Clint Dempsey

Best of MLS 2013: Top 5 storylines

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The past season has certainly been one of the most memorable years in Major League Soccer history, with drama on and off the field, spectacular races for the Conference titles, top individual performances and a magnificent MLS Cup to round it all off.

Over the next few days at PST we’re putting a nice bow on an incredible 2013 MLS season, to mark the end of a landmark year for soccer in North America.

On and off the pitch there were so many talking points across MLS, but let’s focus on the things that actually happened on the field as we take a gander at our top five storylines to come out of 2013.

Here we go…

1. Sporting KC win MLS Cup on home soil

Where better to start than the moment that capped the entire season off? This game had it all, subzero temperatures in front of a packed out house at Sporting Park who cheered on their side to victory… eventually. After the game had been locked at 1-1 and extra-time couldn’t separate Real Salt Lake or SKC, the dreaded penalty shootout (for just the third time in MLS Cup history) would decide the champion.

Cue Jimmy Nielsen’s mystic piece of paper, a mixture of superbly taken and utterly awful penalties and both sides having the chance to win the Cup… then blowing it, before the tenth round of PKs proved decisive. Lovell Palmer smashed the ball against the crossbar and over to hand SKC the win, after Aurelien Collin had calmly dispatched his spot kick, and Sporting Kansas City could celebrate their second MLS Cup in franchise history and first since their re-branding.

2. Landon Donovan returns, ties MLS scoring record

As Steve Davis mentioned in the ‘top MLS moments of 2013’ Landon Donovan’s return saw a wonderfully rejuvenated figure burst back onto the scene and tie Jeff Cunningham’s all-time MLS scoring record.

source: Getty Images
Donovan went from the verge of quitting soccer, to leading the USMNT to the World Cup and tying MLS’ all-time goalscoring record

Following his self-imposed sabbatical during the 2013 offseason, when many believed the then 30-year-old forward would walk away from soccer entirely, Donovan looked fit and ready to make up for lost time and soon found his feet in MLS despite some rusty performances to start with. Donovan missed the first three games of the season before coming off the bench away at Toronto FC to much fanfare. The U.S. attacker scored 10 goals and added nine assists in 21 starts in MLS for LA, and his big moment came when he scored twice against Chivas USA in October as he now has 155 MLS goals to his name. Remarkable, and it won’t take long for Donovan to break that record in 2014. Also, it’s worth noting that a rejuvenated Donovan won his place back in Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT squad as he won player of tournament at the Gold Cup and grabbed a goal and an assist in the USA’s 2-0 win over Mexico that sealed World Cup qualification to Brazil 2014.

Donovan is back with a bang alright.

3. Caleb Porter’s rookie season a huge success in Portland

After leaving Akron University and making the step up to the professional game, Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter made the transition look easy. He had everything he needed to succeed in PDX (tremendous support from the Timbers Army an owner who was willing to spend and talented players) but he just had to mesh it all together. Porter did that wonderfully well. Dubbed “Porterball” for his insistence to play 4-3-3 and using expensive imports with former collegiate stars, an exciting brand of attacking soccer blossomed in the Rose City as Portland won the Western Conference title.

Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri pulled the strings in midfield, while Will Johnson marshaled his side superbly as they beat Cascadia rivals Seattle in the playoffs, but came up short against RSL in the Conference Final. You get the feeling this is just the start for Porter’s young team in MLS, what a terrific season for the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year and his squad.

source: Getty Images
A Supporters’ Shield trophy finally arrived at Red Bull Arena, thanks to local hero Mike Petke

4. New York Red Bulls finally win silverware

For many years the Big Apple’s obsession with soccer has seen their side flounder at the final moment. During MLS Cup 2008 New York didn’t show up and were beaten by Columbus, and that’s just one example of a long list of failures over the years. But this season, with former Red Bull and New York native Mike Petke in charge, things would be different as after a rocky start New York rallied to win the franchises first-ever piece of silverware as they clinched the Supporters’ Shield trophy.

Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill were sublime as the DPs led the way, but the gritty determination of Petke’s side reflected the New York natives mentality. Eventually the Red Bulls beat SKC to the Shield by just one point with a win over Chicago in the final game of the season, but once more failure in the postseason left a nasty taste in the mouth. But who cares, the trophy cabinet at Red Bull Arena is no longer bare. An emotional Petke had tears in his eyes as the loyal RBNY fans finally had something tangible to celebrate on home soil.

5. Clint Dempsey returns to MLS, signs for Seattle

Among those landmarks moments in MLS history, Clint Dempsey’s return to the league that made him goes down as one of the best. As #DempseyWatch cranked up on social media after he was spotted at airports then rumors of him heading to the West Coast circulated, MLS was at the center of its biggest ever transfer saga. Dempsey, of course, joined the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur as the USMNT captain arrived back in MLS at the age of 30, still in his prime and hoping to bring a first-ever MLS cup to the Emerald City. Of course, we all know it didn’t work out like that as Dempsey was hampered by injuries and managed just one goal from six starts and nine total appearances.

However, having Deuce back on the U.S. domestic soccer scene sent a message out to the rest of global soccer: MLS can compete with the big boys.

Mourinho-Costa feud could mean January transfer activity for Chelsea

Diego Costa & Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
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Perhaps no man in the footballing world has been embroiled in more controversy this season than Jose Mourinho, who remains in charge of Chelsea despite a horrid start to the club’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign.

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The Portuguese mastermind has fallen out with a number of his own players and staff this season, so why not add another name to the growing list? Come on down, Diego Costa, you’re Mourinho’s next combatant.

The two reportedly got into a heated locker-room exchange following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Given Costa’s increasingly poor form all the way back to the final weeks and months of the 2014-15 season — just seven goals scored in the last 10 months — Mourinho is reportedly less and less sure the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard is the right man to lead the line for the reigning PL champions.

The details of Mourinho and Costa’s halftime spat, from the Guardian:

Mourinho, just as he did after a similar situation against Norwich on Saturday, made his frustrations clear at the forward’s lack of anticipation over an Eden Hazard pass, which would have provided the striker with a tap-in had he been on the move. Costa returned his manager’s remonstrations in kind. Oscar and John Terry tried to calm him down only to be pushed aside. The manager subsequently suggested there had been “a few kisses, a few cuddles” in the dressing room at the interval, and “no problem,” though the public show of dissent was notable.

The club’s hierarchy is reportedly considering dipping into the transfer market in January — something they’re extremely loath to do — to replace the misfiring Costa. The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Saido Berahino are the biggest currently linked with the Blues, given the lack of elite players typically available — as well as not being cup-tied in the Champions League — during the January window.

Chelsea, who currently sit 15th in the PL, return to league action on Sunday when they visit Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane (Watch live at 6:30 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.

Europa League roundup: Spurs, Liverpool advance to KO stage

FC Girondins de Bordeaux
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A roundup of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League group stage action:

Qarabag 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham traveled 2,500 miles to Baku, where they knocked off the reigning Azerbaijani champions to remain top of Group J with one game left to play. Harry Kane scored the game’s only goal (10th of the season – all competitions), a close-range finish from Christian Eriksen‘s corner kick in the 78th minute. As things stand, Spurs need just a point in their group stage finale, a home date with Monaco, to finish top of the group and grab a seeded place in the draw for the round of 32.

Liverpool 2-1 Bordeaux

Liverpool went top of Group B with a 2-1 victory over last-place Bordeaux at Anfield, meaning a win in their final group game, away to Swiss side Sion in two weeks’ time, will clinch a seeded place in the draw for the knockout stage. Liverpool went down a goal just after the half-hour mark, but James Milner and Christian Benteke brought the Reds back with a goal each either side of halftime.

FC Krasnodar 1-0 Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund missed their chance to finish top of Group C when they lost 1-0 away to Russian side Krasnodar. Pavel Mamaev put the hosts ahead from the penalty spot in the 2nd minute, and they held on for 88 minutes to move level on points (10) with the German giants. With one game left to play, Krasnodar have the inside track on the top spot through the fourth tiebreaker, away goals scored between the two teams.

Elsewhere in Europa League action

Augsburg 2-3 Athletic Bilbao
Villarreal 1-0 Rapid Wien
Basel 2-2 Fiorentina
Lazio 3-1 Dnipro
Club Brugge 0-1 Napoli
Rosenborg 1-1 Saint-Etienne
Monaco 0-2 Anderlecht
Marseille 2-1 Groningen
Schalke 1-0 APOEL Nicosia
Lokomotiv Moscow 2-4 Porto
Braga 2-1 Liberec
Molde 0-2 Fenerbahce
Celtic 1-2 Ajax
Besiktas 2-0 Skenderbeu
Rubin Kazan 2-0 Sion
Dinamo Minsk 1-0 Viktoria Plzen
AZ Alkmaar 1-2 Partizan Belgrade
Belenenses 0-0 Lech Poznan
Sparta Prague 1-0 Astoris Tripolis
Legia Warsaw 1-0 Midtjylland
PAOK Thessaloniki 0-0 FK Qabala