Marco Di Vaio 2

MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Montreal ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Houston

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Ahead of Thursday’s single elimination playoff between Houston and Montreal, here are the most-knows about the visiting Impact ahead of the 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff (NBCSN):

  • Marco Di Vaio’s special season

The Impact’s last time on the field turned into the hated double bummer; Les Bleus fell to Toronto while watching striker Marco Di Vaio fail to claim the Golden Boot, never mind his sparkling 20-goal season. The 37-year-old striker wandered into final weekend soccer level with Mike Magee for league leadership. Magee scored, Vancouver’s Camilo scored even more and, well … Di Vaio did not.

Still,, what a season. Remember, 20-goal campaigns remain rare in MLS, still a significant benchmark. There were just 10 previous instances through 17 MLS seasons.

  • Alessandro Nesta is out

You could probably make some case that Marco Schallibaum’s team is better without the veteran Italian – although it would be something of a stretch.

Nesta’s foot speed just isn’t what it was previously during all those years at Lazio, Milan and with the Italian national team. (Truly, the man was one of the defensive giants of a land that appreciates defenders like it appreciates carefully crafted pasta.) So, he tends to get exposed when caught one-on-one against younger, faster types.

But again, it’s a case that looks like small noodles to me. Because Nesta’s positioning and anticipation is so good that he’s an expert at avoiding those situations. Plus, neither Houston striker, Will Bruin nor Giles Barnes, is particularly fast.

Besides, a guy with 78 caps for Italy and a World Cup winner’s medal (2006) … yeah, you want him on the field. Nesta is out with a calf injury. Young backup Wandrille Lefevre or possibly outside back Hassoun Camara will be the likely replacement at center back.

  • Backing into the playoffs

Clearly, everyone around camp Les Bleus would feel better about things if the Impact had won last weekend at Toronto, claiming their spot with a winning authority rather than backing in because Chicago got clobbered at Red Bull Arena.

The Impact concluded their second MLS campaign with a 1-0 loss at Canadian rival Toronto.

“We were disappointed,” Hassoun Camara told “Everyone knows it was an important game for us and we wanted to show that we are a playoff team. It’s hard to deal with that.”

  • Last time in Houston? Not that bad

Yes, the Impact’s recent skid included a 1-0 loss earlier this month at Houston. But this was far from a run-away, and the Impact improved considerably and even pressed Houston at times once Andrew Wenger came in for the final half hour.

Where Montreal lost the game was in midfield, where orange-clad Boniek Garcia, Warren Creavalle and Ricardo Clark were simply better than the visitors’ men in the middle third. Then again, Montreal was missing its main man in the center, Patrice Bernier.

So while the Impact’s 4-9-4 record away from Stade Saputo isn’t anything to shout about, they don’t have the very worst of memories of walking down that ramp at BBVA.

  • Choices in the Impact midfield

There are lots of edges that point to Houston, so it seems important for Les Bleus manager Marco Schallibaum to get his lineup absolutely right. Health and fitness will probably dictate the back line choices, but the Swiss manager does have options in midfield.

Veterans Justin Mapp (who was having a great season prior to the club’s fall dip) and Davy Arnaud look set on the outside. Arnaud is from Texas (not far from Houston, in Nederland), so this contest is extra special to him.

The real choice will be at attacking midfielder, where the decision is pretty much down to Wenger or Felipe Martins. Martins is the more creative and skillful, but he hasn’t been great lately – one of the reasons Montreal was shut out in four of its last five matches. (Then again, no one in Impact blue has done well lately except perhaps for Di Vaio.)

Wenger is more physical, and while the current Dynamo version doesn’t pack the physical punch of past teams in orange, playoff games against Houston will always have a certain bump and grind about them.

(More on MLS playoffs: Previewing Montreal Impact at Houston Dynamo)

Defoe: Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore reminds me of Gareth Bale

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Sunderland at Selhurst Park on November 23, 2015 in London, England.
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Duncan Watmore is highly regarded at Sunderland, as the 21-year-old was rewarded with a new four-year contract with the club earlier this week.

While the club has high hopes for the young winger, his teammates are taking notice as well.

[ MORE: Transfer Rumor Roundup ]

Watmore’s teammate Jermain Defoe, a seasoned veteran who knows all about succeeding in the Premier League, praised the 21-year-old’s play, comparing him to one of his former teammates at Tottenham, Gareth Bale.

In a funny way he reminds me of Gareth [Bale]. When he came on the scene at Tottenham, he used to just get the ball and glide.

He’s such a nice boy, I don’t think he’s bothered about signing new contracts and stuff, all he wants to do is play football and do well for the club.

If he can go on to do what Gareth has done then he’ll be fantastic. He’s the future of this club.

That’s quite the comparison, as Watmore has only made six Premier League appearances in his young career. Bale was twice named the Premier League Player of the Year before being sold to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee in 2013.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

While it’s a bit too soon to be calling Watmore the next Gareth Bale, there’s no denying he could be a huge talent for Sunderland. After coming on as a substitute in the Black Cats’ win over Crystal Palace on Monday, Watmore showed his speed and willingness to run at defenders, something the club is in desperate need of. He made his debut for the England U21 side this fall, which shows his form has impressed many outside of just the North East.

After starting his career in the Manchester United youth setup, Watmore was released and played with non-league side Altrincham before signing with Sunderland in 2013. He scored 11 goals in 18 appearances last year with the U21 side, being named the Under 21 Premier League Player of the Season.

Five Premier League players make UEFA Team of the Year shortlist

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal with his team mate Sergio Aguero (L) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at Etihad Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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UEFA has released the 40-man shortlist for the 2015 Team of the Year, with five Premier League players making the cut.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is on the list after being named the Premier League Player of the Year last season, as is Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez.

Manchester City accounts for the other three players, as Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne have been selected. However, De Bruyne makes the list mainly based off his play for Wolfsburg last season.

Three teams have more players selected than the entire Premier League combined. Barcelona leads the list with eight players, while Bayern Munich and Juventus each have six.

[ MORE: FIFA Ethics Committee seeks lifetime ban for Sepp Blatter ]

Cristiano Ronaldo already has the most appearances on the final list with nine, and is looking to make his ninth consecutive Team of the Year. No other player has been selected more than six times since the beginning of the award, which was started in 2001.

Below is the complete 40-man shortlist.

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Denys Boyko (Dnipro).

Defenders: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), David Luiz (Paris St-Germain), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (Paris St-Germain), Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid).

Midfielders: Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Marco Verratti (Paris St-Germain), Yevhen Konoplyanka (Sevilla), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen).

Forwards: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris St-Germain), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Neymar (Barcelona), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid).

New York Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch voted MLS Coach of the Year

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch has been voted Major League Soccer’s Coach of the Year, the first to earn the honor in the two-decade history of the New York team.

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The Red Bulls went a league-best 18-10-6 in Marsch’s first season after replacing Mike Petke, winning 14 of their last 20 games with one tie. They trail Columbus 2-0 going into Sunday’s second leg of their Eastern Conference final.

MLS said Tuesday that from combined team, media and player votes, Marsch received a weighted total of 152 out of a possible 300.

Dallas’ Oscar Pareja was second with 91 and Vancouver’s Carl Robinson third with 24.

How can Chelsea qualify for last 16 of Champions League?

HAIFA, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 24: Willian of Chelsea celebrates scoring his teams second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC and Chelsea FC at Sammy Ofer Stadium on November 24, 2015 in Haifa, Israel.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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With one match left in UEFA Champions League group play, Chelsea control their own destiny.

After beating Maccabi Tel-Aviv 4-0, the Blues sit tied with FC Porto on ten points at the top of Group G.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

However, with Dynamo Kyiv earning a big win over Porto on Tuesday, Chelsea must wait until the final matchday to qualify for the knockout round, as there is a possibility of a three-way tie for the top spot in Group G.

With Chelsea hosting Porto on December 9, here are the scenarios for Jose Mourinho’s men to assure advancement.

  • A win over Porto will clinch Chelsea the top spot and a place in the last 16.
  • A draw against Porto will see Chelsea advance.
    • Chelsea draw/Dynamo win: Chelsea win group, Dynamo finish second
    • Chelsea draw/Dynamo draw or loss: Porto win group, Chelsea finish second
  • A loss to Porto and a Dynamo Kyiv draw/loss to Maccabi Tel-Aviv will see Chelsea finish second in the group and advance to the last 16.
  • The Blues have secured at least a berth in the Europa League, regardless of the result in their final match.

Simply put, get a point at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea advance.