Wayne Rooney, Geoff Cameron, Robin van Persie

Premier League Playback: Headers galore, Torres becomes ‘El Toro’, AVB offends

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Over the Premier League weekend, a dying art returned to strike joy and delight into the hearts of those who carried it out and their fans. Heading is back. Rejoice.

So this is my questions, is heading home still a dying art? Gladly, I’m not so sure anymore because in week 9’s ten games, eight headers, of many different varieties, accounted for the 23 PL goals scored. With over 33 percent of all goals coming off the old noggin, that’s a pretty substantial chunk of strikes that came from delightful bounces off players bonces. If you watch the video below, four of the top five goals of the weekend are headers… when was the last time that happened?

Last weekend when Sergio Aguero scored a header against West Ham, it was revealed that it was the first time the Argentine has scored with his bonnet, his previous 40 goals for Man City in the PL had all come with his feet.

The beauty of heading into the net comes in many different forms, Wayne Rooney proved that with his glancing header at the near post from Robin van Persie’s corner. Rooney’s delicate flick left Stoke City ‘keeper Asmir Begovic rooted to the spot, and it only takes the faintest of touches to send the ball into a completely different direction.

Then Luis Suarez added two headers of his own, as he nailed his first hat trick at Anfield by powerfully heading home from outside the box in the first half, before glancing home Steven Gerrard’s pacey free kick with the faintest of touches at the near post. I could go on and analyze them all, because they’re all different, and all beautiful in their own way. Time stands still when a player heads in on goal, you look for the ‘keepers reaction, a defender getting back on the line and finally the trajectory of the effort to see if it’s going on. As the ball nestles in the net, a headed goal, for me, is extremely pleasing and the skill of performing it shouldn’t be underestimated.

Premier League Schedule – Week 9

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-2 Everton Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Liverpool 4-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
Man Utd 3-2 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Fulham Recap and watch here
Sunderland 2-1 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Swansea 0-0 West Ham Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-0 Hull City Recap and watch here

If you can master the art of the header, you can make it in this game. Plenty of center forwards in the lower leagues of England and back in the late 80s and early 90s did, I’d love nothing more than to see more headed goals flying in for the rest of this season, and beyond.


There were some real dazzling displays this weekend, and Suarez takes the biscuit for top performer. He ripped West Brom apart at Anfield, with three goals whilst carving out plenty of other chances for strike-partner Daniel Sturridge with his tireless running. USMNT ‘keeper Tim Howard (more on him shortly) gave Everton a launchpad to beat Aston Villa with his incredible PK stop from Christian Benteke. All that came before he made his NBC Sports commentary debut for Chelsea vs. Man City on Sunday… quite a weekend for the USA’s No. 1. Wayne Rooney also gets the nod after he nodded United level and set them up for a late comeback win over Stoke, the England international is carrying United on his back. Southampton have now kept six cleans sheets in nine PL games and have conceded just three times, if right back Nathaniel Clyne isn’t called up to the England squad in a few weeks, I’d be hugely surprised after his impressive display vs. Fulham. And finally, that man Fernando Torres scored his first PL goal this season and struck a dagger into the heart of Man City fans across the globe… in fact, let’s breakdown Torres’ bullish transformation right now.


When I went along to White Hart Lane to watch Chelsea take on Tottenham in September, Fernando Torres got sent off late on after terrorizing Spurs’ defense for the entire second half. I was sat just behind the benches that Saturday in North London, and after Torres was shown red Mourinho went and whispered something into his ear appreciatively. Fernando nodded and shook his head agreeably.

Slowly but surely Mourinho is getting through to Torres, and Sunday’s late winning goal against Man City proved that the endeavor and effort of his previous days at Liverpool have returned, with the Spanish forward proving a royal pain in the backside for every defense he’s coming up against of late. Against Manchester City on Sunday, Torres played like a man possessed after spurring a glorious chance early on by shinning the ball over the bar and leaving the home crowd exasperated. As he trundled back to the halfway line, Torres’ head sunk to his chest with a hint of dejection… but he kept on trucking to deliver the goods that Chelsea needed to steal a march on their title rivals.

Mourinho prefers a central striker that can strike fear into the hearts of the oppositions central defenders by running at them with pace and being a muscular, physical fulcrum for the rest of the ream to work off. In his first spell at Chelsea he had Didier Drogba, at Real Madrid he used Cristiano Ronaldo in the central role. And now a brooding Torres is fired up and facets of his game that made him so successful at Liverpool and Atletico Madrid are returning. He’s bulked up, looks pacey and has got the confidence and verve back that proves he’s on the cusp of breaking out once again.

Torres is gradually shaking off his ‘El Nino’ nickname, as Mourinho aims to make the striker into his hard-hitting forward that bullies opposition defenses with relentless running and that direct nature is finally bearing fruit.

(MORE: Check out the latest Premier League Standings)

As Torres walked off the pitch on Sunday, Stamford Bridge erupted into a throaty chant of “Torres, Torres” and the Spaniard stood alone to applaud the fans who appreciated not only his winning-goal, but seeing him rise from the depths of missing a sitter early on, to setting up Andre Schurrle’s goal, smashing a wonder strike against the bar and then chasing down a lost cause in second half stoppage time to score just his second PL goal since last Christmas.

Premier League Star Performers

Player Reason
1. Luis Suarez (Liverpool) 3 goals, best striker in PL
2. Tim Howard (Everton) PK save, Toffees hero
3. F. Torres (Chelsea) 1 goal, constant threat
4. Nathaniel Clyne (Saints) Epic for leagues best defense
5. Wayne Rooney (Man Utd) 1 goal, United’s talisman

I saw something in Torres’ eyes and demeanor against Spurs in late September. He’s hungry to succeed with the Blues, and he’s now elevated himself as Mourinho’s main striker. Perhaps that knowledge has given Torres the confidence he needs to kick on and if Chelsea are going to win the title, they will need Torres to keep on delivering damaging displays. Five goals in six starts across all competitions this season shows his goalscoring touch and belief is returning, but even if the goals don’t flow, Torres’ impact for Chelsea is huge.

Forget ‘El Nino’ how about ‘El Toro?’ As the marauding Spaniard is now making a name for himself as an absolute bullish pest up front.


All hail the U.S. goalkeeper. On Saturday Tim Howard and Brad Guzan showed exactly why the USA is known across the globe for producing top, top ‘keepers. First Howard saved superbly stopped Benteke’s penalty kick, then at the other end Brad Guzan kept out Romelu Lukaku with a superb reflex stop. Back and forth went the goalkeeping battle, as both USMNT stars put on a fine display of shot-stopping to wow the Villa Park crowd. Chants of ‘USA, USA, USA’ were audible all afternoon… Jurgen Klinsmann has one heck of a decision to make next summer.


Tottenham manager Andre Vilas-Boas called out Spurs’ fans for “negativity” inside White Hart Lane during the nervy 1-0 win against Hull City. Hang on a minute Andre… can you blame them?

After yet another 1-0 win and yet another dubious penalty decision converted by Roberto Soldado (the third time the Spaniard has handed Spurs a slender victory with a PK this campaign) to give them all three points, Tottenham’s fans can be forgiven for feeling a little underwhelmed by some of Spurs’ recent displays. Surely they should be allowed to air their anxiety? AVB doesn’t think so.

“I compliment the boys for what they did – great work rate. Not only that but we played away from home. We didn’t have the support that we should have had in a game that we needed a win. We did it with no help today.”

Far be it from me to judge AVB as Spurs sit fourth in the league, but after all the excitement last seasons soccer produced, can’t he understand that a complete rebrand of the way they play isn’t exactly tearing up any trees in the PL? Two holding midfielders protecting a solid back four is all well and good, but when Spurs come up against the better teams I worry where their goals will come from. Seems like Spurs’ fans do too.


When Norwich City midfielder Alex Tettey went down injured in stoppage time of Norwich’s 0-0 draw with Cardiff City at Carrow Road, Cardiff ‘keeper David Marshall did the sporting thing by throwing the ball out of play so he could receive treatment.

As Ricky van Wolfswinkel took the throw-in to give it back to Cardiff, he threw the ball to Norwich’s Leroy Fer who slotted the ball into an empty net and thought he’d given the Canaries a shocking and hugely controversial late win. But referee Mike Jones wasn’t having any of it, he pulled play back as a minor fracas erupted between the two sets of players and said he hadn’t blown his whistle to restart play. I’m not sure if the ref was in-line with the laws of the game, but I applaud his decision to defuse the situation.

That averted a bizarre win and a very unsportsmanlike one at that. Afterwards it was revealed that Norwich would have allowed Cardiff to score straight from the kick off to tie things back up. Bravo. But in a staunch belief of the saying ‘honest if the best policy’ Norwich’s Dutch midfielder Fer revealed he scored on purpose and there was no mix up that saw him knock the ball into the empty net.

“I just looked at the referee and he did ‘play on’ with his hands so I think the goal had to count,” Fer said. “I’m a little bit confused on that one. I meant to put it in because I wanted to win the game. I want to win every game, so that’s why I did it.”

Fer’s attitude stinks, there’s no place for that in the PL and I’m sure his manager had a quite word with the promising Dutch midfielder after the game. Watch below to see what you think should’ve happened.

Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Griezmann of Club Atletico de Madrid looks on during the match between Sevilla FC vs Club Atletico de Madrid as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuanon October 23, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann has won the best player award in the Spanish league for last season.

The Atletico Madrid forward was announced as the winner in a ceremony organized by La Liga in Valencia on Monday. The Frenchman was not at the ceremony.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or omissions ]

Atletico also had Diego Simeone win the best coach award, Diego Godin earn the best defender award, and Jan Oblak clinch best goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was selected as the best forward, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as the best midfielder.

Team captains voted for the top players in each position, while a data-analysis system generated the best player award.

Barcelona won the Spanish league last season, ahead of Real Madrid and Atletico.

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

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)
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)
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.