Marco Schallibaum

Tracking MLS Coach of the Year: half a dozen names still in strong contention

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With just five rounds of Major League Soccer play remaining, we might logically conclude that these races would begin sorting themselves out a bit more. The fringe candidates seem to be falling out of the Most Valuable Player sweepstakes, for instance.

Not so with Coach of the Year, where candidates seem to be adding their names to the list of potential candidates rather than tumbling off of it.

Here is a very loose ordering; the names here are widely interchangeable. That is, any of these names could move up quickly, depending on how things develop over the remaining five weeks of play.

1. Montreal’s Marco Schallibaum

The Impact is far from perfect under their first-year Swiss boss – as we all saw in last weeks’ surprising home loss to Columbus. But look how far they have come in less than one year under Schallibaum (pictured). Because while Jesse Marsch certainly did a credible job with last year’s expansion outfit in Canada, L’Impact sure wasn’t challenging for top spot in the East and even Supporters Shield in 2012.

2. Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis

Last week’s loss to Seattle was a set-back, but the fact remains that Kreis is getting the job done about a half-dozen youngsters that so many good MLS fans still know little about. Kreis said last week he is surprised at how quickly this group has come along. If they can bounce back at home this week against San Jose, they will remain right in the thick of Supporters Shield pursuit. (And don’t forget, they will be favored in next month’s U.S. Open Cup final.)

3. Colorado’s Oscar Pareja

It’s just so easy to overlook good things happening in markets that receive far, far less attention. And that’s Colorado, of course, the very opposite of a place like Seattle, where everything get so overstated. But how can you not respect how the Rapids, crunched by all those injuries early in 2013, kept such a steady course? Pareja has five top starters who are rookies officially, or just miss being officially designated so through MLS technicalities, and yet the club is third in the West. (And the West is the tougher conference this year.)

4. Portland’s Caleb Porter

His case looked significantly stronger a few weeks ago. Heck, we all might have handed him the doggone thing if we were deciding in June. But we’re not … and the Timbers just haven’t had the same edge over the last two months. Still, it shouldn’t diminish the bang-up job Porter has done, style-wise and results-wise – assuming the men of Stumptown hold things together and make the playoffs, which they should be able to manager.

5. New York’s Mike Petke

The team is brimming with talent, of course, so they should be challenging for top spot in the East. Still, doesn’t Petke deserve to be on the list just for managing Thierry Henry and his Red Bull Arena-sized ego. I mean, didn’t the manager – in his first year as a professional head coach, remember – show us something by benching Henry two weeks back? I mean, talk about guts!

6. Seattle’s Sigi Schmid

Yes, a team with Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey up front, plus the league’s standard bearer holding midfielder, should be challenging for MLS hardware. But the Sounders did have questions to answer coming into the season. And this business of incorporating Dempsey, Johnson and Obafemi Martins is no slam dunk. If the Sounders win Supporters Shield (and Schmid’s team has the pole position at the moment) then their veteran manager has to be considered, at least.

(MORE: Tracking MLS Most Valuable Player)

Report: Everton had bid rejected for Wayne Rooney in January

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 01: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United applauds supporters during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Hull City at Old Trafford on February 1, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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According to the Daily Mail, Everton submitted a bid for Wayne Rooney in January, which was rejected by Manchester United.

The report did not state an amount of the bid, but it did confirm that the club is now in discussions about returning for their former player in the summer.

Rooney came through the Everton youth system and played for the Merseyside club’s first team from 2002-2004 before his famous move to Manchester United for $37 million. Rooney has seen very limited time this season under Jose Mourinho, and at 31 years old, has looked to have lost the ability to keep up with the standards of the Premier League.

The Liverpool native was the subject of heavy speculation in recent weeks of a move to China, with the Chinese transfer window open until the end of February, but Rooney released a statement to confirm he will stay with Manchester United until the end of the season.

Key to these rumors are Everton manager Ronald Koeman‘s comments from Thursday, when he affirmed his respect for Rooney, claiming the former Toffee can still play at a Premier League standard. “Yeah I think Wayne Rooney is still on that high level to compete in a competition like the Premier League.”

Despite all this, it seems a deal for Rooney is unlikely. Everton is not known as a heavy-spending club, and they would likely need to compete with the money of the Chinese league on both the transfer fee and wage front. Rooney would be worth a heavy investment for a Chinese club due to his big name, while his performances on field would be less important there. In contrast, Everton’s justification for a bid would focus more on his ability to perform consistently on the field, an area of clear decline.

Santi Cazorla details his newest injury setback

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - AUGUST 07: Santi Cazorla of Arsenal during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
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Santi Cazorla hasn’t played since mid-October, and with just 619 minutes of first-team football in the last calendar year, the Spaniard has become more than a liability.

He’s also become increasingly frustrated.

After having ankle surgery in October, Cazorla has faced a multitude of challenges on the sidelines, with his body unwilling to cooperate. He went back under the knife in December, and has returned to the hospital again for yet another procedure, one that refuses to go away as he looks to keep himself as match fit as possible during his time on the sidelines.

Speaking to Spanish radio station Onda Cero, Cazorla gave them all the details – even the cringe-worthy ones – on his ankle problems.

“It was a small operation they just had to close a wound that had opened, so they reopened it and closed it again,” Cazorla said. “It wasn’t anything serious, but that’s why I’m in the hospital. They did a graft about a month and a half ago because the skin on my ankle was practically dead and had developed a wound that wouldn’t close, so they operated in Sweden. It was starting to feel better until I started to do a bit of cycling and other exercise and then the skin broke, opened and the stitches came out so they had to close the wound again. I’ve been injured about a year and a half now since the knee [problem] in November last season and now this year with the ankle injury.

And that’s not all. Aside from his ankle injury, Cazorla’s back has begun to flare up again, a problem he dealt with 2 months ago.

“It’s given me a lot of time to think, especially about the World Cup and how bad my back felt then,” Cazorla said. “My back is even worse now. Back then I was out for about six months and now it has been a year and I’m still not better. But that’s life. You gotta deal with it as best you can. I can’t do much, can’t walk, I have to use crutches and it’s frustrating day after day. But I don’t have any other option, just to deal with it as best I can and get better.”

With Cazorla at 32 years old and his contract set to expire this June, this most recent setback couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Gunners are known to be wary of giving contracts to players over 30 years old, even their most influential ones, and he will be desperate to prove his worth to Arsene Wenger ahead of the club’s decision. It has been reported that the club already activated its option for another year on Cazorla’s contract, but the team has not officially confirmed that.

Cazorla’s Arsenal future could be especially in doubt if Wenger were to leave this summer. A new incoming manager might not be so sentimental about Cazorla’s club status.

Southampton’s Puel puts the pressure on Man United

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: Claude Puel, Manager of Southampton looks on during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Southampton at Bet365 Stadium on December 14, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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SOUTHAMPTON — Calm. Quiet. Focused.

Those are the best words to sum up not only Southampton’s manager Claude Puel most of the time, but especially this week. Think of that famous Seinfeld episode where Kramer learns to relax: “Serenity now!”

[ MORE: Saints’ journey goes full circle

For Puel, his first season managing in England has been far from relaxing. His team have already played 39 games this season across the Europa League group stage, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Premier League. The former Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice boss has now led his Southampton side to just the fourth major final in their 131-year history, as he has the chance to become just the second Saints manager to win a major trophy after Lawrie McMenemy in 1976 when they beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup and became heroes.

Serenity, now. The steely, soft spoken Frenchman is not getting distracted.

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news ]

Puel has kept the focus on this game and he doesn’t want to talk about what it would be like to lead the team out at Wembley, even though he recognize the importance of the occasion.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a gloriously sunny late winter afternoon in Southern England, he has called for his team to write a new chapter in Southampton’s rather barren history book when it comes to trophies.

“It is an exciting game, I know the last win in the cup was 1976… it is time, perhaps to finally win another trophy,” Puel smiled. “I would like to, and all the players are with me, to give our fans a fantastic pleasure and enjoyment. It has been fantastic to see them always since the start of the season in every competition. To see 8,000 fans away at Inter Milan, it was fantastic. It will be a big reward and always our fans deserve a good result.

“For the moment it is important to keep our calm, a good concentration, good focus about our game. Just to think about the consequence of the result it would not be a good thing. It is important to play a strong game against this great team and to put in place a good collective, to defend together and also to take any opportunity to score and to go forward with danger.”

This week none of Southampton players have been permitted to speak with media outlets, with all of their pre-final interviews completed last week before they jetted off to Spain to enjoy a few days of intensive training in the sun. Saints are ready, prepared and focused.

Puel admitted his side are the underdogs against Jose Mourinho’s red-hot Manchester United this Sunday.

With United losing just one of their last 25 games in all competitions the pressure is is off Southampton, just like it was at Arsenal in the quarterfinal and especially in the semifinal victory against Liverpool.

“Yes, I think there is a big pressure for Manchester [United]” Puel said. “People expect a win for Manchester. We respect them but don’t fear team. In football all is possible. We saw this in the last game, the semifinal against Liverpool. We are the underdogs. I think it is important to respect them but to keep the good attitude and positive spirit and to believe in us. That’s the most important.”

The 55-year-old Frenchman won three French cups with Monaco as a player, while lost in the French League Cup final as a manager with Monaco in 2001. He hopes his experiences of playing and coaching in finals will help, even though it doesn’t stack up to Mourinho’s supreme trophy-wining ability.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live ]

Over the two-legged semifinal against Liverpool, Saints had countless quality chances on the counter and although they beat Jurgen Klopp‘s side 1-0 home and away, they could’ve won more convincingly. The problem for Puel and Saints all season long has been being clinical. That create good chances but haven’t been finishing. New club-record signing Manolo Gabbiadini could be the difference on Sunday with the Italian international scoring three goals in two games since arriving in January from Napoli.

But Puel wants his team to be prepared to win anyway they can.

“All the games are different, sometimes we can have good possession and good set pieces, good possibilities,” Puel said. “Other games it is difficult, like against Liverpool because perhaps in the set pieces they were better than us. It is important for my players and my team to play with possibilities and the abilities with set pieces, possession and to counter-attack. I like that my players can have a good adaptation against any opponent. For me it is important to have the ability and capacity to play against any opponent, it is a good thing for the future.”

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news

For the future, the prospect of Saints getting back into Europe is at the forefront of Puel’s mind. This season, their first in the Europa League group stage, they endured a disappointing exit on the total number of away goals scorer between themselves and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Reaching Europe for a third-straight season only appears possible through winning the EFL Cup as Southampton plod along in 11th place in the Premier League table. That’s something Puel wants, badly.

“For me it’s not just the opportunity to win a trophy, of course it is most important because a trophy is history and special. But for me the first thing in my mind is the opportunity to perhaps find again the European games next season, Puel explained. “It is most important to continue this work because we can play in different competitions this season, European games with young players and it was the first time they can play all these games. It will be interesting, very important to continue this work for next season and to find again possibilities to play these important games with change of teams and to have game time and to learn and improve with game time and maturity. All of this, for me, is this the most important to develop all of the squad.”

Can the Premier League form pick up if they win the EFL Cup?

“For the moment the Premier League has been frustrating,” Puel said. “Since the beginning of the season we can do good quality, good work without a good reward and without finding the good clinical without and with a lot of opportunities to score without conceding a lot of chances against us. Just before Boxing Day we were seventh place in the table, just two or three points off Manchester United. It is important to react and give a good answer. This final is an opportunity to give the season a good atmosphere, good spirit and a good reward for our fans and for our players also. In January and at the beginning of February we lost too many games. Which is is unusual for us.”

What is unusual for Puel is his current surroundings.

For a man who spent his entire 17-year playing career at Monaco, then 15 more years managing some of France’s top clubs, living on England’s South Coast is a little bit of a different proposition.

Still, Puel feels at home and enjoys being by the water in Hampshire and, most importantly, around knowledgeable fans who love their club passionately. Even if he can’t stroll down to the pub too often…

“It is difficult for me, like a lot of trainers I stay just focused about football. I read what Guardiola said, that it wasn’t possible for him to do anything else for 32 minutes. Perhaps for me it is 35 minutes,” Puel laughed. “It is a nice city, very interesting and I like the sea, it is the same as Monaco, for me.

“The weather is good, I was surprised because there is a lot of sun. Often I am surprised about this. I like this. I also like the atmosphere of the fans and people around the team, around the football, because I find that the fans know the football. They’re not just spectators. I like this. They give strong and fantastic opinions of the team and the players. I like this because it is a football country.”

Puel admitted that when he does get some free time, he’s been reminded by many how he and his players will become legends in the City of Southampton if they manage to upset United and joined the famous team of 1976 in the history books.

“We will see the result after this game. The most important thing is to focus about our game. The attitude of my players. It is important,” Puel said. “It is not me. That’s a shame, that I cannot play. It is fantastic for the fans and for the players to play in an exciting game. It is important to play this game with all the possibilities, attitude and a good spirit. To give their quality it is important they will stay focused.”

Focus is the buzzword around Southampton.

As a player at Monaco, Puel was (this will come as a huge shock) known for his focus, dedication and commitment. He was nicknamed “the dog” for his ferocious work as a midfield enforcer in Arsene Wenger‘s teams — to this day he is still good friends with the Arsenal manager — and tales of him flying into tackles in training with his players during his time at Lille, plus keeping up with them fitness-wise in drills, are commonplace around the French game.

Does he still join in with training now? Puel, somewhat begrudgingly, admitted he only fills in now and then when they need an extra man in games.

“Sometimes when I go to play on the pitch, sometimes the feeling of the player comes back,” Puel smiled. “It is difficult because now I have to be calm, I am a trainer… It is finished now, my playing. It is better.”

When you see him celebrate and jump up and down on the touchline during games as a manager, you get to understand a little more about his personality and his past as a player. Even if he isn’t box-office with quotes in his press conferences and is still mastering the English language, Puel is making his mark.

With Saints fans traveling from all over the world and snapping up tickets wherever they can to see their team in a major final at Wembley, Puel has a simple message for them.

All of the focus and hard work, it’s for them, and he is clearly blown away by the global reach of the Premier League.

“It is fantastic to have all of these fans all over the world,” Puel said. “The Premier League, before I came I knew it was a great championship with many fans in the world but when I see all this atmosphere, the positive atmosphere around the club with all the fans, I can just tell them thank you. I hope we can give them all the pleasure and enjoyment for this game.”

If Southampton win on Sunday, the quiet, calm Frenchman will be revered by every Southampton for the rest of his life and beyond. Perhaps that’s why he is so reluctant to think about leading the Saints to yet another famous upset in a final at Wembley against Manchester United.

Premier League Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Middlesbrough

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Scott Dan (L3) of Crystal Palace in action during the Premier League match between Middlesbrough FC and Crystal Palace FC at Riverside Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images) *** Local Caption **** Scott Dan
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  • Palace leads all-time 18W-12D-17L
  • Palace won 2-1 on Sept. 16
  • Second PL meeting since 2005

Two relegation-battling sides just three points apart meet Saturday at Selhurst Park when Middlesbrough visits Crystal Palace (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Wins have been hard to come by for both sides, and Boro enters the day in 16th place with 22 points. That’s three ahead of the 19th place Eagles.

Palace boss Sam Allardyce made more waves this week when he ripped into his players for not following his directions. The Eagles have a single PL win since a 3-0 home win over Southampton on Dec. 3.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won a Premier League match since Dec. 17, its only 2017 victories coming in three FA Cup wins. Still, Boro has proven stingy in engineering four draws. Aitor Karanka‘s side just needs more goals.

What they’re saying

Boro’s Karanka on not overdramatizing the match: “I can’t forget how well the team is doing so far, and we need to keep going in the same way. It is the biggest game because it is the next game. It is against a direct opponent but we will not be taking this game as a final. We can take heart from our previous games and performances. With our consistency and intensity we always have a chance.”

Palace boss Sam Allardyce rips his players“My experience and my qualifications are far greater than theirs. They can talk about tactics and systems, that’s fine, but they’re players are they’re paid to play. I’m the manager, and the system and tactics are my expertise, not theirs.”

Prediction

Boro’s defense has been strong, and Palace’s strength comes from its attack. We bet Alvaro Negredo will find his way to the score sheet, but that the Eagles find a way through as well. 1-1.