Michael Bradley-to-Toronto: Take a moment to suspend your whys, consider how far MLS has come

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Michael Bradley may be coming back to Major League Soccer. Even if he doesn’t — if he has some kind of last minute change of course that undermines all the news we’ve heard on Wednesday — just take a moment to consider what’s going on. This is a U.S. international that’s in the undisputed prime of his career – one that has played at the top-level in England, Germany, and Italy. He is fighting for time right now, but he’s fighting for time for the second place team in the Italian Serie A. And despite all of this — despite his earning potential, his stature at a big Italian club, and a World Cup on the horizon — Michael Bradley might be coming back to Major League Soccer.

[UPDATE: Report: Bradley to Toronto done, set to earn $6.5 million per season after $7-$10 million transfer fee]

What is happening with this league? Just five years ago, this circuit was struggling for international relevance ahead of a World Cup that would see only six Major League Soccer players feature in South Africa. The four MLS players Bob Bradley picked for the U.S. squad represented the lowest total since MLS came into existence in 1996. The question of whether the U.S.’s top talent should be playing domestically or in Europe seemed to be resolved (in Europe’s favor), while the league was still struggling to come to grips with the need to fit in the Beckhams and Henrys of the world in financially constrained business model.

Fast forward to 2014, and we have a league willing to pay Tottenham Hotspur $9 million to get Clint Dempsey to Seattle. We see Seattle (and other sources) willing to guarantee the U.S. captain $8 million per year to play in Major League Soccer, with another, younger, even better American set to follow. Add in the commitments to players like Beckham, Henry, Robbie Keane, and Tim Cahill (and nearly every team using the Designated Player rule), and you have a league that looks nothing like it’s pre-South Africa self. Either MLS is spending itself into the ground (unlikely, given the still modest sums going to total payroll) or a new, more financially viable era of Major League Soccer has produced a makeover.

[MORE: Defoe to Toronto FC official… and maybe Michael Bradley, too? (or “How Taylor Twellman broke Twitter”)]

Five years ago, there were serious questions about MLS’s direction. The league had recovered from its post-Florida contraction doldrums, had expanded into places like Salt Lake, Toronto, and Los Angeles, yet before the Pacific Northwest expansion, there were still major questions as to whether the league was capturing hearts and minds. Why those questions still remain, they’ve taken a different form post-Beckham: where market’s like Seattle’s, Portland’s, and Kansas City’s (re-branded) are generating new excitement; where the league is pushing on to a 24-team format that would have sounded foolish a decade ago. Now the question isn’t whether the league is growing. It’s how the league can grow responsibly.

source: AP
Even more than Clint Dempsey’s acquisition by the Seattle Sounders, Michael bradley’s potential returns represents progress from Major League Soccer. (Photo: AP.)

Even more than Clint Dempsey’s move to Seattle, Michael Bradley’s potential switch to Toronto give us reason to appreciate that progress. Bradley is four years younger than Dempsey and isn’t being lured by a situation like Seattle’s. He’s willing to forgo four, maybe six more years in Europe to come back to a relatively struggling team, and while he’ll certainly be handsomely compensated to do so, there are still a number of factors here that force us to reconsider MLS’s new drawing power. Like the Dempsey deal, there’s no way something like this happens four or five years ago.

So as all this Michael Bradley news unfolds (and at this point, it sounds like an inevitability) , it might be worth suspending disbelief and considering the progress. Why is a 26-year-old returning to MLS? Why is he passing on Europe to come back home? Why is he choosing Toronto, and (for that matter) why is Toronto making such a huge commitment to him?

There are good answers to all of these questions, answers that we’ll dive into as news of Bradley’s arrival starts to be confirmed. For now, however, it’s worth putting those curiosities aside for a moment of reelection. Whether the move gets finalized or not, Major League Soccer’s now in a place where a $10 million transfer and $8 million salary can happen under the right circumstances. That those circumstances are even possible is a huge testament to the league’s upward trajectory.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).