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Championship Focus: Halfway through, who’s coming up?

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Just as the second half of the 2017-18 Premier League season began on Tuesday, so did the Championship’s decisive half of football, with one former PL side threatening to run away with the title and the rest of the top half separated by just 13 points.

Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?

[ MORE: Boxing Day blues for Man Utd; joy for Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were mostly recently a PL side before being relegated in 2012, are unbeaten in their last 10 league games (eight wins) and eight points clear of their nearest title challengers, though Nuno Espirito Santo’s side did drop points for the second time in four games on Boxing Day. The Championship’s most prolific scoring side is spearheaded by 23-year-old Brazilian forward Leo Bonatini (12 goals) and 21-year-old Portuguese wonderkid Diogo Jota (10). If Wolves somehow don’t end up promoted this season, a bump in league is still likely for the prolific duo. Tuesday’s 2-2 draw away to 16th-place Millwall left the door slightly ajar for newly-established second-place Bristol City to trim the gap into single digits.

Everyone will first recall Bristol’s famous victory over Manchester United in the League Cup last week, of course, but that triumph at is hardly an outlier in what has been a fantastically consistent season for Lee Johnson’s Robins. With just one defeat from their last 11 league games (eight wins), Bristol have shot up the table following a draw-filled start to the season which seemed likely to preclude them from the promotion discussion. 24-year-old English forward Bobby Reid leads the way with 11 goals this season, with no one else bagging more than a half-dozen for an effectively balanced side.

Cardiff City had shown themselves to be worthy adversaries of Wolves, until back-to-back defeats in the last week saw them tumble from second to third in the table. First, it was a 2-0 defeat away to 23rd-place Bolton, followed by a 4-2 humbling at home against Fulham on Tuesday. 27-year-old Canadian winger Junior Hoilett is still kicking around the Championship and leads the Bluebirds with six goals.

Leeds United are the hottest team in the league (this side of Bristol), as Thomas Christiansen’s men are unbeaten in their last six (five wins) and are now just three points back of fourth-place Derby. A pair of sides relegated in recent seasons, Middlesbrough (2017) and Aston Villa (2016), currently sit just outside the playoff (top-six) places.

[ MORE: Man City take on Newcastle seeking 18th straight win ]

After 24 of 46 rounds played…

Place Team Points GD
1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 55 +26
2 Bristol City 47 +15
3 Cardiff City 47 +13
4 Derby 45 +17
5 Leeds United 42 +10
6 Sheffield United 41 +10
7 Middlesbrough 38 +9
8 Aston Villa 38 +8
9 Preston North End 37 +4
10 Ipswich Town 36 +4
11 Fulham 35 +2
12 Brentford 34 +5

Vancouver adds versatile Juarez, formerly of Monterrey, Celtic

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Efrain Juarez is bringing his game to Major League Soccer.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 39-times capped Mexico veteran has inked a deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, joining a strengthened unit which came within a point of winning the West last season.

Juarez, 29, was unveiled as a midfielder by the ‘Caps, though he’s primarily played right back in his club career. He’s played at Celtic, Real Zaragoza, Club America, Monterrey, and Pumas.

Last capped by El Tri in 2012, Juarez has played every position except goal, center attacking mid, and center forward in his career (picture a ‘U’ on the pitch).

“I’m so happy and excited for this new stage in my career,” Juarez said. “It’s an opportunity for me to keep growing in a new league and to be a part of an amazing club in Vancouver. From the moment they showed interest me, Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps staff have made me feel very important. I promise to put all my effort into this club and do my best to help us achieve our goals.”

VIDEO: Asensio goal ends Real Madrid’s winless run

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Marco Asensio’s eighth goal of the season and second of this Copa del Rey put an end to an unlikely Real Madrid winless run in a 1-0 victory at Leganes.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 21-year-old darted in front of a defender to volley home from in-tight, giving Real Madrid a first leg lead in the tournament quarterfinals.

More importantly, perhaps, it gives struggling Real a boost in morale after draws with Celta Vigo and Numancia, and a loss to Villarreal.

Real is home to Deportivo de la Coruna in La Liga before hosting Leganes in the second leg.

Hopeful Newcastle buyer Staveley: Offer still on the table

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Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is probably happy that his for-sale club is away this weekend, even though his side’s up against Manchester City.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

That’s because hopeful buyer Amanda Staveley has responded to claims that her hopeful takeover of the team won’t be happening any time soon.

Talks had stalled, said Tuesday reports, much to the chagrin of an #AshleyOut brigade that at times can make Arsenal’s #WengerOut brigade look like a yard full of happy puppies.

A “source” had said, “Attempts to reach a deal have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” but Staveley shot back on Thursday to reignite the fire. From the BBC, taken from The Times:

“Our bid remains on the table. This is an investment, but it has to be a long-term investment. Newcastle would be run as a business, but we want it to be a successful, thriving business that is an absolutely integral part of the city.”

She also said that popular manager Rafa Benitez is integral to her interest in the team, and that fact combined with her insistence that an offer remains on the table will have many Newcastle fans seething with current ownership (and there have been protests for years). It’s Ashley’s move now.

2018 MLS Mock Draft: LAFC, Galaxy hold the keys

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Major League Soccer’s latest batch of hopeful rookies learn the next steps of their professional careers beginning Friday with the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft.

There are several intriguing prospects, including accomplished Stanford center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce and dangerous Michigan winger Francis Atuahene.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

An MLS mock draft is always tricky given the wildly varying opinions on players from the college game. This year, it’s even trickier as clubs without picks and some with multiple first round picks may be looking to move up and down even more than the norm.

Here’s how we think the draft could play out:

  1. LAFC – Tomas Hilliard-Arce, CB, Stanford
  2. LA Galaxy – Jon Bakero, FW, Wake Forest
  3. DC United – Francis Atuahene, FW, Michigan
  4. Montreal – Joao Moutinho, LB, Akron
  5. Minnesota – Wyatt Omsberg, CB, Dartmouth
  6. Orlando City – Ema Twumasi, FW, Wake Forest
  7. Montreal – Chris Mueller, FW, Wisconsin
  8. New England – Mo Adams, MF, Syracuse
  9. New England – Chris Lema, MF, Georgetown
  10. Real Salt Lake – Justin Fiddes, LB, Washington
  11. FC Dallas – Marcelo Acuna, FW, Virginia Tech
  12. San Jose – Brandon Bye, RB, Western Michigan
  13. Sporting KC – Ed Opoku, FW, Virginia
  14. Atlanta – Alex Roldan, MF, Seattle
  15. Chicago – Mason Toye, FW, Indiana
  16. New York Red Bulls – Alan Winn, MF, North Carolina
  17. Vancouver – Tristan Blackmon, RB, Pacific
  18. Sporting KC – Jon Gallagher, FW, Notre Dame
  19. New York City FC – Daniel Musovski, FW, UNLV
  20. Houston – Mo Thiaw, FW, Louisville
  21. Columbus – Brian White, FW, Duke
  22. Seattle – Tim Kubel, MF, Louisville
  23. Toronto FC – Oliver Shannon, MF, Clemson

There are a few players to keep an eye on for the later rounds that I won’t project for the first round due almost exclusively to first person bias (Some I’ve seen play in college, others at other levels). Afonso Pinheiro from Albany produced like crazy until this season, and Bowling Green defender Alexis Souahy has a skill set that could really transmit to the MLS level.

Mac Steeves (Providence) is a prototypical big body scorer, while Evansville’s heady Ian McGrath has a flair for the absurd and can play almost every position up the center of the pitch. Charleston’s Thomas Vancaeyezeele was a D-2 monster and is probably worth a shot earlier than people suspect.