Western or Eastern Conference final: Which series will showcase MLS best?

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Okay, so after all the craziness of the last few nights, it’s safe to say that this seasons MLS Cup playoffs have been the most dramatic in recent history.

Extra-time goals, comebacks galore and intense rivalries have all played out so far during the play-in games and the Conference semis. Now we’re down to four.

The Eastern Conference finals will be played out between Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo, while the Western crown will go to either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake.

But the question I’m asking you guys, yeah you, which game will best show what MLS is all about?

(MORE: Portland beat Seattle 3-2, make Conference final after dominant display)

Well for starters, I’m slightly glad these four teams made it to the final four because it proves that with draft parity, salary caps and strong management you can succeed in this league. Portland, SKC, RSL and Houston all have fantastic soccer-specific stadiums that are fairly new, they have strong owners who lead from the front and put their fans first and they also haven’t got any massive DPs who draw the crowds.

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RSL beat LA Galaxy’s superstars to make the Western Conference final.

They’re proper MLS teams, more about the collective unit than individuals. Look, I love Seattle, LA and the New York Red Bulls and all the razzmatazz and glamor they bring to the league. But that’s not really what MLS is about. The league is about being sustainable, being smart with cash, using what you have and growing the fanbase in the cities and markets you’re in. All four conference finalists do that fantastically well.

When I think of MLS, I think back to discussions I’ve had with many journalists who say, “it’s so hard to predict this league, harder than any other league in the world.” This seasons playoffs has already proven that. The three biggest spending franchise have been knocked off in the Conference semis and teams like Portland and RSL, who’ve had complete rebuilds and rely on a mix of youth, smart draft picks and inspired signings, are prevailing.

But back to that question… which Conference final showcases what MLS is all about?

I could argue many reasons for both, but given the large number of USMNT players on SKC and Houston’s squads and the fact that they’ve met at this stage in the playoffs many times before, I’m going to plump for the Western Conference.

What Jason Kreis has done at RSL has been miraculous. The vision, leadership and cohesive bond he’s fostered at all levels of the club is fantastic. When they shipped out the likes of Fabian Espindola, Jameson Olave, Jonny Steele and Will Johnson last season, many were thinking “what the heck is going on?” But the main man knew what was going on. The clear out worked a treat as Kreis made room for talented youngsters like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velazquez, Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval and many others to break into the team and show just how good the club is at fostering young talent. That’s a true MLS hallmark and shows how sustainable Real Salt Lake are, not only this season but for many years. Kreis has done that, but the players, management and ownership have bought into it massively. The approach is paying off.

(MORE: RSL down LA Galaxy in extra-time, make Conference finals)

Then we have Portland, who like RSL underwent a huge transformation on the field over the last offseason. In came former U.S. Olympic men’s soccer head coach and Akron University pioneer Caleb Porter, and well, as they say the rest is history. The Timbers already won the regular-season crown for the Western Conference by playing attractive attacking soccer that pins the opposition into their own half, and now look like the favorites to make their first-ever MLS Cup appearance in just their third season in MLS. Young players like Darlington Nagbe, Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Kalif Alhassan have flourished under Porter and the opportunity to give a college coach the chance to shine on the big-stage, then seeing him do so, must give Timbers owner Merritt Paulsson a huge smile.

source: AP
Portland’s players salute their fanatical support as they defeat big spending Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders.

Both sides haven’t spent much on transfer fees and have passionate fanbases that have been staunch supporters of the USMNT, having hosted internationals both at JELD-WEN Field and the Rio Tinto. Portland and RSL have made it to the Conference final the hard way. When everyone was talking about LA Galaxy’s three DPs and the millions of dollars Seattle were spending, many dismissed that the Timbers and RSL could stick with the big boys out West. But they have… and they’ve surpassed them.

RSL were at the forefront when Portland finally changed their ways of bringing in expensive veteran foreign imports, as former head coach John Spencer lost his job following a 3-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake in July 2012. The penny had dropped as to how an MLS club should be run. Over a year later, can the Timbers go full circle and announce themselves as the model all MLS clubs should follow when they face RSL in the Western Conference final?

All four teams left in the MLS playoffs epitomize exactly what the league is all about. But Portland and RSL take the biscuit.

Barcelona “confident” of signing Philippe Coutinho

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Barcelona are said to be “increasingly confident” of adding Philippe Coutinho despite Liverpool’s insistence he is not for sale.

[ MORE: Coutinho agrees deal with Barca? 

Coutinho, 25, has become the main man at Anfield over the past season and although Jurgen Klopp has reaffirmed the Brazilian playmaker is not going anywhere, Sky Sports in the UK is reporting that Barca still believe a deal can be done.

The Spanish giants are said to be readying a bid of $116 million for Coutinho to test Liverpool’s resolve after an earlier bid was reportedly turned down, while reports in Spain suggest that Coutinho has already agreed personal terms with Barca over a move.

Barcelona’s push for Coutinho could suggest that Neymar’s potential world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain is edging closer, but where could Coutinho fit in at the Nou Camp?

He would be perfect as a playmaker in Ernesto Valverde’s team and with Andres Iniesta no spring chicken, Barca need to look at filling his considerable shoes long-term. Coutinho excelled last season in the PL, scoring 13 goals and adding seven assists as he battled back from a mid-season injury to help the Reds return to the UEFA Champions League.

Coutinho can either star in a central playmaking role or could be a direct replacement for Neymar if he was to leave for PSG this summer.

Just imagine Coutinho threading through passes to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez with the trio jinxing around defenders. Ahem, stop drooling.

Yet Liverpool’s stance remains clear: he is going nowhere. Klopp spoke about his future last week and confirmed he had a word with Coutinho during preseason but wouldn’t reveal the details of the chat.

Coutinho only sign a new new five-year contract in January but such have been the quality of his performances in setting the tempo of their play and delivering exceptional set pieces, plus scoring stunning long-range goals, the biggest teams on the planet are often linked with the former Inter Milan and Espanyol star.

Turning down Barcelona would be tough for any player and if the Catalan club do offer over $100 million for Coutinho then Liverpool will perhaps have to pay serious attention. When they sold Luis Suarez to Barca in 2014 there were extenuating circumstances around the deal, but Coutinho is about to enter his prime and could be the leader of Liverpool’s trophy push for many years.

If he is sold then it says plenty about their ambition to re-join Europe’s elite and would be a hammer blow for Klopp who has already struggled in the transfer market this summer as top targets Virgil Van Dijk and Naby Keita have yet to arrive with both valued at over $80 million by their respective clubs.

Coutinho certainly has the talent to be a star for Barcelona but the Brazilian leaving Anfield would be one of the biggest shocks of the summer. That said, does anything really surprise us anymore in this crazy transfer market?

Gold Cup rewind: USA’s 2005, 2007, 2013 triumphs

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Th 2017 Gold Cup final takes place on Wednesday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. and the U.S. national team have the chance to win their sixth title and their first trophy in four years.

[ MORE: What next for Arena? ]

Bruce Arena’s side (missing their European contingent for this tournament) take on Jamaica and are heavily favored to beat the Reggae Boyz who shocked Mexico at the semifinal stage.

Yet with just one Gold Cup title since 2007, the U.S. know how tough CONCACAF’s showpiece tournament can be.

[ PREVIEW: USA vs. Jamaica in Gold Cup final

Below is a look at the last three titles the U.S. won, with Arena hoping to win his third Gold Cup as USMNT head coach.


2005 – beat Panama on PKs at Giants Stadium, July 24

2007 – beat Mexico 2-1 at Soldier Field, June 24 

2013 – beat Panama 1-0 at Soldier Field, July 28

Javier Hernandez reflects on Premier League return

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Javier Hernandez is ready to get back to scoring goals in the Premier League.

If that happens, get ready to see plenty of Claret and Blue shirts with “Chicharito” on the back of them.

[ MORE: Where will Chicharito slot in? ]

Chicharito, 29, signed a three-year deal with the Hammers on Monday making him the best paid player in club history with wages of just over $180,000 per week. He won two Premier League titles in five seasons at Manchester United and is still lauded at Old Trafford for his crucial goals in big games with 59 goals in 157 appearances in all competitions.

Speaking to West Ham’s in-house TV channel, the El Tri star revealed exactly why he’s looking forward to a return to the PL.

“I am very excited. The last three years – the loan in Madrid and the two years with Leverkusen – were fantastic for me, and they helped me to improve a lot. But before then I was in England for four years – it was my first chapter in my European career – and now to be back makes me very happy,” Hernandez said.

“For me it is the most competitive in the world. There are no easy games, you can see that the top 10 can change a lot. The Premier League challenges you and that is why I am here – I want to improve. I’m very desperate for the season to start now, and help the team to achieve their objectives next season.”

West Ham’s objectives may have changed slightly after Slaven Bilic‘s side pushed through four new signings this summer and three in quick succession.

Chicharito has joined Marko Arnautovic and Joe Hart by signing for the east London club over the past 10 days, while Pablo Zabaleta had already arrived on a free transfer.

With vast PL and international experience in the four summer signings, Bilic’s aims have probably jumped from finishing in the top 10 to pushing for seventh place and the final Europa League spot. The Hammers finished last season strongly after a poor start which was them compounded by failing to settle into their new London Stadium home, the Dimtri Payet saga and then multiple defensive injuries.

Chicharito has the fifth-best goals per minute ratio in Premier League history so in theory combining his predatory skills with the creativity of Manuel Lanzini, Arnautovic and Michail Antonio should work very well indeed.

Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer hasn’t slowed down his production in the Bundesliga over the past two seasons, scoring 28 goals in 54 league appearances for Leverkusen and his displays in recent 2018 World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup proved his movement is as sharp as ever.

The Hammers have gambled on Chicharito providing the goals to help them challenge for Europe once again and on paper it looks like a smart bet.

Ronald Koeman confirms Ross Barkley to leave Everton

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Ronald Koeman has confirmed that Ross Barkley will not play for Everton.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Man City? ]

Barkley, 23, has just one year left on his current deal at Everton but the playmaker has turned down a new deal with his boyhood club and Koeman revealed he wants a “new challenge” elsewhere.

When asked if he was certain Barkley would leave Koeman replied “100 percent” but he did state that there aren’t any offers on the table as things stand.

Ahead of Everton’s UEFA Europa League third qualifying round firs leg against MFK Ruzomberok at Goodison Park on Thursday, Koeman revealed the new about Barkley. 

“His personal situation is not so difficult. We made a really good offer to him to sign a new contract and he declined that contract and he told me he is looking for a new challenge,” Koeman said. “It is not Everton’s future anymore. It is his decision. I need to respect that and we will see what happens because what I heard from the board at the moment, it’s not really an offer on the table for Ross.”

The England international is currently recovering from surgery on his groin and is expected to be out until the end of August.

With Davy Klaassen, Wayne Rooney and Sandro Ramirez arriving this summer, plus the Toffees pushing hard to sign Gylfi Sigurdsson from Swansea City, it’s not difficult to see why Barkley sees his future elsewhere and the enigmatic attacking midfielder was criticized by Koeman on multiple occasions last season.

Where could Barkley go?

Tottenham and Arsenal are destinations which keep cropping up but neither are likely to spend over $30 million to bring him to north London and neither are exactly short of playmaking midfielders. It’s probably right that Barkley, once the brightest hope of English soccer, gets a fresh start elsewhere as his contract situation has left the fanbase, and Koeman, more than a little frustrated over the past 12 months.

After losing his starting spot with the English national team to Dele Alli over the past year, plus his regular spot at Everton under severe threat, Barkley’s career is reaching a pivotal stage.

The young talent who burst onto the scene ahead of the 2014 World Cup was supposed to be the next Rooney but his career is in real danger of petering out if he doesn’t find the right club to fit his talents and help him regain his form. The talent is there with Barkley but many, including Koeman, have questioned his commitment to truly realize his potential.