With Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, what would a Toronto FC starting XI look like

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We’re still two months away from the start of Major League Soccer’s season, but given the news Toronto FC made today, it’s impossible to resist taking pen to paper and imagining what Ryan Nelsen’s team could look like in March. Jermain Defoe is moving to BMO Field, as is U.S. Men’s National Team stalwart Michael Bradley. Add in the team’s other offseason acquisitions — Gilberto, Jackson, Justin Morrow — and the somewhat permeable state at the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture and it’s difficult to tell a TFC fan they shouldn’t dare to dream.

Beyond the players, we know Nelsen has almost exclusively played a 4-4-2 formation since signing on in Toronto, preferring one defensive midfielder in the middle. With that in mind, here’s some blind speculation as to what a TFC starting XI could look like, provided Defoe and Bradley end up in Ontario.

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

GK: Joe Bendik – The 24-year-old acquired from Portland before last season made 33 starts for Nelsen, keeping the No. 1’s job from the eventually traded Stefan Frei. Recently re-signed, he’ll be back in goal this year.

LB: Justin Morrow/Ashtone Morgan – It look Nelsen a little time to warm to Morgan last season, but ultimately, the 22-year-old played the fourth-most minutes on the team. The former San Jose Earthquake will challenge his place in the starting XI, but Morrow’s flexibility could lead to significant playing time for both players. (This is where I’ll reiterate our caveats: It’s only January, this is very speculative, and Ryan Nelsen/Tim Bezbatchenko may have no idea who will be starting Mar. 7 against Vancouver.)

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

CBs: Doneil Henry, Steven Caldwell – Though Gale Agbossoumonde is lurking, the young U.S. hopeful is actually two years older than Henry, who is likely to start next to the veteran Caldwell.

RB: Mark Bloom? Ryan Richter? – This is the one position where it’s unclear what Toronto’s doing, leaving you to wonder whether Morrow may actually make his way over to this flank. A Canadian Press report from mid-December speculated the 26-year-old Bloom had inherited the spot, perhaps a second ex-Atlanta Silverbacks full back loanee ready to make an impact in Major League Soccer (along with Colorado’s Chris Klute).

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Brazilian Jackson, acquired from FC Dallas this offseason, is likely to hold town one flank in Ryan Nelsen’s 4-4-2.

LM/RM: Jackson, Reggie Lambe – Alvaro Rey and Jonathan Osorio are also options here, but Lambe’s 27 appearances hint he was one of Nelsen’s favorites last season, something that could give the 22-year-old Bermudan a leg-up on a starting spot. Jackson, acquired from FC Dallas, looks like an obvious choice for Toronto’s starting XI, provided he makes a smooth transition to his new team.

[MORE: Making sense of the “whys” surrounding Michael Bradley’s Toronto move]

CMs: Michael Bradley, Jeremy Hall or Jonathan Osorio (Kyle Bekker?) – How does Nelsen envision using Bradley? Is the U.S. international seen as a holder? Somebody who will typically be the deepest man in midfielder? Or will Nelsen craft a more expansive role for his DP midfielder? That may dictate whether Jeremy Hall, Toronto’s most-used field player in 2013, continues to be a regular in the starting XI. It’s also possible somebody like the 21-year-old Osorio (or, maybe Kyle Bekker) ends up partnering Bradley in the middle. This may also be a position when the opposition has something to say about who Nelsen chooses from one weekend to the next.

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

Fs: Jermain Defoe, Gilberto – Bright Dike and Dwayne De Rosario give Nelsen options, but the top of the depth chart is clear. Both Defoe and Gilberto’s track records hint they’ll be very successful Major League Soccer players, and while fans of the league have seen enough flame outs to know nothing is guaranteed, Toronto should be able to avoid their 2013 goal-scoring woes. Provided Nelsen loosens the reins (far from a given), TFC should drastically improve on the 30 goals they scored last season.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.