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.

Everton loses Coleman to leg break on Ireland duty

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A horror tackle from Wales’ Neil Taylor snapped Seamus Coleman‘s leg in gruesome fashion on Friday.

Taylor was given a red card, and Coleman was stretched off the pitch in the 0-0 draw.

[ MORE: UEFA World Cup qualifying wrap ]

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill confirmed what was apparent from the match replay: the Everton man has a broken ankle.

“It’s a bad break. He’s a fantastic player and character. It’s a major blow for the lad, his club and us.

“Apparently it wasn’t the best challenge in the world – I haven’t seen it. He’s gone to hospital. I saw his reaction immediately and it didn’t look good. He was holding is leg up and it didn’t look good.

This is not only awful for the player, but causes stress as Everton mounts its assault on the Top Six. The right back has also manned right mid for Ronald Koeman this season, and has four goals and four assists in 26 Premier League matches.

Mason Holgate, Muhamed Besic, and Phil Jagielka have played some right back for Everton, while Ramiro Funes Mori has deputized at left back.

Emotional McClean speaks after honoring deceased teammate (video)

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After wearing the No. 5 to honor of his recently deceased teammate, James McClean met with the media following Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Wales in World Cup qualifying on Friday.

McClean played with Ryan McBride at Derry City, and left Ireland camp to attend funeral services after McBride died following a match last weekend. McClean was also mourning the death of friend and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness.

Throw in a gruesome injury to teammate Seamus Coleman and, in McClean’s words, “I’ve had better weeks”.

[ MORE: UEFA World Cup qualifying wrap ]

McClean, 27, spoke with evident emotion following a Man of the Match turn in Ireland’s draw (video below).

“It was a really tough week. The lads here have been great. They rallied around me. The manager was first class as well. He let me go up to Derry there on Tuesday and say my goodbyes. It’s been a tough week with Seamus injury as well. It’d been nice if we had have got a win and ended on a positive note, but it wasn’t to be.

“(McBride and McGuinness) were going through my thoughts today. I wanted to put in a performance that would make them proud. In the national anthem and the moment’s applause, holding my wee girl, it was emotional but I tried to put that in the right way into my performance. Hopefully tonight I’ve done the lads proud.”

World Cup qualifiers: Wales in trouble; Buffon hits 1000

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Friday’s matches mark the midway point of the main round of qualifying in UEFA, and the tables remain tight near the top of Groups D and G.

[ MORE: Smalling hurt, Gibson called up ]

Group I, however, is seeing some distance between first and second thanks to Croatia’s result versus Ukraine.

Republic of Ireland 0-0 Wales

Neil Taylor was sent off in the 69th minute for Wales, whose World Cup hopes are in trouble.

Seamus Coleman was stretchered off after the tackle, with a scary-looking injury that will leave Everton fans sick in more ways than one. Coleman’s leg was broken, and left dangling by the challenge.

Ireland couldn’t take advantage of the sending off, and failed in a bid to overtake Serbia for first in Group D. The Irish trail on goal differential, and will host Serbia on Sept. 5.

But Wales will rue the result more, remaining four points back of second-place Ireland. Chris Coleman’s side drops a point behind Austria as well, and will not have Taylor or Gareth Bale (card accumulation) in its next match. That comes against leaders Serbia.

Italy 2-0 Albania

Daniele De Rossi scored a 12th minute penalty kick won by Andrea Belotti, and Ciro Immobile scored late to provided the goals in Gianluigi Buffon’s 1000th appearance for club and country. Fittingly, it ended in a clean sheet. The match was briefly delayed after flares were thrown onto the field.

Spain 4-1 Israel

David Silva, Vitolo, and Diego Costa stakes the Spaniards to a three-goal lead, with Lior Refaelov ruining David De Gea‘s clean sheet with 11 minutes to play. Isco scored the match’s final goal.

Spain remains atop Group G on goal differential, eight better than second place Italy. Israel is four points behind both.

Croatia 1-0 Ukraine

Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic’s 38th minute goal was enough for the hosts, and Croatia is now five points clear of Ukraine and three above Iceland midway through qualifying.

Elsewhere
Austria 2-0 Moldova — RB Leipzig’s Sabitzer nabs winner
Liechtenstein 0-3 Macedonia — Ilija Nestorovski bags brace
Kosovo 1-2 Iceland — Sigurdsson PK the match winner
Georgia 1-3 Serbia — Mitrovic, Tadic lead the way
Turkey 2-0 Finland — Brace for Cenk Tosun

Boro’s Gibson called to England after injury to Man Utd’s Smalling

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Scoring goals has been the biggest problem for Middlesbrough in its return to the Premier League, and that overshadows how well the Northeast club has defended its own goal.

Ben Gibson has been a huge part of that, and now he’ll earn the chance to represent his nation thanks to an injury to Chris Smalling. Gibson will join England ahead of Sunday’s home World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.

[ MORE: Podolski leads Germany past England ]

Gibson has far and away been Boro’s best player, leading the side in blocked shots and clearances. The blocked shots total is tied for ninth in the Premier League, 11 behind current leader and new England teammate Michael Keane.

Smalling’s undisclosed injury is a bigger problem for Manchester United, which had already lost center back depth on England duty when Phil Jones was hurt.