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.

AT THE HALF: Manchester derby scoreless after 45 minutes

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After 45 minutes, the final Manchester derby of the 2016-17 Premier League season — the one that’ll go a long, long way toward deciding which of the city’s sides will finish in the top-four — is scoreless, but not without incident.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

The game’s best chances thus far fell Manchester City’s way, as Sergio Aguero missed a clear-cut chance after 10 minutes — Kevin De Bruyne whipped in the perfect ball to the back post, and Aguero put it wrong side of David De Gea‘s post.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Ander Herrera has, once again, be Manchester United’s danger man, combining well with Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Claudio Bravo made the one save he was forced into during the first half. One thing to keep an eye on during the final 45 minutes: Rashford picked up a knock very early on, and struggled to move around the field after that.

STREAM LIVE: The Manchester Derby

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The third Manchester Derby of the season is the first away from Old Trafford, as Manchester United visits Manchester City (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday.

There’s much on the line, as the sides sit just two points apart in the race for the Top Four. Man City would leapfrog third-place Liverpool with a win, while United could join the Reds on 66 points with a match-in-hand.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Sergio Aguero starts for Man City, with Gabriel Jesus on the bench.

On the other side, it’ll be a physical middle-third guarded by Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, and Marouane Fellaini. Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard start on the bench.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Bravo, Zabaleta, Kompany (C), Otamendi, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane, Aguero. Subs: Caballero, Sagna, Fernando, Navas, Clichy, Gabriel Jesus, A. Garcia

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Carrick, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan; Rashford, Martial. Subs: Romero, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Young, Lingard, Rooney.

Ex-Liverpool CEO shares biting story of Suarez transfer

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Ian Ayre’s got jokes.

The former Liverpool CEO lifted the lid on some transfer stories during a Merseyside lecture this week.

Of note, Ayre admitted that the club thought Dele Alli demanded too much given what he had produced when the Reds has the chance to sign him as a 16-year-old, and said that Liverpool could’ve landed Alexis Sanchez but the player wanted to live in London (“We couldn’t move the football club to London, unfortunately,” he quipped).

The best part relayed by Sky Sports had to do with Luis Suarez, and shows the relentless nature of the transfer market. Clearly Barcelona had interest in Suarez before the fiery striker bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, because, well…

“I remember the sporting director of Barcelona calling me during that game, immediately as Suarez bit the player, and he said to me ‘my friend, he’s bitten somebody, how can this be the price?’ I said ‘he’d already bitten somebody when you first bid!'”

We’re sure there’s a certain amount of storytelling in there, but undoubtedly some truth.

Given Barca paid a reported $84 million for the striker, the asking price couldn’t have started that much higher.

Men in Blazers podcast: Chelsea tops Spurs, Top Four predictions

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Rog and Davo return to discuss Chelsea’s FA Cup semifinal victory over Spurs, update their Top Four predictions (again), and dive into the depths of the relegation zone. Plus, the very important movement to change “Hudson Street” to “Ray Hudson Street.”

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