Rafa Benitez returns to a very different Liverpool

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Now seems like  a good moment to assess Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge of Liverpool.

It’s his 50th game as manager tomorrow as the club hosts Chelsea – whose interim manager is Rafael Benitez, the Spaniard adored by Liverpool fans for a six-year spell that brought the Champions League in 2005 and second place in the Premier League in 2008-09. His family still live near Liverpool.

Since many Chelsea fans detest Benitez, he can expect a much better reception from opposition supporters than from his own club’s traveling fans at Anfield. Benitez brought Xabi Alonso and a then-useful Fernando Torres to Liverpool and finishing as runner-up to Manchester United was a credible achievement for a club that has not won the English league title since 1989-90. Their impressive total of 86 points might have brought the championship trophy in another, less competitive season.

After four successive top-four finishes under Benitez between 2006 and 2009, Liverpool are about to miss out on the Champions League for the fourth year in a row. They ended up eighth in the Premier League standings under Kenny Dalglish’s management last year and are currently seventh under Rodgers, ten points adrift of Arsenal, in fourth.

Rodgers has been forced to slash the wage bill by the club’s American owners after heavy transfer spending on the likes of Andy Carroll failed to pay off. The former Swansea manager says the club are a work in progress.

“I am very hopeful we can meet the challenge going forward and we can try to be a consistent team to get into those top four places,” he told reporters.

But it is a big ask and you only have to look at Chelsea themselves. They finished sixth in the league last season and they had a net spend of over [$108m] in the summer in order to try to get back into that top four… It is an ongoing process. I’ve signed here for three years and I would hope from the first day I came in until the final day I leave we will be in a better position. But I don’t think you can put a timeline on it. Without that lightning bolt of investment you have to build and coach your way towards it and mould the team. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen overnight but I’m not crying for time, it is just the reality of the club.”

Two points behind last year’s tally of 52 points with five fixtures remaining, Rodgers is likely to surpass the mediocre total that contributed to Dalglish’s exit. But Liverpool trail low-budget neighbors Everton: never a good look in the red sector of the city. And Rodgers has spent money on transfers. Some $70-0dd million, much of it on former Swansea players Joe Allen and Fabio Borini, whose impact is debatable. Without Steven Gerrard’s class and Luis Suarez’s goals, Liverpool would probably be closer to the relegation zone than the European qualification places.

It’s rare these days that a manager of a high-profile club gets to write off an entire season as a transition period. Owners and fans want quick results, even during a comprehensive roster overhaul. Rodgers may argue the rebuild will take every minute of those three years, and he may be right. But he’ll have to mount a more sustained and serious challenge for the top four next season.

PODCAST: Bob Bradley talks MLS past, USMNT

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Scott Nicholls and Otis Earle welcomed Bob Bradley to their “Beyond The Pitch” podcast to discuss his time coaching the Chicago Fire, the Fire’s current squad, how MLS has evolved, the new generation of players coming into the USMNT and more.

Perhaps most interesting is Bradley talking about previous losses with stinging emotion that sounds like they happened yesterday, including the 2000 MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Men In Blazers pod ]

Since being fired from Swansea City after less than 100 days, Bradley has been linked with the Norway national team gig as well as a return to Los Angeles. Keep up with the U.S. coach here, and check it out:

U.S. Open Cup preview: Which underdog has best odds?

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Every dog has its day, and the three lower-tier clubs remaining in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are hoping for a second.

Miami FC, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati enjoyed wins over Major League Soccer sides in the fourth round, and now get further MLS tests in this week’s fifth round.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Once FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids tangle on Tuesday, attention turns to the underdogs on Wednesday. Who has the best chance to advance?

  1. Miami FC vs. Atlanta United — Playing an MLS expansion side at Riccardo Silva Stadium will give Miami a bit of confidence, and this is also a side with some good experience in pressure spots. Whether it’s manager Alessandro Nesta or MLS vets Michel, Gabriel Farfan, and Michael Lahoud, MFC won’t shy away. Upset chance: Solid.
  2. FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire — The visitors are having a heck of a season in MLS and don’t have a group which will be worried by a huge crowd, but there’s no debating that 25,000-plus in Southern Ohio give FCC more than a puncher’s chance. Upset chance: Improbable, but possible
  3. LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic — If LA puts something close to its best side out there, Sacramento will struggle to stop its attack.  Upset chance: Long shot.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, New England hosts DC United, Philadelphia visits the Red Bulls, Seattle is off to San Jose, and Houston hosts Sporting KC.

WATCH: Spain’s Saul smashes a shot past Italy’s Donnarumma

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Since returning from a loan at Rayo Vallecano, Saul Niguez has been a somewhat under the radar star at Atletico Madrid.

Coming off his best season with Atleti, the 22-year-old Saul is making an even bigger name for himself at the U-21 EURO this summer.

Spain’s Saul scored a hat trick past Gianluigi Donnarumma and Italy on Tuesday, and the second goal was laced with venom.

Getting onto the ball from 30-plus yards out, Saul smashed his shot with enough power that the ball barely had occasion to rotate.

Saul is under contract at the Vicente Calderon through 2022, and has three caps for Spain’s senior team, too. He was rated Atleti’s third-best performer by WhoScored this season.

Men in Blazers podcast: Transfer window, USMNT at Gold Cup, RBNY-NYCFC

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Men In Blazers are back with their latest podcast, and the boys are hitting club soccer here and abroad as well as Bruce Arena’s men in the red, white, and blue.

Rog and Davo break down transfer window activity, rumored and real; get a heat check on the USMNT heading into the Gold Cup; and recap the (Ray) Hudson River Derby.

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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