MLS Season Preview: Ranking the top 10 midfielders

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The countdown to the 2014 Major League Soccer season is ticking away and very shortly MLS will be back with a bang, as a spectacular season awaits.

We’ve been rolling out season previews of every team at PST and now it’s time to focus on each position and share who we think are the top 10 players.

LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Let’s take a look at the best midfielders as our season preview continues.

1. Michael Bradley

Toronto FC spent big to bring the U.S. international back from Roma. What they get in return is the most complete midfielder in Major League Soccer – a player capable of impacting a game in all phases. Farther down this list, you’ll see players who are among league’s best in discrete specialities: destroying; generating chances; providing goals from midfield. Given the circumstances of any particularly game, Bradley can flip a switch and become an elite midfielder in any of those areas, flashing a skill set that will help the Reds vault from bottom feeders to playoff contention.

2. Graham Zusi

This is where the list gets more contentious, but given how important Zusi is to 2013’s champions, it’s easy to see the influence of his maturation has had on Sporting Kansas City’s fortunes. As a creative threat alone, he became an Most Valuable Player candidate. Last year, as somebody who’s increasing effective running the whole show for Peter Vermes’ team, he was able to guide Sporting to their second title. He might not have as much pure talent as some others on this list, but in terms of overall output, Zusi had become a Major League Soccer elite.

3. Javier Morales

To truly appreciate Javier Morales, you need only hear opponents talk about his game. You don’t have to go far to find one of Real Salt Lake’s opponents call the Argentine veteran Major League Soccer’s best midfielder; and if not best, it’s most creative. While that isn’t a universally held opinion, it does speak to a player whose impact goes beyond the eight goals and 10 assists he posted last season – arguably his most productive since arriving at Rio Tinto.

source:  4. Osvaldo Alonso

The all-around skill set Michael Bradley boasts? That’s not Osvaldo Alonso, even if his contributions going forward are underappreciated. What Osvaldo Alonso does best — what he does to an unmatched degree in Major League Soccer — is destroy attacks. There is no midfield force that’s more disruptive than Alonso’s, and while some would prefer the more well-rounded game of Kyle Beckerman, Alonso is one of the few defense-first players that can dictate how a game is played – part of the reason Seattle willingly signed him to a Designated Player deal this offseason.

5. Kyle Beckerman

Beckerman has developed into the quintessential MLS regista – somebody who can organize a midfield, break up play for his defense, and spray the ball around with an enviable acuity. While he may not break open games in the same way his Argentine teammate can, Beckerman has a knack for contributing important goals, a trait that allows him to further transcend most of the league’s holders. He is as important as anybody to Real Salt Lake’s success, with the contributions he makes in training as well as games a big reason why he’ll be on the U.S.’s plane to Brazil.

6. Landon Donovan

On any given day, the league’s soon-to-be all-time leading scorer is still MLS’s best player, but in his slightly advancing years, those games are coming less frequent. As we saw in last year’s playoffs, the mere presence of Donovan is no guarantee of continued greatness. Still, even at 32-years-old, the Galaxy star can break open a game like few below him on this list. For one-game, if a title is on the line, most coaches would still pick him over the names above his.

7. Diego Valeri

In a completely different way, Portland’s Diego Valeri can match Donovan’s game-breaking ability, but whereas the LA star will typically does his damage while leading neck-snapping counters, Valeri’s ability to find seams in opposing defenses was a big part of the Timbers’ historic turnaround. He was the trequartista Caleb Porter needed to engineer that chance, part of the reason he was the franchise’s first big ticket acquisition after the former Akron boss signed on. With improved health, the former Lanus creator may be able to provide even more in 2014.

source:  8. Diego Fagundez

The numbers tell the story: 13 goals; seven assists; only 19 years old. Fagundez, not Darlington Nagbe, is the league’s best player under 24 years old, and while he may struggle to reproduce those eye-catching numbers, the potential to have a greater, more consistent minute-to-minute impact means the Uruguayan-born midfielder may have a better season. While Fagundez’s stats were beyond reproach, he will become even more influential as the more nuanced aspects of his game mature. It will be amazing to watch.

9. Darlington Nagbe

Nobody takes care of the ball like Darlington Nagbe, who led all attacking players in passing percentage last season. Registering a career high in goals (nine), the third-year attacker started to come good on the prodigious talent be brought to Oregon. The one thing he lacks: that element of aggression that can make the difference between a very good player and an All-Star (or Most Valuable Player candidate). It’s why Portland brought in Valeri last season, but over the course of the 2013 season, Nagbe may have learned a few lessons from his more adventurers teammate. In 2014, Nagbe may yet add that cutting edge that’s keeping him from being one of the league’s elites.

10. Will Johnson

Yet another Portland Timber, but coming off a year where his name trickled into MVP conversations, it’s impossible to leave Will Johnson off this list. In Porter’s system, Johnson went from feisty foot solider at Real Salt Lake to driving force in Portland’s midfield, with diligent defensive pressure combining with a series of timely goals to make the Canadian international one of 2013’s most influential offseason acquisitions. After career highs in goals and assists, the question is whether Johnson can replicate last year’s production, but still likely to get the call on dead balls and penalties, the 27-year-old’s stats should match his considerable influence in the middle.

MORE: Top 10 rookies in MLS
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PL Sunday preview: Wayward Watford welcome woeful West Ham

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In a reversal of roles, based on preseason projections at least, Watford welcome West Ham United to Vicarage Road on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for a clash of mid-table climbers and relegation fighters, respectively.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man Utd, Chelsea win big… so do Man City ]

Watford began the 2017-18 Premier League season in fine form, winning four of their first eight games and losing just one (to runaway leaders Manchester City, no less). In their last three games, however, the Hornets have conceded eight goals, while scoring just four themselves, and winning zero points. Coincidentally — nor not, perhaps — that three-game slide began at the same time Watford manager Marco Silva‘s name was linked with the vacant manager’s job at Everton. With Ronald Koeman fired almost four weeks ago now, Watford have rejected approach after approach from Everton owner Farhad Moshiri. Silva, for his first three months of efforts, has been roundly praised by the club’s supporters and players alike.

“Everybody could see he changed a lot of things in the team. We had quite a lot of the same players but we improved a lot,” defender Christian Kabasele said this week. “When you have somebody like this and other teams are looking for him it’s important that Watford try to do everything possible to keep him.”

West Ham, meanwhile, started the season poorly and have remained equally so in recent weeks. Slaven Bilic was subsequently fired two weeks and succeeded by David Moyes, who had been out of a job since guiding Sunderland to relegation at the end of last season. Sunday’s bout with Watford will see Moyes make his debut for West Ham, the fourth club to employ him since leaving Everton four and a half years ago. To make matters more difficult, the Hammers’ leading scorer, Javier Hernandez (4 goals), won’t be available after picking up an injury on international duty.

“It’s a clean slate for the entire squad,” Moyes said last week. “They’ve all worked very hard this week and responded in a positive manner to everything we’ve asked of them. It will obviously take time for the players to fully understand our style and methods but the initial signs are very encouraging — they’ve bought in what we are trying to do and that’s a good base for us to build on.”

INJURIES: Watford — OUT: Troy Deeney (suspension), Nathaniel Chalobah (knee), Isaac Success (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Sebastian Prodl (hamstring), Roberto Pereyra (hamstring) | West Ham — OUT: Javier Hernandez (hamstring), James Collins (ankle), Sam Byram (thigh), Jose Fonte (foot); QUESTIONABLE: Michail Antonio (ribs)

The 2 Robbies: North London Painted Red

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In today’s pod, the Robbies heap praise on Arsenal’s impressive performance in the North London Derby (00:30), analyze Manchester United’s 4-1 win against Newcastle on the back of Paul Pogba’s return (10:00), ask if this Man City side is the best Premier League side ever (18:25), debate where Kevin De Bruyne’s current form ranks in the league’s greatest ever players (23:45) and pick the best summer signing so far this season (27:15; hint, hint – he might be leading the league in scoring).

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.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Draw in Madrid derby puts Barca 10 clear of capital rivals

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid played to a scoreless draw in their first derby at the new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on Saturday, leaving both teams further away from Spanish league leader Barcelona.

Barcelona won at Leganes 3-0 earlier and ended the day 10 points in front of both Madrid clubs after 12 matches. The thriving Catalan club is seven points in front of second-place Valencia, which will try to extend its seven-game winning streak at Espanyol on Sunday.

The draw extended Atletico’s winless run at its new home to five matches. It drew three straight entering this weekend. Diego Simeone’s team has won only two of its last 10 games in all competitions.

Both teams will have to remain nearly perfect for the rest of the season to try to catch up to Barcelona, which has won 11 of its 12 league matches.

It was a tense between Real and Atletico from the start, with hard fouls from both sides.

Real had control for most of the game but was not able to create many significant chances.

Atletico had one of its best opportunities early when forward Angel Correa entered the area free from markers with only goalkeeper Kiko Casilla to beat but sent his shot wide.

Substitute Kevin Gameiro also came close in the second half, but his shot over Casilla was cleared by Real defender Raphael Varane in front of the goal-line.

Real threatened with a few runs by Isco and a couple of free kicks taken by Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was another tough night for Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann. Ronaldo has scored six times in the Champions league but only once in La Liga, while Griezmann has only three goals in 14 matches with Atletico in all competitions. The France forward was jeered when he was replaced by Fernando Torres near the end of the second half.

Luis Suarez scored twice to end a five-match scoring drought in Barcelona’s win.

The Uruguay striker found the net in each half and substitute midfielder Paulinho scored late to give the Catalan club its 11th win.

Leganes, ninth in the standings, had its chances early in southern Madrid but couldn’t beat Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Suarez opened the scoring in the 28th after Leganes goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar dropped the ball in front of the goal after a cross by Paco Alcacer. Suarez’s second in the 60th was a rebound shot after Cuellar parried a shot by Lionel Messi. Suarez hadn’t scored in more than a month.

“What mattered to me was that I was feeling good and was helping the team, and today the goals helped us get the three points against a difficult rival,” Suarez said. “We always try to play better, but it’s not always possible.”

Paulinho sealed the victory in the 90th after a pass by Messi, who was on the ground fighting for the ball when he tipped it back to the midfielder.

Leganes, playing only in its second season in the first division, wore a specially designed purple shirt to promote the fight against gender violence.

“We had our opportunities, but in the end we knew that we were playing against the best team in the world, and with very little they can score on you,” Leganes midfielder Ruben Perez said.

Sevilla recovered from its loss to Barcelona in the previous round by beating Celta Vigo 2-1 to move back to fifth place.

Celta got on the board first through Maxi Gomez, but the hosts rallied with goals by Luis Muriel in the first half and Nolito in the second.

It was the fourth win in five matches for Sevilla in all competitions.

Markel Bergara and Jorge Molina scored in the first 10 minutes to lead Getafe to a comfortable 4-1 win over Alaves at home.

It was the 10th league loss for Alaves, which remains in 18th place. Getafe is 10th.

“Our performance was embarrassing,” Alaves coach Gianni De Biasi said.

Bundesliga: Bayern running away (again) after slow start

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BERLIN (AP) Robert Lewandowski scored twice to help Bayern Munich stretch its lead in the Bundesliga to six points with a 3-0 defeat of Bavarian rival Augsburg on Saturday.

It was the 500th league win for Jupp Heynckes as a player or coach and extends the 72-year-old’s winning start to eight games across all competitions since he returned for his fourth stint.

“That’s a surprise for me. I don’t bother with statistics and numbers,” Heynckes said on being told about his winning landmark. “But it’s an impressive number (500). I had a long career as a player, and now as a coach. It wasn’t planned.”

Heynckes was coaxed out of retirement to take over from the fired Carlo Ancelotti on Oct. 5. Bayern was trailing then-leader Borussia Dortmund by five points at the time. Now the side is nine points ahead of Dortmund, which hasn’t won in the league since Sept. 30, and six ahead of Leipzig, held to a draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal broke the deadlock after half an hour, swiveling to fire home the rebound from a difficult angle after Mats Hummels’s effort was blocked and the ball ricocheted off Niklas Suele.

Vidal turned provider seven minutes later, playing Lewandowski through on a counterattack to shoot past Marwin Hitz.

The Poland striker claimed his league-leading 13th goal of the season early in the second half with a perfectly struck volley to Joshua Kimmich’s precise long cross from the right.

Vidal headed against the crossbar just afterward before Bayern conserved energy for Wednesday’s Champions League game at Anderlecht.

The win stretched the side’s unbeaten record to 28 games at home.

Winless Cologne’s terrible start to the league continued with its 10th defeat in 12 games, while the discussion over video assistance in the league will continue after two mistakes by referee Felix Brych.

Daniel Brosinski’s penalty before the break was enough for a 1-0 win for Mainz against Cologne, but how it came about will ensure the controversy over video assistance goes on.

Brych pointed to the spot when Pablo De Blasis fell under Frederik Sorensen’s challenge. He then consulted the video assistant, who had the benefit of studying replays in Cologne, and stood by the decision – despite television showing that Sorensen made hardly any contact with the Mainz player.

Brych later sent off Mainz’s Giulio Donati for what he perceived as striking Leon Bittencourt after a tussle between the two. However, Bittencourt’s foot struck Donati in the face beforehand. Donati, who was lying on the pitch clutching his face, brushed the Cologne player away when he went to lift him up.

Following controversial decisions in previous games, the German soccer federation said video assistants were only to step in when there was “a clear wrong decision.”

Ten-man Leverkusen came from behind to salvage a 2-2 draw at home against second-place Leipzig.

Timo Werner’s early penalty put the visitors in front before Leon Bailey equalized before the break.

The home side’s hopes took a blow when Benjamin Henrichs was sent off for handball on the line and Emil Forsberg scored the resulting penalty, but Kevin Volland equalized again with a quarter-hour remaining.

Wolfsburg defeated Freiburg 3-1 at home to give coach Martin Schmidt his first win after he started with seven draws.

On loan from Bayern, Serge Gnabry did brilliantly to set up Mark Uth for Hoffenheim’s injury-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw with visiting Eintracht Frankfurt.