MLS Season Preview: Ranking the top 10 midfielders

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The countdown to the 2014 Major League Soccer season is ticking away and very shortly MLS will be back with a bang, as a spectacular season awaits.

We’ve been rolling out season previews of every team at PST and now it’s time to focus on each position and share who we think are the top 10 players.

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Let’s take a look at the best midfielders as our season preview continues.

1. Michael Bradley

Toronto FC spent big to bring the U.S. international back from Roma. What they get in return is the most complete midfielder in Major League Soccer – a player capable of impacting a game in all phases. Farther down this list, you’ll see players who are among league’s best in discrete specialities: destroying; generating chances; providing goals from midfield. Given the circumstances of any particularly game, Bradley can flip a switch and become an elite midfielder in any of those areas, flashing a skill set that will help the Reds vault from bottom feeders to playoff contention.

2. Graham Zusi

This is where the list gets more contentious, but given how important Zusi is to 2013’s champions, it’s easy to see the influence of his maturation has had on Sporting Kansas City’s fortunes. As a creative threat alone, he became an Most Valuable Player candidate. Last year, as somebody who’s increasing effective running the whole show for Peter Vermes’ team, he was able to guide Sporting to their second title. He might not have as much pure talent as some others on this list, but in terms of overall output, Zusi had become a Major League Soccer elite.

3. Javier Morales

To truly appreciate Javier Morales, you need only hear opponents talk about his game. You don’t have to go far to find one of Real Salt Lake’s opponents call the Argentine veteran Major League Soccer’s best midfielder; and if not best, it’s most creative. While that isn’t a universally held opinion, it does speak to a player whose impact goes beyond the eight goals and 10 assists he posted last season – arguably his most productive since arriving at Rio Tinto.

source:  4. Osvaldo Alonso

The all-around skill set Michael Bradley boasts? That’s not Osvaldo Alonso, even if his contributions going forward are underappreciated. What Osvaldo Alonso does best — what he does to an unmatched degree in Major League Soccer — is destroy attacks. There is no midfield force that’s more disruptive than Alonso’s, and while some would prefer the more well-rounded game of Kyle Beckerman, Alonso is one of the few defense-first players that can dictate how a game is played – part of the reason Seattle willingly signed him to a Designated Player deal this offseason.

5. Kyle Beckerman

Beckerman has developed into the quintessential MLS regista – somebody who can organize a midfield, break up play for his defense, and spray the ball around with an enviable acuity. While he may not break open games in the same way his Argentine teammate can, Beckerman has a knack for contributing important goals, a trait that allows him to further transcend most of the league’s holders. He is as important as anybody to Real Salt Lake’s success, with the contributions he makes in training as well as games a big reason why he’ll be on the U.S.’s plane to Brazil.

6. Landon Donovan

On any given day, the league’s soon-to-be all-time leading scorer is still MLS’s best player, but in his slightly advancing years, those games are coming less frequent. As we saw in last year’s playoffs, the mere presence of Donovan is no guarantee of continued greatness. Still, even at 32-years-old, the Galaxy star can break open a game like few below him on this list. For one-game, if a title is on the line, most coaches would still pick him over the names above his.

7. Diego Valeri

In a completely different way, Portland’s Diego Valeri can match Donovan’s game-breaking ability, but whereas the LA star will typically does his damage while leading neck-snapping counters, Valeri’s ability to find seams in opposing defenses was a big part of the Timbers’ historic turnaround. He was the trequartista Caleb Porter needed to engineer that chance, part of the reason he was the franchise’s first big ticket acquisition after the former Akron boss signed on. With improved health, the former Lanus creator may be able to provide even more in 2014.

source:  8. Diego Fagundez

The numbers tell the story: 13 goals; seven assists; only 19 years old. Fagundez, not Darlington Nagbe, is the league’s best player under 24 years old, and while he may struggle to reproduce those eye-catching numbers, the potential to have a greater, more consistent minute-to-minute impact means the Uruguayan-born midfielder may have a better season. While Fagundez’s stats were beyond reproach, he will become even more influential as the more nuanced aspects of his game mature. It will be amazing to watch.

9. Darlington Nagbe

Nobody takes care of the ball like Darlington Nagbe, who led all attacking players in passing percentage last season. Registering a career high in goals (nine), the third-year attacker started to come good on the prodigious talent be brought to Oregon. The one thing he lacks: that element of aggression that can make the difference between a very good player and an All-Star (or Most Valuable Player candidate). It’s why Portland brought in Valeri last season, but over the course of the 2013 season, Nagbe may have learned a few lessons from his more adventurers teammate. In 2014, Nagbe may yet add that cutting edge that’s keeping him from being one of the league’s elites.

10. Will Johnson

Yet another Portland Timber, but coming off a year where his name trickled into MVP conversations, it’s impossible to leave Will Johnson off this list. In Porter’s system, Johnson went from feisty foot solider at Real Salt Lake to driving force in Portland’s midfield, with diligent defensive pressure combining with a series of timely goals to make the Canadian international one of 2013’s most influential offseason acquisitions. After career highs in goals and assists, the question is whether Johnson can replicate last year’s production, but still likely to get the call on dead balls and penalties, the 27-year-old’s stats should match his considerable influence in the middle.

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Spurs complete Bergwijn transfer from PSV

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After 18 months without signing a single player, Tottenham Hotspur sure are making up for lost time.

[ MORE: Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares ]

The club announced on Wednesday that 22-year-old Dutch winger Steven Bergwijn has been signed from PSV Eindhoven, marking Tottenham’s second signing of the January transfer window. Midfielder Gedson Fernandes arrived from Benfica earlier this month.

Bergwijn is a dynamic wide attacking player who put together the best season of his younger career last term (14 goals in 33 league appearances) and followed it up with another solid six months at PSV (5 goals in 16) before Spurs came calling. He arrives a day after Christian Eriksen officially departed Spurs for Inter Milan, and Bergwijn will wear the no. 23 shirt, which stood vacant for less the 24 hours in Eriksen’s wake.

The fee for Bergwijn has been reported at $32 million, making him a relatively low-risk signing in the world of today’s transfers, though his mere presence signals a significant departure from the club’s standard operating practices of the past.

[ MORE: Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

Do Spurs fans have Jose Mourinho to thank for chairman Daniel Levy’s newfound free-spending ways? Not even Harry Redknapp could convince Spurs’ frugal owner to spend in this manner, let alone the likes of Mauricio Pochettino or an Andre Villas-Boas. While requesting and demanding — and getting — big-money signings has been a common theme of Mourinho’s management career, Spurs didn’t seem like a place he’d simply continue to operate in that way.

Rather than learn a new trick himself, it would appear Mourinho taught Levy one instead.

USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with win over Haiti

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The USWNT was rusty, that much was clear. Vlatko Andonovski still made sure they took care of business.

Four different goalscorers delivered a 4-0 victory over Haiti to begin CONCACAF Olympic qualification, putting the United States in front of Group A early. Lynn Williams picked up a goal and assist, proving useful on an otherwise sputtery evening for Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

Just 78 seconds into the game, Williams charged down the right flank and crossed to Christen Press at the far post for the opening goal. Williams’ assist came without the use of her left shoe which she lost while holding off a defender for the bobbling ball.

Despite the early lead, the United States seemed somewhat sluggish as Haiti built themselves into the match. There were few chances on net after the opening goal through the half-hour mark.

Haiti nearly caught the U.S. napping on a corner as the ball found the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the goal was somehow ruled out. It appeared to be for offside, but since it’s impossible to be offside from a corner, there must have been another reason for the official ruling. Nonetheless, it was a clear sign for the USWNT that they needed to pick up the level of play.

The U.S. continued to struggle after halftime, creating very little in front of net. There was a half-chance for Lloyd near the penalty spot but a quality tackle by Kethna Louis put that to bed. Then finally they put the game to bed on a corner, not coincidentally coming just five minutes after Megan Rapinoe entered the fray. Rapinoe delivered a corner to the doorstep where Williams headed in well under pressure, moving her upper body away from goal against the motion of her lower body to reach the delivery.

Another Andonovski substitute paid dividends however as Lindsey Horan scored, again coming off a corner. They played it short and Horan headed from a significant distance out, the ball squirting past the goalkeeper Kerly Theus and Louis who tried to clear off the line. It was clear that Haiti had begun to tire and the USWNT was taking advantage. Up front, Carli Lloyd had a poor game, unable to get involved in attacking play, but she found the scoresheet in stoppage time, bagging a header off a Rapinoe cross in the 93rd minute to finish out the scoring.

Emily Sonnett replaced Kelley O’Hara with 10 minutes to go for Andonovski’s final change, and the USWNT saw the rest of the match out. They have two matches remaining before the knockout stage, set to take on Panama on Friday before the group stage finale against Costa Rica on February 3. The top two teams in the group reach the knockout phase with the semifinals to begin on February 7.

Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

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Chelsea has so far come up empty in its search for a striker, so desperate times may call for desperate measures.

Tammy Abraham, who has been a revelation this season with 13 Premier League goals, went down with an ankle injury late in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last weekend. The club has tried desperately to find a striker before the Friday transfer window closes, and while the Blues have been linked with Edinson Cavani and Krzysztof Piatek they so far have not had any success in finding a replacement.

Therefore, according to Matt Law of The Telegraph, Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through his injury against Leicester City this weekend. The match is a vital one as Chelsea, sitting fourth in the Premier League table, looks to put separation between themselves and Manchester United while also chasing the third-placed Foxes who sit eight points clear.

The thinking appears to be that Chelsea has a 16-day break between the Leicester City match and their subsequent game against Manchester United in mid-February thanks to the Premier League’s two-week break at the start of the month.

Earlier this month, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted regret for not resting a banged up Marcus Rashford, choosing instead to bring him off the bench in an FA Cup match against Wolves. Reports after the match confirmed that Rashford was carrying a single stress fracture in his back at the time of the appearance, and he was hauled off 16 minutes later with scans after the match showing his appearance against Wolves worsened the injury. He now he faces two to three months on the sidelines.

Abraham has also slowed of late after being so heavily used this season. The 22-year-old has logged a massive 2,359 minutes across all competitions this season, including 1,843 out of a possible 2,160 in Premier League play. Abraham scored his first 11 Premier League goals in his first 14 matches of the season, but has just three goals in the last 10 games.

Chelsea has Michy Batshuayi as a natural replacement for Abraham up top, but Frank Lampard has used him as solely a bench option the entirety of this season. Batshuayi has made 14 Premier League appearances this season, but has logged just 138 minutes across those matches. When used as a starter in cup action, Batshuayi has four goals in four domestic cup starts. Olivier Giroud is also on the roster, having made just five Premier League appearances this season.

Ed Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares

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Manchester United has been unable to reclaim the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson days, and that has Red Devils fans up in arms. CEO Ed Woodward has taken much of the heat, with the executive unable to prevent the squad from degrading in quality and the team consequently has been unable to consistenly challenge for a top-four place, with his financial background not exactly a fit for his player recruitment position.

Some fans seem to have taken their frustration way too far.

A video emerged on social media claiming to show fans shooting flares at Woodward’s private residence, and reports from Sky Sports and The Daily Mirror corroborated that claim. The club then issued a statement condemning the incident.

“Manchester United Football Club have tonight been made aware of the incident outside the home of one of our employees.”We know that the football world will unite behind us as we work with Greater Manchester Police to identify the perpetrators of this unwarranted attack. Anybody found guilty of a criminal offense, or found to be trespassing on this property, will be banned for life by the club and may face prosecution. Fans expressing opinion is one thing, criminal damage and intent to endanger life is another. There is simply no excuse for this.”

The Sky Sports report claims that neither Woodward nor any of his family – particularly his wife and two children – were present in the home at the time of the attack. The Daily Mirror claims upwards of 20 or 30 fans were part of the attack on the house, with the caption “Ed Woodward’s gonna die” with three red circle emojis all in a Snapchat banner. Sky Sports also reports that red paint was sprayed on the gates of the home.

There are also reports of sickening chants during the recent FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers, with fans singing about burning Woodward and the club owner Malcom Glazer in a bonfire.

Manchester United has reportedly looked to hire a Director of Football in recent months, but has so far stuck with Woodward as the head of recruitment. The squad has