My favorite all-time Christmas present: Classic National Team gear

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Eddie Pope has become a litmus test. Recognize his greatness, and you’ve been around. Remember him as the player you saw in Major League Soccer? At least you’ve been here that long.

Don’t know him at all? Oh, boy. Let me get the first round. We’re going to be here a while, because when I wear a U.S. Men’s National Team kit with “Pope, 23” on the back, it’s a statement.

He’s not on television every week like some of his peers, so the relative anonymity for the former national team defender makes some sense. His current role as Director of Player Relations for MLS’s Players Union also keeps him out of the limelight, a place he probably prefers, though it keeps his legacy from being trumpeted. Because he was always a quite person, many fans don’t remember how truly brilliant he was.

Lalas got the fame. And Marcelo Balboa got the goals. All Pope got was respect.

Many of his teammates still refer to him as one of the most underrated talents of his generation. With the athleticism of a converted midfielder, Pope was the cornerstone of Bruce Arena’s back lines, his skill, speed, and athleticism allowing him to play in the middle of three-man defenses the U.S. has scarcely employed since.

He was the best defender the U.S. has ever had, and since he retired from international soccer six years ago, nobody has come particularly close.

Not everybody agrees, but these are the types of discussions born from U.S. Soccer’s mid-90s ascension, a rise that brought the program in from 40 years in the international wilderness. Who was better: Tab Ramos or Claudio Reyna? Brad Friedel or Kasey Keller? What was the best way to use Eric Wynalda? And how good would he have been if he his international career match up better with Brian McBride’s?

If you have a friend in soccer, you’ve undoubtedly talked these things through. And that’s why a classic national team kit is the ultimate holiday gift. No gift will be received better than one which says, “Friends remember other friends’ favorite national team player.” And since you’ve spent ours upon hours talking about each others’ favorites, there’ll be no doubt which kit to get.

source:  Or if the women’s national team holds a tighter gip on your (or your friend’s) heart, there’s nothing better than finding a kit to commemorate USA `99. A “Hamm 9,” “Akers 10” or “Lilly 13” will earn a lot of soccer hipster cred. Even if you prefer some attachment to the current national team squad, a “Rampone 3” is a way to subtly, snobbishly flaunt your recognition of the team’s roots.

Unfortunately, these type of gifts are difficult to come by. If you’re truly committed to getting an authentic kit, you’ll have to be persistent, checking Ebay regularly in addition to trying to track down something through more conventional stores. For example, the last time an Eddie Pope national team jersey hit the market was mid-November (though a Mia Hamm kit did clear two days ago).

And if you can’t track down an old school version, you can always customize a current kit via U.S. Soccer’s website, a move that has the underlying cache of saying, “This player? I still want him on the team today.” Because you are a knowledgable soccer fan, after all.

And for a soccer fan, there’s no better moment than opening the box you’re sure will be a sweater only to see it’s a kit – the exact opposite end of the clothing excitement spectrum. If you’re smart about it, pack the kit with the player’s name out so all the shock arrives at once. Then, as you see them hurriedly pull the jersey over their shoulders, you’ll know you’ve given the perfect soccer present.

Carlos Vela scored a celestial goal. We are blessed to have seen it

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Carlos Vela is making all other spectacular individual MLS seasons look run of the mill.

I mean, look at the gumption on this guy.

[ VIDEO: Rooney sent off, Kamara scores golazo ]

The Cancun-born playmaker left the San Jose Earthquakes back line on the beach with a soft shoe routine to give LAFC its third goal in a 4-0 win on Thursday

Vela, 30, now has 25 goals and 11 assists in 25 league matches for LAFC this season. He added two goals and an assist in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play.

But this one, yeah, this one takes the cake.

First, there’s Vela’s non-chalant dummy before picking up the pass.

Then, there’s Florian Jungwirth’s body language during and after his being cooked with a nutmeg. That’s an entire mood.

Next, Vela dribbles around the keeper and allows a slide tackler so glide past him before finishing with aplomb, the magic touch his going near post as if to say, “Can I beat this guy a second time, or do I have to use the easier route?”

Diego Rossi also had a goal and an assist, while Mark-Anthony Kaye continued his strong season with an assist to ex-Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez. It’s a first MLS goal for the California-born Perez, now 21.

WATCH: Rooney sees red for forearm shiver, Kamara scores golazo

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Midweek MLS provided plenty to talk about on Wednesday, with two red cards and a golazo in one match alone.

The two main talking points from the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over DC United weren’t really part of what led the victors to three points.

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How? Well, one of the world’s marquee names earned a red card via VAR and a returning star scores an absolute stunner, that’s how.

Here’s Ola Kamara’s debut marker for the Black-and-Red, adding to a record which included 49 goals in 97 matches between Columbus and the LA Galaxy before moving to the Chinese Super League for a wildly disappointing time with Shenzhen FC.

All of that is forgotten.

As for the Rooney incident, the Red Bulls already led 1-0 when DC’s star striker went forearm shiver on Cristian Casseres Jr.

It’s the second red of the season for Rooney, who is set for Derby County in January.

Amro Tarek was later sent off for the Red Bulls, who moved ahead of DC in the standings. Kaku and Daniel Royer had RBNY’s goals.

Newcastle takeover could be back on if in holiday relegation battle

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How much do Newcastle United supporters dislike their owner Mike Ashley right now?

Enough that this report is likely to condemn many to hoping their favorite club in the world is in the Bottom 3 come Christmas.

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The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas speculates that Ashley will lower his asking price for the club if it is in a relegation fight come December — something that looks certain after the Steve Bruce-led Magpies got bossed around by promoted Norwich City.

Nothing But Newcastle transcribed Douglas’ chatter from his podcast, in which he says,

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we hear more in December because there are still people sniffing around that football club and if the team are in the bottom three, there’ll be people thinking they can get a bargain out of Mike Ashley again. … He will probably more open to listening to lower offers in January and December which is what happened last December. He was basically saying ‘take it off my hands, you now have to take the risk’'”

This is notable for two reasons. First: the social experiment of wondering how many fans could see themselves rooting for their team to take a major and perilous back step just to see the back of a man they perceive is at the root of their failures (and that perception is widespread in this case).

But second, we can see if this rumor comes true because it’s difficult to imagine Newcastle as comfortably mid table by Christmas.

Fan protests and anger are nothing new, but here’s an effort to show how wobbly Ashley’s reputation is on Tyneside: Fans have taken to selling a black and white striped shirt with player name and number but no sponsor just so they can have a Newcastle jersey that doesn’t put money into Ashley’s pockets. And this is after he broke the club’s transfer record twice in one year.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that boycotts and anger will spur Ashley into insisting that he’s willing to sell and just conveniently enough it will be before the January transfer window. He “won’t be able to buy any players” with the takeover in play, and talks will hit a wall come late January, when they’ll loan a couple young players from Top Six sides.

Yes he spent significant money on Joelinton, Allen Saint-Maximin, and others this summer, but one decent window doesn’t make a culture. Count us amongst the skeptical, for now.

Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

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Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports