Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund: Nit-pick if you want, they’re perfect through two rounds


We’ve never stopped to consider the standard of soccer Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund left us with in last year’s UEFA Champions League final. We need to talk about this. Not only was that one of the most well-played Champions League finals in the tournament’s (admittedly short) history, but it gave us two-and-a-half months to dwell. And with each side going out and adding to their squad this summer, we’ve been left to imagine their potential heights.

Bayern not only added Mario Götze and Thiago Alcantera, they also lured Pep Guardiola out of his New York hiatus. Yet we seem to be over it. If the Miami Heat replaced Eric Spoelstra with Phil Jackson, we’d stop talking about that … ever?

And while BVB lost Götze and Felipe Santana, they added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (hat trick, opening day), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (tons of goals for Shakhtar Donetsk), and will have a full year from recent Bundesliga Player of the Year Nuri Sahin. Seriously, why aren’t we still talking about this? It wasn’t unreasonable to think either (or both) of these teams could improve on last year’s quality, even if regression makes that unlikely.

Allow me to answer my own question. Why aren’t we talking about how good Bayern and Dortmund are? Because seeing them actually play is kind of important, and through two rounds of the German season, amazing hasn’t happened,

Even though both are perfect through two rounds, we’ve yet to see either team fire on all cylinders. Yes, from a certain perspective, Bayern Munich’s 1-0, Saturday win at Eintracht Frankfurt was convincing, controlling 70 percent of possession and more than doubling their hosts’ shots on goal (7-3). But there was also a feeling that they could find the second goal they (ultimately never) needed to kill off the game. Fortunately for them, Mario Mandzukic’s 13th minute opener held up, but the 2012-13 Bayern Munich is not impressed.

Borussia Dortmund played a similar game — a dominating performance that sent Braunschweig home with a 2-1 loss — but held without a goal for 75 minutes, they hardly overwhelmed a team that spent last year in the second division. Without Ilkay Gundogan, one of the league’s best players who was injured mid-week while on duty with German, BVB often lacked an element of decisiveness in possession. Keeping dynamo Marco Reus out for an hour didn’t help. After he came on for Jakub Blaszczykowski and Jonas Hofmann was brought on for Aubamenyang (15 minutes later), BVB scored twice in the final half hour.

It says something for the heights these clubs have attained that even winning performances can elicit curiosity. It’s not enough that they win. It’s not enough that they do so convincingly. As is the case when Real Madrid aren’t in high gear or Chelsea’s performance is merely controlling, not dominant, Bayern and BVB’s imperfections give us pause. Even though we know every match can’t end 7-0, but we’re left wondering why these engines aren’t purring.

Step back, look a the bigger picture, and you see Borussia Dortmund’s at the top of the league. Imperfections and all. Bayern, also 2-0-0, is only two spots behind them. Bayer Leverkusen, who used a Daniel Schwaab own goal to post a 1-0 win at Stuttgart, sits in between, while Mainz (2-1 win at Freiburg) and Werder Bremen (1-0 win vs. Augsburg) are the Bundesliga’s other perfect teams.

So they’ll be fine. In all likelihood, one of Dortmund and Bayern will win the league, and we’ll again be wondering the extent to which these two clubs have distanced themselves from the pack (save us, Sami Hyypia!). For now, however, we nit-pick.

Of particular note: Hamburg’s off to another bad start, with one point and a -4 goal difference through two games. This week, however, the implications of their 5-1 home loss will be overshadowed by Firmino, a 21-year-old attacker who played a part of Hoffenheim’s five goals.

Here is the Brazilian scoring Hoffenheim’s first and last while setting up the middle three, with only Rafael van der Vaart’s early conversion from the spot breaking up his (and Hoffenheim’s) perfect day:

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason. 

The case for (and against) every Eastern Conference playoff team

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Benoit Cheyrou #8 of Toronto FC defends Andrea Pirlo #21 of New York City FC free kick at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Of the six teams remaining in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, you could argue there are three distinct pairings.

You have red-hot traditional sides in DC United and the New York Red Bulls; There are the big-name driven, deep squads from Toronto FC and New York City FC, and finally the two relative unknowns truly deserving of “wildcard” status in the Philadelphia Union Montreal Impact.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

Sure the table tends to tell us who’s who in the pecking order. It’s hard to bet against the Red Bulls seeing they haven’t lost since July 3, and Frank Lampard has somehow quietly been a wrecking ball thanks to dynamite performances from captain David Villa and world-class maestro Andrea Pirlo.

But there are reasons those teams may not be the true favorite to advance to the MLS Cup final, just as there are ways to imagine Philly can punch their way through the East. We’re here to give you both.

Philadelphia Union (6)

Why they’ll win: The young unit might be too green to know it isn’t expected to knock off Toronto in Toronto, or a New York team in New York or New Jersey. Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta add veteran skill and savvy, while Andre Blake is capable of stealing some of the league’s more terrific strikes.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Why they won’t: Their last win was Aug. 27, and we’re supposed to expect the Union to win on the road at Toronto, RBNY, and then either NYCFC or DC. Nah, dog (though it’d be quite a story and we’d be happy to watch it).

Montreal Impact (5)

Why they’ll win: Didier Drogba may not be mentally in it, but he’s still a fierce competitor who can score with the best of them. By the way, the “best of them” definitely includes Ignacio Piatti. The Argentine has been one of the top players in the league this season, and can take over any game (Yes, even three on the bounce).

Why they won’t: The dysfunction and fall-out from Drogba’s benching permeates the room before match against red-hot DC United, and an average road team fails to meet expectations.

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba heads the ball in front of D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas during the second half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

DC United (4)

Why they’ll win: A four-match win streak earned most of DC’s starters a well-deserved rest on Decision Day, and there will be a “Why not us?” cry coming from the DC dressing room. Patrick Nyarko has been a lot of fun to watch. Luciano Acosta is legit as well. Bill Hamid is an excellent shot stopper, and the four-time champion Black-and-Red is overdue for a final, having been absent since beating KC in 2004.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Why they won’t: Let’s be honest, most arguments against DC sound quite political. “Well, they can’t win because of the other guys being so good.” DC doesn’t have the firepower of TFC, NYCFC, and RBNY; Would you bet on them beating two of the above, which they likely would have to? (Actually, kinda).

Toronto FC (3)

Why they’ll win: Frankly, this is the best defensive team in the East, with a minimum of three game attacking breakers in Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. Imports Drew Moor and Clint Irwin aren’t scared of the spotlight, and Will Johnson will be putting on for his city. And they’re good away from BMO Field. This could be TFC’s season, y’all.

Why they won’t: This is Toronto’s 10th season, and happens to be the first one in which it won more matches than it lost. TFC’s debut home match comes on Wednesday evening, and there’s something to be said for experience. While some of its players have plenty, the club does not possess much at all.

New York City FC (2)

Why they’ll win: One of only two teams (Toronto) to finish their road schedule with a .500 record, Patrick Vieira has been able to get the best out of the superstars and the lesser-known members of NYC’s squad. Tactically, we’re not sure there’s another coach in the East with his acumen.

Why they won’t: It’s also Vieira’s first playoffs as a manager, and the whole franchise hasn’t done that dance, either. They have one win in five combined matches against RBNY and TFC.

New York Red Bulls

Why they’ll win: Frankly, as stated above, because they don’t lose. Jesse Marsch hasn’t overseen a loss in three-and-a-half months, has two legit claimants to MVP honors in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, and have been reinforced by one of the deepest Academy production lines in MLS.

Why they won’t: New York won just three road matches all year, even if it managed 7 draws away from Red Bull Arena. On top of that, this is year No. 20 of MLS, and founding members RBNY have zero titles and one final appearance. Those ghosts could come creeping up to the door.

USMNT’s Yedlin talks Newcastle challenge, EFL Cup quarters

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 26:  DeAndre Yedlin of Tottenham Hotspur controls the ball during the 2016 International Champions Cup match between Juventus FC and Tottenham Hotspur at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 26, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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USMNT standout DeAndre Yedlin is gaining valuable experience fighting for promotion with Championship-leading Newcastle United, and will likely get the chance to help the Magpies into the EFL Cup quarterfinals this week.

Newcastle hosts Preston North End on Tuesday at St. James Park, and the 23-year-old Yedlin has been providing plenty to the Magpies under Rafa Benitez.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tuesday preview ]

Yedlin has appeared four times at right mid and four more at right back as Newcastle sits atop the Championship through 14 matches. He’s been in the 18 for every match since he arrived from Tottenham.

Manager Rafa Benitez has employed a lot of rotation in his squad given the congested schedule, and Yedlin has competed for time at the back with Magpies veteran Vurnon Anita and ex-Atleti back Jesus Gamez. The club’s right-sided attackers include even more options, headlined by the electric Matt Ritchie.

From The Chronicle:

“If you aren’t in form there’s always one guy will step in. They could take your place,” Yedlin said.

“That means every opportunity you get you must take and make the best of it.”

That’s the sort of competition we like to see abroad, and the reason players like Perry Kitchen (Hearts) and Matt Miazga (Vitesse via Chelsea) are lauded for taking steps out of their insta-starter status domestically (and again, I hate having to repoint out that it’s okay to feel this way and love MLS).

As for Tuesday’s match against Preston, here are Yedlin’s thoughts on being in the final 16 of the EFL Cup:

“It’s an important game. We are getting to the final stages of the cup now and obviously we want to win everything we can.

“It’s important to us. Like I’ve said the depth in this team is unbelievable. So I am sure whatever team goes out there will be extremely strong.”