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Premier League festive roundtable – Part 1

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Just before the Premier League season hits a busy time with the festive schedule, it is time to reflect on what’s happened so far.

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Below Pro Soccer Talk’s writers discuss the stories of the season so far in Part 1 of our roundtable series while in Part 2, coming up on Dec. 25, we discuss what lies ahead in the second half of the season.

Feel free to get involved in the debate by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.


What has been your favorite moment of the Premier League season so far?

Joe Prince-Wright: A moment from the opening weekend of the season has stuck with me. When Diego Costa scored a late winner for Chelsea against West Ham United in Antonio Conte‘s first game in charge, the Italian coach went crazy right in front of me at Stamford Bridge. He jumped in with the fans to celebrate and the energy was completely different. From that moment Conte was accepted by Chelsea’s fans.

Nick Mendola: I’ll stick with on the field, as little Bradley Lowery’s day at Sunderland was amazing. We’ll go back to Arsenal-Liverpool on Opening Weekend. 4-3, including four second-half goals in 15 minutes and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain answered Sadio Mane’s 63rd minute goal within a minute. Wild.

Matt Reed: Although Bob Bradley gets a lot of the slack for Swansea’s struggles, the team’s comeback against Crystal Palace was not only my favorite moment thus far but my favorite match as well.

Kyle Bonn: I know this is a cop-out answer because it’s not a moment, but it has to be Chelsea’s amazing run. Their performances have been nothing short of stellar, and considering their poor season last year, the job Antonio Conte has done is so impressive.

Which team has surprised you most this season, so far, and why? And which player has come from nowhere to impress?

Joe: Watford. I know they’ve fallen off in recent weeks but I had no idea what to expect from the Hornets with a new manager and plenty of new players. Walter Mazzarri‘s side are difficult to beat and always hang in games. I think a top 10 finish is easily achievable for Watford. In terms of players, I think both Gaston Ramirez and Salomon Rondon have been superb. Ramirez had three seasons at Southampton were he struggled mightily but he’s found his feet at Middlesbrough. As for Rondon, he has the quality to play for a top six team. The chances he gets at West Brom are limited but he’s not settled and scoring goals.

Nick: In keeping with the holiday season, we’ll go with positive surprises. It’s West Brom for me, not just because the Baggies sit eighth, but also the 23 goals scored by Sadio Mane and company. As for players, I’m going to go with Cesar “Dave” Azpilicueta at Chelsea. I knew he was a talent, but he’s been shining in Antonio Conte’s set-up.

Matt: Leicester is an easy answer because it was always going to be difficult to repeat as champions, but I didn’t expect the Foxes to be in the relegation battle considering the squad they have brought back. Michail Antonio had a solid season in 2015/16 but outside of Dimitri Payet he’s been one of the lone sparks for West Ham. With seven goals already this season, Antonio is on pace to shatter his goal total from a season ago while also looking to help the Hammers stay up.

Kyle: To be honest, Chelsea. Who would have backed them to turn things around this fast? And while their team hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, Eden Hazard‘s triumphant return has been somewhat surprising considering how abysmal he was last season. If you really want to go out of nowhere, Steve Cook of Bournemouth has been one of the most dynamic defenders in the PL this year.

Be honest, did you expect Leicester City to be in a relegation battle?

Joe: I didn’t want to believe it, but I thought it may be inevitable given their squad and how Claudio Ranieri was, understandably, loyal to the title-winning team. Coupled with the Champions League success (I have some issues with that because their group was very weak) it has led to taking their eye off the ball in the PL. I had them finishing 11th in my preseason prediction but I think they’ll be just above the relegation zone.

Nick: No, but I’m not entirely surprised. Somehow I doubt the fan base would trade their UEFA Champions League triumphs for a few more points on the table. We’re still in “once in a lifetime” territory until someone tells them otherwise.

Matt: In our preseason rankings I predicted Leicester would finish top 10 once again but winning the title was always going to be unrealistic. I never thought the Foxes would be in the relegation battle at this stage of the season considering the talent that Claudio Ranieri still has at his disposal.

Kyle: Did I expect them to be in a relegation battle? No. But I absolutely expected them to struggle at times. European play is a huge strain on clubs without the spending power to purchase top-level depth. They’ll be fine. They won’t be relegated. Don’t be shocked to see a late-season surge once they’re bounced from the Champions League.

Why hasn’t Pep Guardiola‘s tactics swept the Premier League before him? Is there an easy answer here?

Joe: No easy answer but the main issue has been in defense. Pep is forcing players to try and do something completely different than any other Premier League team. He wants his side to play out from the back and invite pressure in dangerous situations. Most PL clubs are extremely good at pressing high and pinning teams in. I think so far Guardiola has stuck to his principles admirably but he will have to tweak them, at least this season, if he wants to finish in the top four or challenge for the title. City doesn’t have the players fit and available to play the way he wants to in defense.

Nick: Can I be a little brash? John Stones may one day be Gerard Pique, but he certainly is nowhere near the standard right now. Claudio Bravo will settle into a groove at some point, but Joe Hart and (insert veteran CB here) would have City knocking on Chelsea’s door.

Matt: I think Guardiola takes a lot of flack because of the lofty expectations people have bestowed upon him in the past. The Premier League is one of the few leagues where even the champions typically suffer a rough spell at some point throughout the campaign and while City isn’t atop the table at this point they are still firmly in the title chase.

Kyle: His tactics don’t fit the PL. His gameplan is to possess teams to death and finish clinically. Problem is, his team hasn’t been able to finish as well as they should, and the Premier League is full of teams that embrace a bunker-and-counter mentality, and it’s frustrated a City team that doesn’t have a midfield destroyer to break up counters.

Jose Mourinho and Manchester United is gathering steam. What has impressed you most about them thus far?

Joe: I’ve been impressed with the way the players have pulled together to grind out results. Mourinho has chopped and changed the team but whoever has come in looks like they want to fight for the shirt. With his off-field antics leading to bans and fines, Mourinho is also creating a siege mentality. Although I don’t condone that kind of behavior, I think it has worked wonders to get the players on his side early on in his reign at Old Trafford.

Nick: I love when an egomaniacal star backs up his bluster, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the truth. But the way Mourinho has maneuvered talent like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera while dealing with the guff the press and fans love to give him has been a fascinating thing to follow. Hes not done half bad.

Matt: Has to be the team’s persistence. Even though Mourinho and United have had plenty of struggles thus far, they are finding their form and it’s still early enough in the season where they can make up ground in the title race.

Kyle: Their ability to get Zlatan consistently in the attack is impressive. He’s one of their only finishers, and yet they consistently have him involved. Hard to do when teams are gameplanning around him.

Conversely, where do they need to improve to challenge for titles again?

Joe: Up front. If Zlatan has an off day, I struggle to see who else can step in to deliver the goals. Martial, Rashford and Rooney aren’t the most clinical so I think if United can get in another predatory finisher in January, they should do it. They create so many chances and were hurt badly during that run of four home draws where they should’ve won each game.

Nick: More consistent play on the outside would help, from back to wings.

Matt: United still lacks a compliment to Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Even though the backline has gone through its share of injuries this season it’s the attack that has disappointed me the most.

Kyle: They need better defensive reliability if they are going to shut down once they have a one-goal lead.

Let’s talk about United’s rivals Liverpool. Is this what we expected from Jurgen Klopp? Can they mount a serious title challenge with a creaking defense?

Joe: You can see this is a Klopp team from the first whistle of every game they play. It has taken 12 months but the players are all-in and Klopp is ready to push for a title push. The defensive issues are concerning but they’re capable of scoring three or four goals every game. I think they can go all the way.

Nick: This is almost exactly what I expected from Klopp, to a T. They can challenge for a title, but look more like a lower top four contender on the whole right now.

Matt: Coming into the season I figured the backline would be porous but I still believe Liverpool can make a legitimate run at the title because of how strong the attack is.

Kyle: Well, no, but they’ve weathered the storm so far, and it hasn’t reared its head too strong. If Klopp doesn’t strengthen in January, it will eventually cause title-breaking problem.

While we’re on the subject of title contenders, Chelsea sits top at Christmas with a six point lead. Is that more to do with new manager Antonio Conte? Or more about Chelsea’s players getting their act together?

Joe: It’s both but you can’t underestimate Conte’s impact. Like I mentioned before, from day one he’s been a breath of fresh air. He eased himself in too, playing a back four and then switching to a back three for this incredible run of 11-straight wins. Conte let the players have a voice and then said ‘okay, now, let’s do it my way.’ It has worked, masterfully. We all knew the talent was there for Chelsea. Now they have a leader they believe in. Somewhere Jose Mourinho is shaking his head in disbelief.

Nick: Last season was embarrassing for Chelseas players, who bailed on Jose Mourinho and then yawned their way through an improved run under Guus Hiddink. I think Conte’s been given the keys to the kingdom in terms of manager vs. player power, and adding N’Golo Kante cannot be understated. So, a mix of both.

Matt: I think it’s a combination of things but there’s no question that the players love playing for Conte in the system that he has implemented. Even when Chelsea was winning games before the 3-4-3 switch they were far less convincing than now. That doesn’t even mean scoring a lot of goals but more so how strong they look defensively.

Kyle: It’s both. Hazard had come to life again, and this team was always going to revert back to a dominant state, but Conte had to be lauded for his immediate impact when Pep and Mourinho have struggled with their new teams.

Arsenal and Tottenham are the other title contenders. Which north London club has impressed you more so far, and why?

Joe: Very close call. Tottenham are gathering steam in the PL but crashing out in the Champions League group stage was a huge disappointment. Arsenal has Bayern Munich in the UCL knockouts and is starting to stall in the PL. It’s about what you’d expect from both clubs. I’m a hard man to please, but if I had to pick one team I’d say Arsenal because Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (despite their contract negotiations) are on fire. If they can stay red-hot, Arsenal has a chance to challenge for the title should Chelsea stumble.

Nick: Arsenal. Tottenhams defense is fine, but there’s something missing from their mix. Right now, it’s probably simply Harry Kane reminding his form, but for a while it was just “Wait for Dembele to return”. Arsenal’s recent “stumbles” aside — there’s nothing wrong with losing to Everton — Arsene Wenger is pushing most of the right buttons, the Shkrodan Mustafa transfer is an unqualified success, and Theo Walcott is for the moment delivering. Gooners can feel good enough right now.

Matt: I’d say Arsenal because of the injuries they’ve gone through this season but their form of late has been far too poor for me to consider them title contenders.

Kyle: Easily Arsenal. Tottenham has struggled on all front for weeks now, and their form is worrying. The Gunners are a mentally weak side, but seem the stronger team of the two.

From what you’ve seen so far, are there any teams aside from the current top six who will challenge for a top four spot?

Joe: Not really. At this point I think the traditional top six are locked in after their big spending and managerial changes over the summer. They finally got their act together. Southampton and Everton could push them, but Everton would need to address the defensive issues and Saints need to find more goals. Neither of those problems are easily to fix midway through the season, no matter how much you spend in January.

Nick: I wouldve said Everton, but the Yannick Bolasie is a hammer blow to their attack. Unless Ross Barkley turns it around, I expect the current Top Six to be the sextet we hear from all season (Again, I worry about Spurs).

Matt: I think Everton could be in the mix for top six if Ronald Koeman regroups his side. With one of the PL’s top scorers in Romelu Lukaku, I believe the Toffees have enough offensive firepower in order to contend.

Kyle: No.

The relegation battle is a bit of a mess right now. Which team down there have you been most disappointed with?

Joe: Crystal Palace. Now without Alan Pardew, this could go south fast. With Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye, I’m seeing players who are on big money not stepping up to the plate and delivering. The fans at Selhurst Park are superb and they deserve more. It was a shame to see Pardew go because everyone wanted him to be the hero to lead them into a new era but it wasn’t to be. Now, it’s all about survival and if Sam Allardyce comes in you can expect direct soccer to return. Luckily they have the wingers and Benteke to implement that style. Still, incredibly disappointing.

Nick: Leicester is the easy answer, and I’m going to not count West Ham (who I’m not worried about in terms of relegation). I’ll go with Palace, who has been fun to watch with the ball (although why is Andros Townsend on the bench so often?!?) but miserable in defense. Every game is, “We deserved better”, which was a bit too comfortable coming out of Alan Pardew’s mouth.

Matt: Hull. After the way the team started the season it looked like Mike Phelan‘s side was going to be able to rally around him but the Tigers simply don’t have the attacking support necessary to win matches on a consistent basis.

Kyle: Hull looks the most likely to go down, but I’ve been very disappointed with Swansea. Their squad is poorly constructed, but I would not have thought it was relegation quality, and they followed up an energizing win over Sunderland with a return to more dumpster-fire performances.

Bob Bradley’s had a tough time thus far at Swansea. What have you made of his start to life in the Premier League? Is the American getting a rough deal?

Joe: I think he deserves until the end of the season before we can pass judgement. Swansea’s owners should look at Aston Villa last season and other relegated clubs in the past. Having three or four managers in a season doesn’t work. Swansea has improved in certain games and looked shocking in others. That all comes with a new system and new players playing together after a new manager comes in. Bradley has had 10 games at this point. He probably should have won three or four with the performances but has won twice. The defensive mistakes are the biggest issue to address in January and as for the scrutiny about him being the first-ever American coach in the Premier League, Bradley can handle that.

Nick: Fine enough in attack, but the back line is a total nightmare. For now, I’m 100 percent willing to pin their awfulness down to a poor offseason. Letting Ashley Williams walk without a serious replacement shows the board needed to give a bit more authority to Francesco Guidolin (or resist the urge to keep him on altogether). Bob Bradley deserves a transfer window, no doubt. His backs are a nightmare. Federico Fernandez is lost without a decent CB next to him, and Jordi Amat has made some baffling decisions.

Matt: I think it’s really unfair to place a hefty amount of the blame on Bradley given the team he’s working with. Swansea lost its top scorer before the season even began when Andre Ayew left for West Ham, and the club did very little to replace him. It’s going to be a season likely full of more downs than ups but I believe Bradley has a future in the Premier League as manager whether it’s with the Swans or another club.

Kyle: The American *was* getting a rough deal, and walked into a difficult situation, but now his performances in the last few weeks have become harder and harder to defend.

From what you’ve seen so far, which team and player is the most underrated in the Premier League as we enter the halfway point?

Joe: As for the team, I think Southampton has been written off by many people too early. I expect them to have a strong second half of the season. As for the players, I would say Ander Herrera at Manchester United doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s been influential in United’s recent good run.

Nick: As crazy as it sounds, I think the a right answer might be Manchester United (and my second submission would’ve been Chelsea!). The Red Devils have generated loads of chances and will be much improved once its CB health is improved. But I’m going to give a more under-the-radar answer and say two South Coast teams in Bournemouth and Southampton. Eddie Howe continues to a magnificent job with the nascent PL Cherries, while Ralph Krueger’s Saints continue to weather the cherry-picking (pun intended) of their talent each year.

Matt:I don’t think Southampton has earned enough credit this season, even after having had a strong campaign in 2015-16. The Saints have had trouble finishing off chances in the attack but have been one of the most defensively sound teams in the PL.

Kyle: I would say Bournemouth but they’re getting the recognition they deserve. The most underrated team is probably Southampton, who can expect an uptick in form now that Europe is in the rear view mirror. Unless they lose Van Djik or Fonte in January. Then maybe not.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.