Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press via AP

MLS Notes: Toronto’s system, weapons too much; Cascadia rising

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Heading into the home stretch of the Major League Soccer season, some thoughts on where the 2017 season stands.

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Toronto… holy smoke! A friend of mine gave me tickets to take my young son to BMO Field for a match-up between Toronto FC and San Jose on Saturday, so we crossed the border to see the Reds hope to clinch a playoff spot versus the Earthquakes.

San Jose was coming off a 3-0 win in the Cali Clasico and another victory would’ve boosted the Quakes into the Top Six. Now bringing a second grader to a game, all I was hoping for was that TFC would handle its home field like the majority of MLS, score a goal so the kid could cheer, and to not be sucked into the vortex of overgrown Toronto traffic.

The game gave us that, and then some, with the Reds rolling to a 4-0 win and leaving me with the thought that this TFC team has two big things we’re not often talking about: a masterful coach in Greg Vanney and a “gem unearther” in GM Tim Bezbatchenko.

The Reds move so well with and without the ball, a master class in shape. Days after Costa Rican star Marco Urena exploited space in the United States back line, Vanney’s defensive corps — which includes USMNT captain Michael Bradley at CDM — either eliminated the channels for San Jose’s star and, at one point, forced Urena to dribble the width of the defense just to find a step in the corner.

(Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press via AP)

Knowing the many Americans in TFC’s XI, the Reds’ clear understanding of their duties and roles, and with Urena’s work against the U.S. fresh in my mind, I literally wondered for a moment if the U.S. shouldn’t just hire Vanney and call up TFC’s 3-5-2 for next month’s World Cup qualifiers, plugging Christian Pulisic in for Sebastian Giovinco (TFC players below in bold).

Altidore — Pulisic

Morrow — Bedoya — Bradley — Delgado — Yedlin

Zavaleta — Moor — Hagglund

Howard (Not yet, Alex Bono)

All of TFC’s center backs in its 3-5-2 were marvelous with the ball, and the team seemed especially dangerous when it was on the left peg of Chris Mavinga. The left-most CB allows Justin Morrow to fly up the side of the field. In the middle, it’s Drew Moor who shows an innate ability to play off of Bradley.

For TFC, Bradley is the marshall expected by USMNT fans, and this simply isn’t because MLS is different from CONCACAF competition. He tries just as many creative balls and does get caught jumping towards the ball, but his midfield mates quickly suck into the ball.

This is true for essentially every position on the field, as TFC does a tremendous job attacking the ball when it reaches vulnerable points of opposition positions. If an attacker gets too tight to the end line or, even better, the corner, either Morrow or right-sided wing man Steven Beitashour are quickly on the case, pressing.

Keeping in mind that 27-year-old Jozy Altidore and 30-year-old Sebastian Giovinco as a pair are borderline unplayable at this level, the Reds attack is augmented by savvy pick-up Victor Vazquez from Club Brugge and Barca’s famed La Masia Academy. And when trio-completing Marky Delgado went down, the Reds were able to turn to TFC vet Jonathan Osorio.

And, by the way, note how an incisive pass victimizes Honduran center back Victor Bernardez to help Altidore beat Danny Tarbell, the promising American backstop who had a day to forget at BMO Field.

Seeing a match in person without any writing duties usually brings a few new reflections to mind. Last year in Orlando, I saw visiting NYCFC midfielder Frank Lampard dominate physically in a way that showed the previous criticism of his career status in MLS was ridiculous.

This year, it was the fact that this Toronto side can not only snare a treble with the Supporters’ Shield, Canadian Championship, and MLS Cup, it can compete with anything CONCACAF will offer in the Champions League. It’s a shame it’ll have to keep its corps in tact over an offseason in order to do so.

Bonus TFC/MLS in a nutshell fun fact: The flags on the left are indicative of how Major League Soccer would love its international and American stars to help raise the tide for all American boats, in this case on a Canadian team (Stats via

Bonus TFC “Power Couple” fun fact: Jozy Altidore scored a pair of goals on Saturday, the same day his girlfriend Sloane Stephens won the U.S. Open. Lunatics will hope their glorious love blossoms and provides USMNT and USWNT champions deep down the line…

Other quick hitters:

  • Portland goes top — As long as Caleb Porter’s in charge, and he’s gonna be there a while, I’ll be nervous to confidently state we know which Portland Timbers team is going to show up: the flashes of brilliance side which can run to an MLS Cup Final, or the flashes of brilliance side which fails to make the playoffs. But the win over New York City FC, Andrea Pirlo mistake-aided or not, has the Timbers remaining in a fine spot.
  • Cascadian trio leading West — Matches-in-hand means Sporting KC and perhaps FC Dallas will stop the table from finishing this way, but Vancouver stayed hot by knocking off a good Real Salt Lake team and Seattle remains unbeaten since mid-June to make the table 1-2-3 with Cascadia Cup rivals.
  • Atlanta’s big week — The “Five Stripes” clobbered Dallas to christen Mercedes Benz Stadium, and now make up one of their matches-in-hand at midweek. With visits from New England and Orlando City, it’s not crazy to think AUFC will be in the driver’s seat for a home playoff match after this weekend.
  • Crew looking tricky — Columbus is going to run out of time to climb the table thanks to playing more several matches than their competition at this point, but no one’s going to want to see the unbeaten in five Crew on their playoff docket.
  • Impact slowing — Three-straight losses for Montreal have the Impact outside the Top Six, as the buoyant arrival of Blerim Dzemaili has cooled a bit in Quebec.
  • Revs closer to road imperfection — Houston’s 1-0 win at Columbus mean New England is the only team without a road win. The Revolution still have trips to Atlanta, KC, Orlando, and Montreal, and will need to win more than one of those to make a surprising run into the playoffs. The six-pointers versus Atlanta and Montreal — the first is Weds. — are huge.

Introducing #AskJPW: On West Ham and the Top Four

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You’ve read his reports from the hallowed grounds of the Premier League, hung out with him during Facebook Lives outside those same stadia, and now there’s a new way to interact with ProSoccerTalk‘s lead writer and editor.

Joe Prince-Wright is now bringing you #AskJPW, a place to quiz the whiz on every aspect of the Premier League, and the goings-on around it.

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Just use the #AskJPW (and follow him on Twitter at @JPW_NBCSports).

In this edition, Joe delves into fan trouble at West Ham, who will finish 2-4 on the table, and more.

Ronaldo versus Messi: Scoring race heats up in Spain

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Regardless of who wins the Spanish league title, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be battling it out to the end.

Real Madrid doesn’t have much chance of keeping Barcelona from winning the league, but Ronaldo is making a strong run to snag the scoring title from Messi with nine matches remaining.

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Ronaldo added another four goals in Madrid’s 6-3 win over Girona on Sunday, giving him 22 for the season. That is only three below Messi, who scored his 25th in Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

“Hopefully he can catch him,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo. “It’s important for him and for us, too. When he’s playing well, the team plays well. He transmits an important and positive energy to the group. He’s always in very good form come the end of the season. He’s got an eye for goal and he’ll never lose that.”

Ronaldo has scored at least one goal in his last eight matches in all competitions. He has 21 goals in his last 11 games.

“He’s unbelievably ambitious and that comes across in every training session and in everything he does on the field,” Zidane said. “If he has a penalty in training, he will take it with the maximum concentration. It’s what makes him different from the rest.”

Ronaldo is trying to keep Messi from winning the top-scorer’s “Pichichi” trophy for the second consecutive year. The Argentina forward scored 37 league goals last season, 12 more than Ronaldo.

Ronaldo hasn’t won the award since 2014-15, when he had 48 goals. That was still shy of Messi’s record of 50 goals in 2011-12.

Despite’s Ronaldo’s impressive run, Madrid’s chances of repeating as league champion remain slim. Madrid trails Barcelona by 15 points after 29 matches. The teams will play again in May in a league match at Camp Nou. They could also meet in the Champions League semifinals or the final.

Messi scored twice against Madrid this season – in a 3-1 loss in the Spanish Super Cup final at the beginning of the season and in a 3-0 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in a league match late last year. Ronaldo scored against the Catalan club in that Spanish Super Cup game.

Messi has scored at least a goal in his last six matches in all competitions. He has scored at least 25 league goals in nine consecutive seasons with Barcelona.

“Messi is the best player in the world and he shows it game after game,” Athletic defender Unai Nunez said after his team’s loss to Barcelona on Sunday.

Ronaldo has scored at least 25 league goals in the last eight seasons. He scored four or more goals in a match with Madrid eight times.

“He’s on unbelievable form at the moment,” Madrid forward Lucas Vazquez said of Ronaldo. “He helps the team with his work, goals and assists. Everyone benefits from it.”

More AP Spanish soccer coverage:

Tales Azzoni on Twitter:

Manchester United triggers extension for Ashley Young

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Ashley Young has earned another year at Manchester United.

Multiple reports say Young will stay with the club at least through the 2018-19 season, having joined the club from Aston Villa in 2011.

[ MORE: Southampton momentum? ]

Young’s resurgent play under Jose Mourinho earned him a return to the England set-up, with a November cap his first since 2013. He’s been named Man of the Match four times in Premier League play this season.

The versatile 32-year-old wide player is a left back who can man midfield on both sides of the field as well as right back.

He has 320 Premier League appearances in his career, and has hit the pitch 193 times in all competitions for United. He has 74 career goals with 107 assists, 16 and 38 of which have come in a Red Devils shirt.

United beat Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday to clinch a place in the FA Cup semifinals, where it will face Tottenham Hotspur.

Mourinho is understandably under the microscope, but the work he’s done in restoring Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini to previous form deserves credit.

Who’s this now? Digging into the USMNT roster

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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The United States men’s national team will roll young for this month’s friendly against Paraguay in Cary, North Carolina.

Interim head coach Dave Sarachan named 17 players under the age of 24 for the match and that list does not include Christian Pulisic, who is getting needed respite.

[ MORE: Southampton momentum? ]

It’s an interesting list, with DeAndre Yedlin‘s 49 caps the most followed by Bobby Wood’s 36 and Darlington Nagbe’s 24.

And there are a bunch of “Who?” names for those who aren’t elbow deep in their knowledge of the U.S. player pool, so let’s dance with the ones Sarachan is bringing to North Carolina.

Andriya Novakovich is destroying the Netherlands second-tier, netting 18 times including six goals in his last five matches. Keeping in mind that even the country’s top flight is free-scoring, that’s impressive stuff from the former Reading man, a tall 21-year-old striker.

Shaq Moore became the first American to make a La Liga start since Oguchi Onyewu in 2013. The 21-year-old Levante right back got the playing time due to injury, making eight total appearances, but is back on the bench in recent weeks.

Antonee Robinson left Everton for a loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, and the 20-year-old could maybe, possibly, hopefully, please-sir-please be a long-term left back. It’s his first appearance in the U.S. set-up since 2014, and the English-American could start a recruiting battle should he continue his growth at Everton. He has five assists in more than 2,400 minutes between left back and left mid for Bolton.

Cameron Carter-Vickers is a name many in this space will know, but in case you don’t: The Spurs center back, 20, suffered through fits and starts in a Championship loan at Sheffield United, much like the club itself, which was cut short. Sent to Ipswich Town, “CCV” has been one of their finer players over the second half of the season.

And, just for fun, how might we see the Yanks line up in North Carolina?


Yedlin — Carter-Vickers — Miazga — Lichaj

Nagbe — McKennie — Adams — Saief

Wood — Novakovich