Los Angeles Galaxy v Sporting Kansas City

Four players who raised their profiles during the MLS playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Last year, when Houston visited Los Angeles for a second straight MLS Cup, there were no real surprises, be it in the match or in the two teams’ paths to Carson. This year was a little different. While nobody was shocked to see Sporting Kansas City or Real Salt Lake in the final game, a handful of individuals played unexpectedly large roles in their successes, perhaps changing the way those players perceived around Major League Soccer.

In alphabetical order, here are the four that raised their profiles (or, changed perceptions) most over the last six weeks:

AURÉLIEN COLLIN, D, SPORTING KC

Before Saturday’s game, we talked about the Collin-ian dualism that undermines the Frenchman’s renown, something his own indiscretions play into. That physicality-versus-efficiacy debate took center stage against RSL, with Collin nearly drawing a second yellow card late in regulation time.

Ultimately, Collin’s quality won out, his second half equalizer and shootout-winning kick part of his Most Valuable Player performance. While his handling of Robbie Findley may have drawn some pained groans from the RSL faithful, the assembled media saw beyond those grey areas and voted him to the game’s highest individual honor. It was proof Collin’s worst traits need not overshadow his ability to be a dominant MLS defender.

[MORE: MLS Cup Man of the Match: Sporting Kansas City’s Aurelien Collin]

In five playoff games, the 27-year-old scored three times, and while his play in defense wasn’t perfect, his overall postseason performance was enough to force his detractors to reconsider. Maybe Collin does cross the clean-dirty line too often, but that’s not enough to justify overlooking him as one of the league’s best defenders – somebody who may look to capitalize on his postseason performance to get back to Europe.

source:  BENNY FEILHABER, M, SPORTING KC

Feilhaber’s virtues were trumpeted so much after Sporting’s second leg against Houston, revisiting them now would be redundant. Instead, let’s look at what’s ahead for the 28-year-old former U.S. National Team member. To what extent did his playoff run revitalize his career?

We’ve heard some say Feilhaber’s postseason should vault him back into national team contention, but that’s probably not going to happen. When you have players like Sacha Kljestan fighting for time (or, sometimes even callups), it’s hard to see why two or three good games should reshuffle Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart. Perhaps Feilhaber’s done enough to justify another look in January, but given the limited time the full U.S. team will have together before starting World Cup preparations, Feilhaber’s probably on the outside looking in.

On the club-level, though, Feilhaber’s month was huge. The postseason provided a proof of concept after a season where the former Revolution midfielder failed to establish himself in Peter Vermes’ XI. Now, going into the offseason, he’s given his coach and technical director reason to believe he’s a solution for 2014, not just another Bobby Convey-esque failed experiment. Now, the question shifts from whether he can contribute to whether he can replicate this performance in the regular season.

In that respect, it was a huge month for Feilhaber. While Feilhaber’s always been capable of this type of impact, he still needed to show it. In the playoffs, he did.

source: Getty Images

ROBBIE FINDLEY, F, REAL SALT LAKE

Who knew Findley would play such a big part in RSL’s postseason? Apparently Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey, but few others. After Findley scored twice in the Western Conference finals against Portland, Kreis noted the importance of bringing back a player who could score in big games. On Saturday, the former U.S. international nearly came through again, putting a first half chance off the post.

Findley’s broader reputation has always been a strange one, with fans constantly asking for more from the burner’s game. When, in 2010, he was brought back into the national team to try and emulate the injured Charlie Davies, he fell victim to the hopes being cast upon him by the hype of  South Africa. His failure to form a Davies-esque bond with Jozy Altidore became many’s lasting memory of the 2009 MLS Cup champion.

Perhaps 2013 will remind people that Findley is more than ‘not Charlie Davies.’ He’s a player that scored 12 goals for RSL in 2009, somebody who can still exploit very specific matchups.

He may not quite be international caliber, but few are. As the 2013 postseason showed, you don’t need to be one your national team’s four best forwards to be a valuable piece at the club level.

source: APCHRIS SCHULER, D, REAL SALT LAKE

On an individual level, this is the postseason’s big winner, the 26-year-old having made a name for himself with MLS’s national audience. While injuries prevented the 2010 draftee from making his mark before the playoffs, his play over the last five games has sparked Feilhaber-esque national team discussion. But whereas the discussion around the Kansas City midfielder is driven by a sense of nostalgia and vindication, Schuler’s credentials are being lauded by those within the game, something Real Salt Lake’s decision makers predicted would happen at the outset of the 2013 season.

Whether U.S. Soccer agrees with those accolades remains to be seen, but during Real Salt Lake’s postseason run, Schuler’s performance made a compelling case. In defense, he teamed with Nat Borchers to shut down Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan before helping his team hold Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers to two goals in 180 minutes. Against Kansas City, he got caught under Collin on Sporting’s only goal, but by that time, he’d already made the case.

Going forward, fitness will be the biggest concern, but if Schuler can stay healthy, he’ll establish himself among MLS’s best defenders, national team or not.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

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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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.