminated, and they’ll host a Besiktas side which is in the catbird seat. If the Turkish side wins, it will finish above either Napoli or Benfica.

Benfica is at home to its Italian rivals, with both sides on 8 points. And they’ll each head to the knockout rounds of Besiktas (7 points) fails to earn a result.

[ MORE: U.S. Soccer’s Player of Year finalists ]

As for our Premier League contestants, Arsenal looks pretty locked into the second seed in Group A. Trailing PSG after a 2-2 draw in London, the Gunners head to Switzerland to face Basel. Arsenal needs to better PSG’s result against visiting Ludogorets Razgrad.

Manchester City hosts Celtic knowing it’s already clinched second place in Group C and cannot catch leaders Barcelona. Expect youth.

In Group D, things are also settled with Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich 1-2 regardless of what happens in their match in Germany. Atleti is the only team which can finish the group stage 6-0. The last team to achieve that 2014-15 Real Madrid, who swept Basel, Liverpool, and Ludogorets Razgrad.

Tuesday’s UCL schedule
PSG vs. Ludogorets Razgrad
Barcelona vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid
Manchester City vs. Celtic
Basel vs. Arsenal
Benfica vs. Napoli
PSV Eindhoven vs. Rostov
Dynamo Kyiv vs. Besiktas

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Everton’s Bolasie needs ACL surgery, will miss AFCON

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04:  Jose Mourinho manager of Manchester United reacts as Yannick Bolasie of Everton is given treatment during the Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park on December 4, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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This is a big blow to Everton, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yannick Bolasie is set for a long spell on the sidelines after suffering an ACL injury in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United.

The 27-year-old attacker has played in every match for the Toffees, and is an electric attacking threat. He has one goal and four assists in PL play this season, after nabbing five and four for Palace last season.

[ PL: Grading the superstars’ seasons ]

A $32 million buy from Crystal Palace, Bolasie will miss the Africa Cup of Nations next month and likely send the Toffees into the transfer market.

Manager Ronald Koeman has made no secret of his Memphis Depay admiration, and this could tip Everton’s hand.

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Aubameyang raises transfer eyebrows in midst of otherworldy season

LISBON, PORTUGAL - OCTOBER 18: Pierre Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund in action at the warm up during the UEFA Champions League match between SC Sporting and Borussia Dortmund at Estadio Jose Alvalade on October 18, 2016 in Lisbon, Lisboa. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)
Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images
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Game changer, season changer, title changer.

It’s hard to find a phrase that would overstate what it would mean if a club could pry Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the hands of Borussia Dortmund.

Aubameyang raised eyebrows Monday with his non-dismissal of a transfer possibility. It wasn’t quite a “come and get me”, but the door is certainly open.

[ MORE: U.S. Soccer’s Player of Year finalists ]

“I don’t know if I will stay. I just think about playing good football right now. I want to give my best and win titles. I just think about the sport and nothing else.”

If you don’t pay a lot of attention to the Bundesliga, it might be easy to overlook Aubameyang. But the season he’s having with BVB’s wealth of playmaking midfielders is overwhelming. Give him less than a yard, and he’s all set.

Throw in the UEFA Champions League, and “Auba” has 18 goals in 18 matches. In the Bundesliga, he has a 4-goal night at Hamburg but also goals against Bayern and Hertha. Aubameyang has two braces, and has only been held off the score sheet three times (BVB is 1D-2L in those contests).

Put plainly, no one is doing what he’s doing right now.

Top Five leagues, 2016-17 goals (matches)

  1. Aubameyang, BVB — 15 (12)
  2. Edinson Cavani, PSG — 14 (14)
  3. Anthony Modeste, Koln — 12 (13)
  4. Mauro Icardi, Inter Milan — 12 (14)
  5. Eden Dzeko, Roma — 12 (15)
  6. Alexandre Lacazette — 11 (11)
  7. Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal — 11 (14)
  8. Diego Costa, Chelsea — 11 (14)
  9. Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid — 10 (11)
  10. Sergio Aguero, Manchester City — 10 (12)
  11. Andrea Belotti, Torino — 10 (13)
  12. Lionel Messi, Barcelona — 9 (9)
  13. Luis Suarez, Barcelona — 9 (12)
  14. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich — 9 (13)
  15. Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo — 9 (13)
  16. Ciro Immobile, Lazio — 9 (15)
  17. Alassane Plea, Nice — 9 (16)

Follow @NicholasMendola