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PREVIEW: Everything you need to know about the World Cup in one beautiful post

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It’s here! Well, sort of. The 2014 World Cup begins play on Thursday when Brazil and Croatia tangle at 4pm ET.

So let’s say you’ve just found us, or that your WC knowledge isn’t quite where you feel it needs to be heading into the tournament. Here’s every single thing we’ve had to say leading up to Brazil, beginning with our staff’s roundtablepicks and predictions, the top 20 moments in the history of the World Cup …

… and continuing through everything we’ve gone on all eight groups. It’s all linked up, below.

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP A 

FROM THE PREVIEW

The host country’s record since a Feb. 6, 2013 loss to England at Wembley? A shiny 16W-4D-1L. The clear favorites to become the fourth hosts to win the thing, Brazil will trot out a loaded team that arguably boasts a dozen of the top 20 players in the group.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. The home team rules. Brazil is vying to win the World Cup on home soil, and has the added benefit of this fact: they’d be a favorite for the tournament regardless of continent. Thirteen of 19 champions have won on their home continent.

2. No Super Mario… to start. Croatia star striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the opener against Brazil with a suspension picked up at the tail end of qualifying. It’s a significant disadvantage for the visitors.

3. El Tri is inconsitent. Mexico looked dominant against New Zealand in the qualifying playoff, but that was after needing every bit of Graham Zusi- and Aron Johannsson-fueled luck to make the playoff. Are they the team that’s posted back-to-back 1-0 losses to Portugal and Bosnia & Herzegovina, or are they the team that’s skunked Israel, Ecuador and South Korea?

DATES AND TIMES

Thursday, June 12 , 5 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
Friday, June 13, 1 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Mexico vs. Cameroon

Tuesday, June 17, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Brazil vs. Mexico
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia

Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Cameroon vs. Brazil
Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Brazil
2. Croatia
3. Mexico
4. Cameroon

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP B

FROM THE PREVIEW

A loaded group with stars to burn — Arjen Robben doesn’t even make our Top Five players for the bunch — Group B should provide a bunch of terrific games. Australia is the afterthought of the four, but anything could happen and a Socceroos upset behind Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak would provide an even wilder card.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Spain is seeking out history, as they’ll look to pick up back-to-back World Cup titles with a European Championship sandwiched in the middle. We don’t always talk dynasties when it comes to international soccer, but this Spanish unit will be writing a new language if they come strong.

2. It’s getting Chile in here. South American nations are getting a lot of run leading up to the tournament, and Chile has loads of talent (especially if Arturo Vidal is ready to go). It wouldn’t be a shock to see them come out of the group and make a little noise.

3. What will the Dutch midfield do? Without the injured Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands will have to navigate a tough group with a depleted engine room. Names like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are still there, though.

DATES AND TIMES

Friday, June 13, 4 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Spain vs. Netherlands
Friday, June 13, 7 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Chile vs. Australia

Wednesday, June 18, 1 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – Australia vs. Netherlands
Wednesday, June 18, 2 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Spain vs. Chile

Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Australia vs. Spain
Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Netherlands vs. Chile

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Netherlands
4. Australia

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP C

FROM THE PREVIEW

The upshot is a competitive group that provides a wide range of potentials, styles, experience, and stars, and with three teams taking suspected back lines into the tournament, we’ll likely see goals. Combine that with a parity among the group’s bottom three and you have a prescription for drama.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Colombia’s biggest star is out, but the team’s still favored to win this group. Radamel Falcao — the AS Monaco striker that can claim to be one of Europe’s best — couldn’t recover from his knee injury in time to play. Even without him, a talented attack featuring James Rodríguez, Teófilo Gutíerrez, Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, and Carlos Bacca should have enough firepower to carry José Pekerman’s team to the top of the group.

2. No defense means more goals. With the exception of Greece, each team has weak at the back. That means the star-studed Ivorians and a technically and tactically astute Japan could join Colombia in making this one of the tournament’s highest scoring groups.

3. And those Ivorians are certainly star-studded. Didier Drogba is the most famous African soccer player in the world, and he might not be the best forward on his team. That’s because Cote d’Ivoire also have Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, and Gervinho – players who combined for 41 goals in their European leagues this season. Add ingmidfielder Yaya Toure — the team’s best player — and you have less of a dark horse than the first page of a playbill.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14 , 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Colombia vs. Greece
Saturday, June 14, 9 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Japan

Thursday, June 19, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Colombia vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Thursday, June 19, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Japan vs. Greece

Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Japan vs. Colombia
Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Greece vs. Cote d’Ivoire

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Colombia
2. Cote d’Ivoire
3. Japan
4. Greece

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP D

FROM THE PREVIEW

One of the most difficult packs to predict at the 2014 World Cup, Group D has three teams who could finish first or tumble to third. Between England, Italy, and Uruguay, Group D’s contenders have seven World Cups and 10 world titles, a collection of honors that ensures one impressive résumé will be cast aside with the 15 other teams that fail to make the knockout round.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. This is not your typical England, in the sense that many of the stylistic elements (which usually depict a stoic if physically-capable team) aren’t present in this year’s Three Lions. Yeah, you still have two big reliable-types in central defense (Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Everton’s Phil Jagielka), but you also have the skill of Adam Lallana, Wayne Rooney, and Raheem Sterling in attack, with Daniel Sturridge’s speed giving Roy Hodgson a new type of threat up top. England’s not even playing 4-4-2 anymore!

2. Andrea Pirlo’s last hurrah will also feature a passing of the torch, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Pirlo-to-be Marco Verratti a likely starter in Cesare Prandelli’s 4-5-1. While Pirlo’s signed a new deal with Juventus which will take him up to the next Euros, this will almost certainly be the 35-year-old’s final World Cup. As his generation’s quintessential deep-lying distributor, Pirlo’s last World Cup will be a talking point for the next generation of registas.

3. Luis Suárez’s health is really, really important, particularly considering the depth of this group. With a healthy Suárez, playing in South America, you could make a case for the Uruguayans as favorites. Without him, it will come down to how well the 35-year-old Diego Forlán (as well as Gastón Ramirez) link a deep central midfield with the team’s healthy scoring threat: Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14, 3 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
Saturday, June 14, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – England vs. Italy

Thursday, June 19, 3 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Uruguay vs. England
Friday, June 20, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Italy vs. Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Costa Rica vs. England
Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Italy vs. Uruguay

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Italy
2. Uruguay
3. England
4. Costa Rica

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP E

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Ecuadorians last four friendlies were against World Cup competition (a loss to Mexico, defeat of Australia and draws against England and the Netherlands). Can this, and the South American climate, help them escape the group?

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Anyone can emerge from this group. Even though France and Switzerland will be expected to go through, Ecuador will hope being close to home helps while Honduras is capable of making anyone’s lives miserable with their borderline play.

2. French rebound. Their last World Cup was probably among the most embarrassing for any true power in history, as in-fighting and bizarre stories crushed their dreams of glory. A younger unit may be able to harness great skill and energy, even without Franck Ribery.

3. All eyes on June 20. Every World Cup game packs import, but Switzerland versus France will, in all likelihood, be the one that decides who wins the group.

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 1 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Switzerland vs. Ecuador
Sunday, June 15, 4 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

Friday, June 20, 3 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France
Friday, June 20, 6 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Honduras vs. Ecuador

Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Honduras vs. Switzerland
Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. France
2. Switzerland
3. Ecuador
4. Honduras

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP F

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Super Eagles would provide a significant upset were they to climb ahead of either BNH or Argentina, while a Top Two place for Iran would be among the biggest moments in World Cup history.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Kinda predictable? Our staff laid out its predictions for the group, which looked, well, exactly the same. Argentina is expected to walk through the group with Bosnia and Herzegovina a close second.

2. Messy Messi? Despite the constant high-fives and plaudits for his work with Barcelona, superstar striker Lionel Messi has received plenty of guff from Argentine fans. Can he deliver loads of goals, assists and wonder this time around?

3. Nigeria could be a wild card. Stephen Keshi’s squad has truckloads of talent, but lacks consistency. Even if its defense falters, the Super Eagles are capable of sending plenty of balls on goal. Could we see some big scorelines?

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 7 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Argentina vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Monday, June 16, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Iran vs. Nigeria

Saturday, June 21, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Argentina vs. Iran
Saturday, June 21, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Nigeria vs. Argentina
Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Iran

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Argentina
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
3. Nigeria
4. Iran

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP G

FROM THE PREVIEW

The argument against this being the Group of Death: There’s a pretty big drop off after the quartet’s top two, a drop you don’t see in Groups B and D. Ultimately, if there are no upsets, two teams that may not be among the best 16 in the world won’t make it to the second round …

That’s not a Group of Death, but it is a group of depth – a packet that could provide drama, particularly if Portugal isn’t at full strength when they face Germany on June 16.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Germany is ridiculously talented and has history on its side, making the final eight in every World Cup they’ve entered. Even with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus out, the front six is so deep that Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mario Götze didn’t start their team’s final pre-Cup friendly. Germany’s second XI team would have a good chance to make this tournament’s knockout round.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t healthy, and might not be for the entire tournament, thanks to tendinosis in his left knee. That’s not something that’s going to improve in the middle of a month-long competition. For a team that’s becoming increasingly, worryingly dependent on its star, Portugal may need more than a 75 percent Ronaldo to hold off the U.S. or Ghana.

3. After years of derision, the stereotypes could prove decisive for the U.S. in Brazil, just as the team’s fitness, speed, strength and physicality left it on the edge of the semifinals in 2002. For those deriding the U.S.’s technical qualities, those virtues are often cited euphemistically, yet they will be real factors as this tournament progresses. When the U.S. and Portugal descend on Manaus for game two, Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness could pay off.

DATES AND TIMES

Monday, June 16, 12 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Germany vs. Portugal
Monday, June 16, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

Saturday, June 21, 3 p.m. Eastern,  Fortaleza – Germany vs. Ghana
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Portugal vs. Ghana
Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – United States vs. Germany

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Germany
2. Portugal
3. United States
4. Ghana

-RF

MORE: United States player profiles … all of them

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP H

FROM THE PREVIEW

In terms of talent, there is no group at this year’s World Cup that sees such a huge gap between its leaders and the pack … [Belgium] will arrive in Brazil as one of the most talented teams on the planet. Only a lack of experience and notable results keeps the Belgians from being more than a dark horse.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Russia and South Korea may be looking forward, with the Koreans’ young squad and Russia’s upcoming hosting gig making both teams more viable in 2018. Without its captain (the injured Roman Shirokov), Russia may have trouble getting Aleksandr Kerzakhov onto the scoresheet, while Korea’s quality in the midfield may not make up for mistakes at the back.

2. Algeria are anonymous, but still dangerous, far more so than four years ago. With Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli in midfield, the Desert Foxes have a player whose quality could produce the goal Algeria couldn’t find in the 2010 tournament. Their central defense can be beaten with speed, but neither Russia nor South Korea may have the quality to exploit that weakness. It will still take an upset, but an Algerian team that lacks name stars could produce its first World Cup victory since 1982.

3. Belgium really are as dangerous as advertised, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as good as their seed implies. Frankly, we don’t know. Europe’s World Cup qualifying is so watered down, teams can go the entire tournament without facing a credible threat, and given Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2012, we have no real idea how good they are as a team. We can look at names like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, and Romelu Lukaku had gawk at their potential, but you need only look to Eden Hazard’s international record to see reason for caution. The Chelsea attacker has 52 goals over the last three years at club-level, but he’s only scored six times in 45 appearances for his country.

DATES AND TIMES

Tuesday, June 17, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Belgium vs. Algeria
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Russia vs. South Korea

Sunday, June 22, 12 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Belgium vs. Russia
Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – South Korea vs. Algeria

Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Curitibia – Algeria vs. Russia
Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – South Korea vs. Belgium

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Belgium
2. Russia
3. South Korea
4. Algeria

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H


Klopp played three positions in Liverpool staff team’s draw with Stanford

Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool FC (Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer)
Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer
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From the Endearing Jurgen Klopp Tales file, the Liverpool manager reportedly starred in defense, midfield and attack for a squad full of Reds coaches against Stanford on Sunday.

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Liverpool, who have based themselves on the sunny, warm Stanford University campus as part of their preparations for the 2016-17 Premier League, took on the collegiate side and played the youngsters to a 1-1 draw.

Klopp failed to get his name on the scoresheet, though the former Mainz striker had one golden chance turned away by Stanford’s goalkeeper. The same couldn’t be said for physiotherapist Ruben Pons, who scored from beyond the halfway line on a mishit long ball over the top.

With all the goodwill Klopp has banked with Reds fans in his first nine months at the club, he’s now only a PL title away from securing his place as an eternal Liverpool legend.

Liverpool will take on Chelsea in each side’s first International Champions Cup fixture Wednesday night (11 p.m. ET) in Pasadena, Calif.

Former Fergie assistant Phelan wants Hull job — “I want to be a manager”

SCUNTHORPE, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Hull City interim manager Mike Phelan prior to kick off in the pre-season friendly between Scunthorpe United and Hull City at Glanford Park on July 23, 2016 in Scunthorpe, England.  (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images
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Following Steve Bruce’s sudden and unexpected resignation this week, Hull City find themselves without a first-team manager 20 days before the 2016-17 Premier League opener, which will pit the PL newcomers (again) against the reigning PL champions (not again) Leicester City on Aug. 13.

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The man presently in charge of the club, Mike Phelan, who served as Sir Alex Ferguson‘s no. 2 for a number of years at Manchester United, has essentially no first-team managerial experience, but he’s eager to cut his teeth and wants the job anyway — quotes from the Hull Daily Mail:

“I want to be a manager. I don’t really see why I shouldn’t want to be a manager. Time will tell. That decision doesn’t sometimes come down to you.

“I’ve had a small chat and I was asked if I would carry on being in charge for now. We have games, we have preparations, we’ve still got three weeks to go.

“My job is no different to what it has been except now I’m stood on the touchline in games doing my bit. We just have to do our job, there’s nothing else we can do until the powers that be make their decisions.”

Here’s why it’s (obviously) crazy for the club to delay a final decision any longer than absolutely necessary: with every passing day, important preparations for a PL season, a campaign in which the Tigers will almost certainly be fighting for their top-division status, are being undertaken by an interim boss who, based upon the daily whims of an outgoing owner, may or may not be the man to lead Hull into that 38-game battle.

Phelan previously served as interim manager for Norwich City in 2015, for a period totaling four days.

Int’l Champions Cup: Aurier scores twice as PSG throttle Inter Milan

Paris Saint-Germain's Serge Aurier, right, gets a shot past Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, left, in the first half of the International Champions Cup soccer match at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., Sunday, July 24, 2016. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP)
Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP
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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Serge Aurier scored twice and Paris Saint-Germain beat Inter Milan 3-1 on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.

Layvin Kurzawa also scored for PSG on a free kick in the 61st minute in the International Champions Cup match. Stevan Jovetic scored for Inter Milan on a penalty kick in stoppage time following the first half.

Autzen Stadium, the home football field of the Oregon Ducks, hosted the match, part of the International Champions Cup. Real grass was laid down on the artificial turf field, obscuring the yellow `O’ at midfield.

The International Champions Cup is an exhibition tournament involving 17 teams playing on four different continents. It serves a tuneup for the regular season.

Inter Milan was coming off a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake earlier in the week in Utah. Striker Mauro Icardi played in that match, and was given the day off against PSG.

Paris Saint-Germain, which beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 its last time out on July 14 in Austria, is embarking on its first season under Unai Emery, who took over for Laurnet Blanc. In addition to the new manager, PSG will also need to adjust to the departure of enigmatic forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who signed with Manchester United earlier this month.

Ibrahimovic had 38 goals in 31 French league games last season, helping PSG to a fourth successive title. On Sunday midfielder Javier Pastore wore No. 10.

Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier entered as subs for Paris Saint-Germain in the second half.

Di Maria had just returned to his club team earlier in the week after taking some time off following the Copa America tournament. He played for his native Argentina in the final, which Chile won on penalty kicks.

David Luiz apparently did not make the trip to Eugene from Los Angeles, where PSG was training.

Aurier, who played in the 2014 World Cup for his native Ivory Coast, left-footed the rebound of a free kick off goalkeeper Samir Handanovic into the bottom left corner.

Inter Milan evened it on Jovetic’s penalty kick into the top right corner in extra time following the first half. The penalty was awarded when Lucas Moura was called for a handball.

Aurier had a good chance in the 57th minute but his shot hit the crossbar. A few minutes later, Kurzawa struck a perfectly placed free kick that Handanovic couldn’t reach that put PSG in front.

Aurier’s second goal was a header off a cross from Alec Georgen in the 87th minute.

Is MLS MVP a three-horse race at the All-Star “break”?

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco laughs after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec.  2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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With the 2016 MLS All-Star Game set to be played Thursday night (versus Arsenal, at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.), it got me thinking about the race for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. (If MLS is going to continue holding the All-Star Game every year — and they are — it should include an actual break, as is the case in all other America sports.)

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

While the field is a small one at this point of the campaign, it’s also much closer than it was last year, when Sebastian Giovinco took home the honor in an absolute landslide of a vote.

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

The reigning MVP is on pace for something of a come-down in his second season in MLS, but when you put up 22 goals and 16 assists in your debut campaign, can you really expect to replicate that kind of production from one year to the next? Still, 11 goals (on the most shots in the league – 124) and 7 assists through 20 games (Giovinco has played in 19) has him on pace for 18 goals and 12 assists. Of course, when you consider he snapped a skid of eight games without a goal with a hat trick Saturday night, and that he’s unlikely to endure such a slump through the final 14 games, 18 and 12 should be considered the proverbial floor.

TFC have scored just 25 goals this season, and Giovinco has scored or assisted 18 of them (72 percent).

As for TFC’s present standing and how that impacts Giovinco’s MVP candidacy, fifth place through 20 games is a disappointment considering this was to be “the year” where they were less of a collection of talent, and more a functional team. Of course, injuries (and national team call-ups) have robbed the Reds of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Will Johnson for lengthy periods already. That TFC find themselves presently a playoff team, and a measly six points back of the Eastern Conference’s top spot with two games in hand, should benefit Giovinco’s case more than hurt it.

David Villa, New York City FC

This one’s pretty simple: NYCFC weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the top spot of the East this season, yet that’s where they find themselves at the break, and Villa has spearheaded their unlikely run by scoring 13 goals (most in MLS – on 117 shots – 46 more than the next-closest player) and one assist through 22 games (Villa has played in 21). The question is this, though: will Patrick Vieira’s side still be there come the end of the season? So much of Villa’s claim to MVP is that he’s been the best player on one of the best (and certainly most surprising) teams in MLS this year.

If they’re to fall back into the pack (they’re just two points clear of the New York Red Bulls following Sunday’s 4-1 derby disaster, and only four points from fourth), Villa will quickly fall from MVP candidate to “the best best player on a subpar team.”

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact

The Impact have, for my money, the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference. Didier Drogba is arguably the most dominant goal-scoring force MLS has ever seen (8 goals in 12 appearances this season; 11 in 11 last year), and the depth in midfield and defense is unparalleled, yet Piatti has been the unrivaled star through the first 20 games of the season (he has played in 18). His 12 goals and 5 assists are rivaled only by Giovinco’s numbers, and he’s been a far more consistent contributor than the Italian (never more than three games without a goal, while playing as a non-forward, unlike Giovinco).

The knock on Piatti has always been his inability to stay healthy and approach a pace of 30 appearances in a single season. Finally consistently healthy in 2016, he’s taken his short-term production and replicated that same kind of output over 90 percent of his team’s games this season. If he can reach 30 games played this year, Piatti has the best chance of stopping Giovinco from becoming the first back-to-back MVP winner in league history.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

On the fringe, with a chance to catch the leaders: Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls – 5 goals, 12 assists), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers – 9 goals, 5 assists)