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Germany: Win over Bayer caps turnaround week for Schalke

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They finished one place apart in last year’s standings, but for Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, the beginning of the Bundesliga season saw two of Germany’s better teams on divergent paths. Bayer impressed out of the gate, an attack led by Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Son Heung-Min leading an offense that’d scored eight times in their perfect, three-game start. Schalke, on the other hand, had conceded nine times in three rounds and, combined with a home draw in the first leg for their Champions League play-in against Greece’s PAOK, hinted at a tailspin to start the campaign.

Yet mid-week, ahead of today’s visit from Bayer, Schalke got a huge result in Thessaloniki. Two Adám Szalai goals bookended a key, second road goal via Julian Draxler, giving the Miners a 3-2 win which secured their place in Champions League group stage. Add in the Friday acquisition of Kevin Prince Boateng, the attacking midfielder surprising with a move away from Milan, and the week’s been a boon for the Blues. Though Prince’s transfer has rekindled speculation about Draxler’s future (speculation immediately shot down by the club), Schalke looked to have moved beyond their troublesome Bundesliga start.

If, however, Bayer got a win today at the Veltins-Arena, those good vibes would be squelched, potentially by the realization that Bayer, while still decidedly south of Germany’s two current elites, may be pulling away. A Big Two Plus One scenario would leave a talented but enigmatic Schalke to position itself as the best of the rest, seeking a Wenger-inspired honor for merely finishing fourth in your league.

To the joy of 61,793 in Gelsenkirchen, that realization never happened on Saturday. Schalke proved the better, more energetic side throughout, holding the previously firing Bayer off the scoresheet. Marco Höger’s first half, set piece conversion combined with Jefferson Farfan’s second half penalty kick to have Schalke a convincing win, the 2-0 result ruining Bayer’s perfect start. With Boateng proving influential debuting as Jens Keller’s number ten (pushing Draxler left), Schalke limited Bayer to one shot on goal, overcoming the continued absence of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee) to record their first victory of the season.

Despite Boateng’s acquisition, the key to this team, will continue to be Farfan (pictured, above), his often dominant displays on the right giving Schalke a player that’s near-impossible to match up against. For Huntelaar and Szalai, life is easier being able to plan on that threat from the right, but whereas Schalke’s inability to come up with more tricks may have contributed to their erratic form last year, now they have Boateng in the middle. Now Draxler’s out left, balancing the team in a way that proved promising during Michel Bastos’s brief tenure last season. As much as Bayer may be improving, the acquisition of Boateng gives Schalke the potential to keep up.

But even after today’s win, Schalke’s potential still needs to be realized. We’ve seen these highs before, and within a couple of weeks, we may see another low. This is Schalke, after all. They had a good win today, one that could prove important come spring, but they’re still in Germany’s bottom half, four points through four games leaving them 13th after Saturday’s results.

More from Germany: Bayern Munich played on Tuesday, drawing at Freiburg, while Borussia Dortmund play tomorrow … Hamburg, who like Schalke were off to a terrible start, woke up against visiting Braunschweig, posting a 4-0 win. Rafael van der Vaart had the opener … Borussia Moenchengladbach routed visiting Werder Bremen, with Juan Arango and Max Kruse among those who got on the scoresheet in a 4-1 win … Wolfsburg got goals from Ivica Olic and Diego (pk) in the last three minutes of the first half to hand Hertha Berlin their first loss of the season, 2-0 … Kevin Vogt’s late goal, scoring three minutes after coming on, allowed visiting Augsburg to take advantage of 10-man Nurnberg, 1-0 … Hannover won their third in four games, overcoming an early goal by Nicolai Müller to blow past visiting Mainz, 4-1.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

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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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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