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.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

[ MORE: Chicharito talks heating up with LA FC ]

On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.