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Top 10 defenders from the 2014 World Cup

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With forwards and midfielders already done, we move on the defenders, making an attempt to have representation across the back line. Continuing our World Cup review, here is PST’s top 10 defenders from Brazil 2014, in alphabetical order:

[ MORE from our 2014 World Cup review ]

Daley Blind, Netherlands – Ostensibly a left wing back, Blind also saw time at left center back and in midfield, all the while building on an opening match performance that helped the underdog Dutch rout reigning champion Spain. Only 24, Blind has yet to play outside the Netherlands, possibly explaining why we heard two different pronunciations of his last name, but after a standout World Cup, it may not be long before the Ajax defender has a chance to make that name abroad.

Stefan de Vrij, Netherlands – Another young player brought into the team by Louis van Gaal, de Vrij excelled on the right side of the Netherlands’ three-man central defense, a group that only conceded four goals in seven games. The 22-year-old led his team in tackles, interceptions, and tied Ron Vlaar for most aerial duels won. Scoring in the opener against Spain, de Vrij also tallied his first international goal, part of the Feyenoord man’s standout World Cup debut.

Vincent Kompany, Belgium – Coming off an erratic season with Manchester City, Kompany was back to his commanding self in Brazil, a tournament where he struggled through the knockout stage with a leg injury. Despite that ailment, Kompany showed why he’s considered one of the world’s best central defenders, with his athleticism proving vital next to the steady if more stoic Daniel Van Buyten.

Philipp Lahm, Germany – Though he started the tournament in central midfield, a switch back to his natural spot saw Lahm remind the world of the unmatched precision he brings to the right back position. That move proved particularly vital against Brazil, where his runs behind Selecao left back Marcelo helped blow open the teams’ semifinal.

Ezequiel Garay, Argentina – Before the final, Alejandro Sabella’s team had one of the highest possession rates in the tournament, making it all the more remarkable Garay led the competition in clearances per game (10, among those that make at least four appearances). While part of that had to do with the performance of those around him, the number speaks to the aerial presence the 27-year-old had in one of the tournament’s best defenses. Though the partner to his right changed half-way through the tournament, Garay remained a rock in the middle for Argentina.

Mats Hummels, Germany – After illness forced Hummels to miss Germany’s Round of 16 match against Algeria, Hummels gave a Man of the Match-caliber performance against France in the quarterfinal, with his work going forward helping Germany blow out Brazil in the next round. Though he was picked out by ESPN analyst Steve McManaman in the final for his lack of pace, the problem was only an issue against Lionel Messi-level players. The rest (read: vast majority) of the time, Hummels justified his reputation as one of the best central defenders in the game.

Gary Medel, Chile – The Bulldog’s contributions will be forgotten amid Chile’s Round of 16 exit, but strong in the air, tenacious on the ground, and incisive in the middle, Medel provided little hint that he’s actually a natural midfielder. Despite being only 5’7″, Medel led his team in aerial duels won, helping an aggressive Chile team hold its opponents to less than one goal per 90 minutes in Brazil.

Jan Vertonghen, Belgium – After the Red Devils’ opener against Algeria, Vertonghen was dropped in favor of Thomas Vermaelen, a move that lasted less then a half. Once back in the team, the Tottenham defender established himself as one of the best left backs in the tournament, scoring the game-winning goal against South Korea before providing a constant threat against the United States.

Ron Vlaar, Netherlands – Premier League fans will know Vlaar as the steady presence in the middle of Aston Villa’s often besieged defense. In Brazil, the veteran center back went from steady to standout, with his physical presence anchoring the middle of the Dutch’s three-man central defense. With young players on his left and right, Vlaar needed to be as decisive as he was reliable. Averaging nine clearances per game, the Villa rearguard anchored his team to a third place finish.

Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina – The Argentine veteran was steady, impactful in all phases of the game, but the fact that he makes this list is as much a testament to a lack of depth at right back as it is Zabaleta’s talent. Without a doubt, Zabaleta is one of the best right backs in the world, but players like Serge Aurier and Mathieu Debuchy looked better at times in Brazil. But as part of a team that played seven games, made it to the final, and had one of the best defenses in the tournament, it was difficult to overlook Zabaleta’s part. While he wasn’t always his normal, dynamic self, he was still one of the best right backs at the World Cup, a fact that speaks to the lofty standards he maintains at club-level.

“Sorry to kill your stories”: Klopp not seeking new Liverpool GK

during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and FC Girondins de Bordeaux at Anfield on November 26, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
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The topic of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a lightning rod for a certain subset of Liverpool fans, but you can count Jurgen Klopp in the group that likes him just fine, thank you.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

The 27-year-old Belgian has been the man between the sticks for Klopp since the manager took over at Anfield, and Klopp is already tiring of the rumors that he’s looking for better in the goalkeeping department.

From the BBC:

“I’m absolutely satisfied with our goalkeeper situation.

“I’m sorry to kill your stories about German goalkeepers and different goalkeepers from Stoke – we are not looking for another goalkeeper.”

Pretty clear cut there. Jack Butland would be nice and all, but Klopp’s fine with Mignolet and ex-Bolton man Adam Bogdan.

Do you think they need better?

Klinsmann backs Altidore ahead of busy 2016; USMNT star “back on board”

Jurgen Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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Jurgen Klinsmann thinks Jozy Altidore‘s tumultuous year ended on an upswing, and expects it to continued into an important 2016.

The Toronto FC hitman had plenty of ups and downs for club, and just as many for country. Whether injuries or form, Altidore wasn’t often the player USMNT fans remember from years past.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But the recently-turned 26-year-old scored six times in his last nine games with TFC to give him 13 on the season, and Klinsmann seems to think his big striker is out of the woods.

From US Soccer:

“Everybody saw that 2015 for Jozy Altidore has been very difficult, a tricky year, but it has become a year toward the end of it where it got stronger and stronger. He had some injury issues and some fitness issues in the beginning of the year. Obviously we had the episode in the Gold Cup where he was not in the shape he needed to be. In then towards July, August, September, he got more and more into the flow. He started to score goals for Toronto, and he got stronger and stronger for the national team as well. This is a very positive sign for us to have Jozy back on board, to plan with Jozy into a very busy 2016, obviously the biggest highlight is the Copa America in June.”

It’s great for the coach to have faith in the United States’ fourth all-time leading scorer, who should catch Eric Wynalda for third this season. Whether Klinsmann will be rewarded for his faith in the striker is another thing altogether, especially in that pivotal, U.S. hosted tournament this summer.

The tricky thing for Altidore, in the run up to the 2018 World Cup, will be for him to prove his merit if players like Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson and Jordan Morris continue their rises as scoring options.

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
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For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
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It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.