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.

[ MORE: What’s next for Palace? ]

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 WhoScored.com):

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.

Burnley 1-0 Stoke City: Barnes’ late strike guides Clarets into top four

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Don’t look now, but the Clarets have climbed into the Premier League top four.

Burnley found a way Stoke City late on Tuesday, picking up a 1-0 win at the Turf Moor behind Ashley Barnes‘ late finish.

[ MORE: Gremio reaches Club World Cup final, awaits Real Madrid or Al Jazira ]

The Clarets, who have now secured 31 points over their first 17 matches this season, leapfrogged Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham with the victory. However, all three sides will be in action on Wednesday.

Steven Defour nearly put Burnley ahead on 69 minutes, when the front man tested Stoke keeper Jack Butland — who had to make a sprawling save to his right.

While Stoke mustered up several quality chances, it was Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s blast in the first half that nearly found the top left corner.

Next up for Burnley will be a date against Brighton on Saturday, while Stoke travels to Huddersfield the same day.

Club World Cup wrap: Gremio reaches final, Urawa takes fifth place

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One half of this year’s FIFA Club World Cup final was decided on Tuesday as Brazilian side Gremio topped Liga MX champions Pachuca.

Second-half substitute Everton proved to be the difference for the Brazilians, with the attacker scoring in extra time to lift Gremio.

[ MORE: LA FC selects Urena, four others in MLS Expansion Draft ]

Pachuca’s chances of completing a comeback were extinguished with 10 minutes remaining in extra time, as Víctor Guzman was sent off upon picking up his second yellow card of the semifinal.

Meanwhile, Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds captured fifth place in the tournament after narrowly topping Wydad Casablanca, 3-2.

Despite going behind early, Urawa responded almost immediately in the first half, before building its lead to 3-1 at the hour mark.

A late penalty kick from Reda Hajhouj gave Casablanca a glimmer of hope in the dying moments, however, the Moroccan-based club couldn’t find a way to equalize.

Gremio will await either La Liga giants Real Madrid or Al Jazira in the Club World Cup final, which will be played on Saturday. The loser of that match will take on Pachuca in the third-place game.

Below are the scores from Tuesday’s FIFA Club World Cup matches.

Gremio 1-0 Pachuca (after extra time)

Wydad Casablanca 2-3 Urawa Red Diamonds — Fifth-place match

LAFC selects Urena, 4 others in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC selected five players in the MLS Expansion Draft, including Costa Rican national team star Marco Urena.

Whether they’ll make their way to the City of Angels is another story.

The first pick from general manager John Thorrington was goalkeeper Tyler Miller from Seattle Sounders.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Going next was Latif Blessing from Sporting KC, an electric attacker who netted thrice with an assist last season.

Next was Urena from San Jose and the Costa Rican national team, a huge addition, and then Columbus left back Jukka Raitala before closing up the draft with Raheem Edwards from Toronto FC.

LAFC has already announced the signings or acquisitions of Carlos Vela, Walker Zimmerman, Carlos Alvarez, Monday Etim, and Guillermo Vizcarra.

The club will also loan Omar Gaber from Basel and Rodrigo Pacheco from Lanus.

WATCH LIVE: Three Premier League matches

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Chelsea visits the John Smith’s Stadium to face Huddersfield Town in one of three Premier League fixtures this chilly Tuesday in December (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues are now 14 points back of Manchester City, and three points clear of fifth place.

Meanwhile there are a pair of matches on NBC Sports Gold: Burnley looks to keep pace with its Top Four ambitions when it hosts struggling Stoke City, while in-form Crystal Palace seeks a home win that would move it out of the drop zone. In its way? Dangerous, attack-minded Watford.

Burnley vs. Stoke City — 2:45 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Crystal Palace vs. Watford — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]