Swansea City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League

Look ahead, Premier League: Another chance for a Liverpool breakthrough

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Somewhere over the course of the winter it’s become acceptable to see the Brendan Rodgers Project in a new light. Though the first-year boss ambitiously (if perhaps slightly disingenuously) said his team could finish second this season, most onlookers saw this as another year of transition for the Reds. Disappointments like last Sunday’s at Oldham Athletic still dot Liverpool’s record, but the quality of their play has been encouraging. At their best, Liverpool looks like a Champions League contender, even if that status is still at least a season away. But with that quality apparent now, fans have been left yearning for the type of win that will validate suspicions the team can be as good as they  look.

That win almost came mid-week, but conceding a two-goal lead in London means fans are still wait for Brendan Rodgers’ big breakthrough. After an hour at the Emirates, it looked set to arrive, but goals from Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott salvaged a point for Arsenal. Against the Premier League’s top six, Liverpool is now 0-4-4 this season.

For all the beautiful soccer Rodgers has instilled at Anfield, it’s fair to ask when it means if they aren’t beating top competition. The former Swansea boss was brought in to build something better than Kenny Dalglish had last season. If that requires a transition year, fans seem ready to be patient, but when the results start to hint at a roadblock that defies their talent — the type of block that hints at something mental rather than physical — curiosity’s natural. And at some point, that curiosity becomes a concern.

Rodgers isn’t quite there, yet. Even after capitulating mid-week, he’s still focuing on the positives.

“Normally you would be bitterly disappointed not to have won but I can only be proud of the players,,” Rodgers silver—linings it after the match. “I thought they were absolutely magnificent.”

Those players get their next chance for a breakthrough Sunday at Eastlands. There they’ll face a Manchester City side whose last two performances should engender hope. Their 1-0 win on the 26th at Stoke City came only after Pablo Zabeleta’s late right place, right time goal. Three days later, the Citizens were drawn at Loftus Road, the title aspirants dropping points against the Premier League’s worst team.

The problem’s up front. It’s been 328 minutes since Edin Dzeko scored at Arsenal on Jan. 13, the last time a City forward got on the scoresheet. The last time one of the team’s strikers scored against 11 men in league  was Jan. 1 (Dzeko against Stoke City). Sergio Aguero’s “struggling”, down to 8 goals in 20 games after scoring 23 times in his first Premier League season. Carlos Tévez hasn’t scored in league since Dec. 1, and Mario Balotelli’s no longer on the books.

But if his strike corps is a problem, manager Roberto Mancini’s not admitting it.

“Now we have three strikers,” Mancini said when asked if City tried to acquire another forward. “We have only Premier League and FA Cup, I think that could be enough.”

On Sunday, it just might. In Liverpool’s eight games against the top six, they’ve given up multiple goals seven times, including their Aug. 26 meeting with City. Their 30  goals allowed puts them a respectable eighth in the Premiership, but having conceded half those in  eight games against the league’s best, their defensive record only feeds into the theme: The next step for The Brendan Rodgers project is a breakthrough against one of the league’s top teams.

Elsewhere in England


Queens Park Rangers (20th) vs. Norwich City (14th) – Must wins don’t exist in February, but how can QPR be confident they’ll stay up if they can’t beat Norwich City at home? The Canaries last league win was Dec. 12.

Arsenal (6th) vs. Stoke City (10th) – Now four points and two places out of a Champions League spot, the Gunners can’t afford to drop points in these types of games. The last time Stoke took points at Arsenal was 1981 (eight matches).

Everton (5th) vs. Aston Villa (19th) – Not so long ago, this was a battle for non-Big Four supremacy (when there was a Big Four). Now Everton’s competing for Champions League while Villa looks to have reached new lows. In the drop with the worst goal difference in the league, Aston Villa’s no longer one of Everton’s peers.

Newcastle United (15th) vs. Chelsea (3rd) – Who knows what to expect from Chelsea? Would anybody be surprised if they lost this one? Newcastle’s been reinforced by Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoann Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy in the winter window, giving the Magpies the talent to take advantage of the Blues, particularly if a newly healthy Yoann Cabaye can tilt the battle in the middle. But this is stills not a match Chelsea should be losing. While Newcastle’s intriguing, they aren’t on Chelsea’s level.

Reading (17th) vs. Sunderland (11th) – How has this happened? Reading hasn’t been much different after their rough start, yet they’re getting better results. Seven points in their last three and have allowed them to claw out of the drop. The pack has come back to them, something you can also say about Sunderland. They also have seven in their last three, they’ve climbed to 11th, and while they’re now finding more goals (and turning draws into wins), it’s difficult to say things have truly turned around. Both these teams are  taking advantage of a weak bottom half.

West Ham United (13th) vs. Swansea City (8th) – The Hammers have hit a wall. After a strong start to the season, they closed January with three loses in four, conceding 12 times. Swansea ran out 3-0 winners in the teams’ August meeting. Undefeated in league since Dec. 16, this could be another convincing result for Swans.

Wigan Athletic (18th) vs. Southampton (16th) – Two weeks ago this would have been one of the more obscurely attractive matches in the schedule, but with Nigel Adkins asked to give way for Mauricio Pochettino, we’re no longer guaranteed two styles that augur a beautiful game.

Fulham (12th) vs. Manchester United (1st) – I refuse to say anything predictive about #FlawedButFabulous. Fulham, on the other hand, are another illustration of England’s weak bottom half. As much as they’ve struggled this season, they’re still 12th.


West Bromwich Albion (9th) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (4th) – Lewis Holtby’s arrival will probably mean an even greater playing time struggle for Clint Dempsey, but the German playmaker is exactly when Spurs need. This Sunday’s match may provide a perfect example. On the road against a team whose tactics could have previously exposed Spurs’ occasional lack of creativity, Holtby may provide a dimension that forces opposing managers to reconsider laying of Spurs and daring them to craft a killer ball.

“Sorry to kill your stories”: Klopp not seeking new Liverpool GK

during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and FC Girondins de Bordeaux at Anfield on November 26, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
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The topic of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a lightning rod for a certain subset of Liverpool fans, but you can count Jurgen Klopp in the group that likes him just fine, thank you.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

The 27-year-old Belgian has been the man between the sticks for Klopp since the manager took over at Anfield, and Klopp is already tiring of the rumors that he’s looking for better in the goalkeeping department.

From the BBC:

“I’m absolutely satisfied with our goalkeeper situation.

“I’m sorry to kill your stories about German goalkeepers and different goalkeepers from Stoke – we are not looking for another goalkeeper.”

Pretty clear cut there. Jack Butland would be nice and all, but Klopp’s fine with Mignolet and ex-Bolton man Adam Bogdan.

Do you think they need better?

Klinsmann backs Altidore ahead of busy 2016; USMNT star “back on board”

Jurgen Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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Jurgen Klinsmann thinks Jozy Altidore‘s tumultuous year ended on an upswing, and expects it to continued into an important 2016.

The Toronto FC hitman had plenty of ups and downs for club, and just as many for country. Whether injuries or form, Altidore wasn’t often the player USMNT fans remember from years past.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But the recently-turned 26-year-old scored six times in his last nine games with TFC to give him 13 on the season, and Klinsmann seems to think his big striker is out of the woods.

From US Soccer:

“Everybody saw that 2015 for Jozy Altidore has been very difficult, a tricky year, but it has become a year toward the end of it where it got stronger and stronger. He had some injury issues and some fitness issues in the beginning of the year. Obviously we had the episode in the Gold Cup where he was not in the shape he needed to be. In then towards July, August, September, he got more and more into the flow. He started to score goals for Toronto, and he got stronger and stronger for the national team as well. This is a very positive sign for us to have Jozy back on board, to plan with Jozy into a very busy 2016, obviously the biggest highlight is the Copa America in June.”

It’s great for the coach to have faith in the United States’ fourth all-time leading scorer, who should catch Eric Wynalda for third this season. Whether Klinsmann will be rewarded for his faith in the striker is another thing altogether, especially in that pivotal, U.S. hosted tournament this summer.

The tricky thing for Altidore, in the run up to the 2018 World Cup, will be for him to prove his merit if players like Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson and Jordan Morris continue their rises as scoring options.

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
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For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
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It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.