This week’s MLS5: Our early look at the Most Valuable Player award

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Each week throughout the rest of the Major League Soccer season, we’ll take a look at (at least) one of the league’s major postseason awards, giving you our “if we have to vote today” view on MLS’s most prestigious honors. It’s our way of keeping a conversation going from start-to-finish rather than jumping in at season’s end to take inventory of the previous eight months. If we start paying attention now — thinking about things in terms of our eventual votes — hopefully we can make more informed decisions come October.

Every week, there’ll be one award and five points of discussion, and while it’s way too early to be making decisions about how we’re actually going to vote, it’s not too early to consider which players are distinguishing themselves.

We start with Most Valuable Player:

source: Getty Images

5. Mauro Díaz, FC Dallas

When you watch the young Argentine play you see an array of skills and choices that could vault him among the best players in Major League Soccer. For some, he’s already there, having won March’s MLS Player of the Month honor. Break down his games, actually track the end result of all those deft touches and though balls, and you see much of his skill has resulted in unrealized potential. He does have three assists (two primary), good for second in the league, but for all his orchestrating majesty, only five of Dallas’s 17 goals have come from open play. Soon, when those small, seemingly innumerable pieces of skill represent more than just potential, Díaz could climb this list.

source: Getty Images

4. Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew

Four goals, two assists, and the key role in a team that looks primed for one of the season’s biggest turnarounds earns Higuaín a place on this list, though whether he deserves to be above Díaz is another question. Though Higuaín has scored more goals, that’s by virtue of being his team’s penalty kick taker. Those scores aside his numbers, like his influence, is almost identical to Díaz’s.

For us, there are two tiebreakers. First, Higuaín has been more dangerous as a penalty area threat. Second, in Columbus’s system, he’s having to do more work to drop back and pick up the ball. Even when his team’s established possession in the opponent’s half, Higuaín’s often drifting to the flanks to influence the game.

Are those minor distinctions? Of course. It’s not easy to try to draw lines between Mauro Díaz and Federico Higuaín. If you prefer the FC Dallas man, we can’t argue. Columbus has also only produced five open play goals (though that does represent 55 percent of the team’s production).

source: AP

3. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC

Moment to moment, this is the most influential player in Major League Soccer. Defensively, he may be the league’s most valuable, and as he showed in Columbus, had can also be one of MLS’s most dangerous going forward. The game he missed against Colorado hurts his ranking, but once that gets teased out, he’ll likely be competing with our choice for number one.

source: Getty Images

2. Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy

With four goals in five games, Keane is proving as valuable as ever. While he doesn’t quite have the minute-to-minute effect that Díaz, Higuaín, and Bradley have, he has a much greater influence within 18 yards of goal. Only Marco Di Vaio and Clint Dempsey are getting off more shots per game, while no forward is generating more scoring opportunities for his teams mates (as measured by Opta’s Key Passes, for what that’s worth). Despite only playing five games, he leads the league with 11 shots on target.

source: AP

1. Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders

Who else could it be? Even though he’s missed two games through suspension, Dempsey’s tied for the league’s lead in goals (six). His three assists (two primary) are second only to teammate Obafemi Martins, with most of his contributions coming in high-leverage situations (via late goals against Portland, Dallas). When Michael Bradley gets more minutes under his belt, the philosophical debate between a high value attacker and all around midfielder will escalate. For now, Dempsey’s surged to the top of our early, theoretical MVP ballot.

Others considered: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Erick Torres (Chivas USA)

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”