2014 Season Preview: Welcome to the last year of MLS 2.0

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This World Cup business is awfully inconvenient. Here’s Major League Soccer, turning its wallet inside out, embarking on its first major spending push since the 1990s, and FIFA has to throw this huge party in Brazil – in the middle of the MLS season! Then they go and invite all of the league’s best players, some of whom MLS just paid big bucks to bring back? World Cup, your timing couldn’t be worse.

Entering its 19th season, Major League Soccer is starting to transcend mere stability. Under commissioner Don Garber, the league now has a national footprint of viable teams, one that’s allowed it to become ambitious. Those days of contracting teams in Florida? Dead, gone, irrelevant.

With signings like Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey, MLS is reaching out to the casual fans, I really only watch the national team follower and saying “then watch your national team with us.” Dear mainstream sports fan: Drop on by; hang out; beers are on us.

But for the first three months of the 2014 season, those casual and mainstream fans are going to be all about the World Cup. The U.S. plays an exhibition against Mexico on April 2. They’ll call their preliminary roster into camp mid-May. Then the send-off tour begins. Even before festivities in Brazil kick-off in mid-June, the national team pops onto the radar just enough to keep MLS’s breakout season in the shadows.

At least, this is supposed to be MLS’s breakout season, what with all the Bradley-ness and Dempsey-ness happening. Former Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe’s in Toronto, Philadelphia brought Maurice Edu back from Stoke, and and teams’ new ability to use “retention funds” have kept the likes of Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and Diego Fagundez in the league. If Garber’s goal is to make MLS a “league of choice,” recent choices say Major League Soccer’s climbing the ladder.

source: Reuters
New York City FC is on the horizon. Along with Orlando City they’ll help usher in a new era of Major League Soccer. (Photo: Reuters.)

The real breakout, however, won’t happen until next year. That’s when New York City FC comes in. Along with Orlando City SC, the Manchester City venture will push the league to 21 teams, starting an era that’s sure to see even more spending. With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, the league will have a new set of rules meant to cultivate its new, dramatic growth.

2014 will be the end of an era, albeit a short one. Starting with Seattle’s move to MLS in 2009, the league welcomed a new identity, one that embraced the virtues of their new, ready-to-go markets. Major League Soccer was no longer picking spots on a map and hoping things work. Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Montréal were all to go from day one.

Their effects could even be seen on last year’s champions. The story of Sporting Kansas City’s success goes beyond the maturation of Zusi, Besler, and head coach Peter Vermes. It’s about a brand whose success has hinged on creating an exciting product that could capture imaginations in a competitive market. Part of that was a new name. Part of that was a new look. A great stadium had something to do with that, too. When the team claimed their second MLS title last December, that whole new, MLS 2.0 package came together.

(MORE: An alternate view of the 2014 Major League Soccer season.)

That’s where we stand, one day ahead of 2.0’s last season. This time next year, we’ll have fully embarked on a new, more ambitious era of Major League Soccer – a period that will couple ambition’s excitement with endeavor’s risk. Whereas the last five years have been defined by stability new teams brought, MLS 3.0 will see the league try to claim the ‘major’ status it’s sought for so long.

Enjoy 2.0’s farewell.

(MORE: LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE)

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Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City broke through last season, claiming the club’s second MLS title. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Outlook: Eastern Conference

Sporting Kansas City finished second in last year’s regular season but went on to claim the title. If they falter before playoffs this year, it will be because Zusi and Besler will be gone for the World Cup.

New York is coming off their first major honor, having won the Supporters’ Shield. As a result, they’ve elected to roll with the team that worked, bringing in only two new starters.

Contrast that with D.C. United, who have completely made over a team that set an MLS record for fewest wins in a season (three). Toronto FC also engaged in an overhaul, albeit a more expensive one. With Bradley, Defoe, and Brazilian attacker Gilberto, Ryan Nelsen has a new set of Designated Players in a team that’s expected to make its first postseason.

Juan Agudelo’s gone, but New England remains young and talented; Columbus lost Chad Marshall but still has the criminally overlooked Federico Higuaín; Chicago needs Mike Magee to continue to be an MVP to replicate last year’s mid-table performance; Houston will be looking to move past a season of chronic absences and sporadic scoring; Philadelphia’s hopes rest on Conor Casey and Jack McInerney producing a viable attack; while Montréal looks in flux, with Plan A on the verge of becoming plan AARP.

Favorites: Sporting KC, New York
Contenders: Toronto FC, Houston
Playoff hopefuls: Everybody else
No chance: I’m being nice here

MORE, Team-by-Team previews: Chicago | Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montréal | New England | New York | Philadelphia | Sporting KC | Toronto

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Will Johnson’s first season in Portland helped the Timbers climb from eighth to first, with the former Real Salt Lake midfielder garnering MVP consideration for his contributions. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Outlook: Western Conference

Portland and Real Salt Lake, last year’s top two finishers, look as strong, but whereas the Timbers have brought in Argentines Norberto Paparatto (defense) and Gastón Fernández (attack), last year’s conference champions lost head coach Jason Kreis.

Dallas also has a new coach, with former Rapids boss Óscar Pareja eventually bring Honduran destroyer Hendry Thomas to Frisco with him. Colorado replaced Pareja with nobody (yet) but still offers Major League Soccer’s best core of young talent (Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Shane O’Neill, Chris Klute, Clint Irwin).

Vancouver also switched coaches, swapping the youth and promise of Martin Rennie for the youth and MLS experience of Carl Robinson. A full year of Jay DeMerit and the acquisition of Matías Laba make then playoff contenders. San Jose is in that category, too, with Mark Watson hoping his first full year on the sidelines returns the Earthquakes to there 2012 selves.

LA Galaxy retained Omar Gonzalez with last year’s Designated Player deal and have added significant depth in attack and midfield. Their StubHub Center co-tenants, Chivas USA, were bought by the league in February and are set for another year of transition.

And then there’s Seattle, the league’s ultimate wild cards. Among MLS’s most talented teams, the Sounders face-planted at the finish line in 2013, sparking an offseason mark over. Still among the league’s most talented, they’ll start 2014 with the same problem that killed them last fall: A lack of familiarity with each other.

Favorites: Portland, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy
Contenders: Seattle
Playoff hopefuls: San Jose, Vancouver, Colorado, FC …
No chance: … Dallas (this conference is tough), Chivas USA

MORE, Team-by-Team previews: Chivas USA | Colorado | Dallas | LA Galaxy | Portland | Real Salt Lake | San Jose | Seattle | Vancouver

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The United States’ all-time leading scorer will secure the same status in MLS early in 2014.
  • Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy – It may happen on Saturday, or we may have to wait until spring. At some point, the Galaxy legend is going to score his 135th career goal, leaving him alone at the top of MLS’s all-time scoring list. It you can’t love that, even for a moment, this list is not for you.
  • Michael Bradley, Toronto FC – Major League Soccer has no shortage of talented midfielders, but there are very few guys that can command games from box-to-box. Welcome back, Michael Bradley. Take this thing over.
  • Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers – One of a slew of talented playmakers in MLS, Valeri is a man of action. Whereas other trequaristas can be pensive, thoughtful on the ball, Portland’s Argentine import is the most decisive playmaker in the league, a quality that makes him easy to love.
  • Diego Fagundez, New England Revolution – The best young player in Major League Soccer and arguably the best 19-year-old to ever play in the league, Fagundez is coming off a 13-goal, seven-assist season … as an 18-year-old! Often a step ahead of the game, imagine what the Uruguayan-born attacker can do once he really hones his talents.
  • Aurélien Collin, Sporting Kansas City – When he’s on, he’s the league’s best defender, but he does so behind a mask that means he’s often the heel. Collin led the league in yellow cards last year, but watch what he does when he’s not drawing cards. You’ll come to love the duality.
  • DeAndre Yedlin, Seattle Sounders – If Fagundez is the best young player in the league,  Yedlin is the best young defender. Only 20, even Yedlin’s faults are endearing. Ambitious going forward while still growing into his game in defense, Yedlin has already drawn the attention of the U.S. national team.
  • Jay DeMerit, Vancouver Whitecaps – DeMerit missed most of 2013 recovering from an Achilles injury. Back, healthy, and looking as good as he did during his 2012 All-Star season, the former U.S. international can be one of the league’s best defenders. Welcome back.
  • Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew – Don’t love him for his game breaking skill or a command of play that makes every moment of Columbus transition into must see TV. Love Higuaín because, despite his famous name and a year-and-a-half in the league, he’s still overlooked. Love Higuaín’s game because you can still get in on the ground floor. When people finally start seriously talking about All-Star and Best XI spots, you can say you were there all along.
  • Deshorn Brown, Colorado Rapids – The second year pro out of Central Florida is a handful, so much so that the Jamican national team has already brought him into the fold. Be it through the middle or out wide, Brown can tear you up with the ball or blow past you without it. If he wasn’t also 6’2″, his game might have a weakness.
  • Amobi Okugo, Philadelphia Union – This is his time. A natural midfielder, Okugo has been fully converted to central defense, a place where his intelligence and skill can thrive. Entering his second full season at the position, the 22-year-old is poised for a break through. Couple that with one of the more endearing personalities in the league, and Okugo’s game becomes easy to love.

MORE: Top 10 Rookies | Goalkeepers | Defenders | Midfielders | Forwards

What now?

You know the teams. You know the stars. Now, watch. The league season of Major League Soccer 2.0 kicks off Saturday, with Seattle hosting Sporting Kansas City, with coverage available on NBCSN and NBC Live Extra beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.

Ranking the Ballon d’Or finalists

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The Ballon d’Or finalists for 2019 were announced by France Football on Monday, and there has been plenty of discussion not only about players included in the shortlist or those that missed out, but who deserves to win the highest award in the game.

So, who does?

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With seven players from Liverpool, five from Man City and the usual suspects in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi all nominated, some stars left out include Harry Kane, Neymar and N’Golo Kante to name a few.

Below we rank the finalists, 30-1, in terms of who we think are the best players.

Feel free to do the same in the comments section below.


30. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
29. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham)
28. Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
27. Marquinhos (PSG)
26. Donny van de Beek (Ajax)
25. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham)
24. Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona)
23. Riyad Mahrez (Man City)
22. Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)
21. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
20. Antoine Griezmann (Barcelona)
19. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
18. Sergio Aguero (Man City)
17. Dusan Tadic (Ajax)
16. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
15. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
14. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
13. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
12. Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus)
11. Bernardo Silva (Man City)
10. Alisson (Liverpool)
9. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
8. Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
7. Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona)
6. Kylian Mbappe (PSG)
5. Raheem Sterling (Man City)
4. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
1. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool)

Xhaka slams “bulls***” criticism of Arsenal

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Arsenal have been targets for a lot of criticism recently.

Granit Xhaka is usually at the center of it.

The Gunners captain came out all guns blazing after they lost 1-0 at Sheffield United on Monday, as he addressed Patrice Evra‘s comments that Arsenal are “babies” and always will be due to their mentality.

“We have to stop about mental [strength] bulls*** like this. For me, it is the same whether you play home or away – you have to win and show big character and a good game and not to always find the same excuse,” Xhaka said. “A lot of people they speak too much. It is not the first time he has spoken something about us. I have a lot of respect for him as he was a great player but you have to be careful what you say. But it is not only him – a lot of people speak a lot of bulls*** about us. It’s always the same.

“For me it is strange as they were in the same situation as us, they were players as well. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not always good but every week they speak bulls*** like this every week. I tell you the honest truth, I’m not interested in what people say and speak. We have to speak in our group to improve things and work hard and not listen to these people.”

Xhaka and Arsenal have only lost twice this season, 3-1 at Liverpool and 1-0 at Sheffield United.

But aside from being fifth in the table and two points outside the top four, pressure is being placed on Unai Emery and his squad as they’ve narrowly beaten Bournemouth, Burnley, Newcastle and Aston Villa so far. Their performances aren’t instilling confidence in anyone that they can seriously push for a top four finish this season.

Has much changed under Emery in the past 15 months? Nope. This is pretty much the same Arsenal team making the same old mistakes and looking vulnerable away from home. Nothing new here. Sure, some new players have arrived, but David Luiz, Pepe and Sokratis have all been hit and miss so far and it has been left to Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to try and rescue the Gunners each and every week.

Emery was supposed to change their style of play, develop them into a stronger team defensively and improve their chances of challenging for trophies once again.

None of that has happened, and it doesn’t look closer to happening. That is why the critics are circling around the Gunners. Monday was the perfect opportunity to prove their mentality had changed and they are a stronger, more balanced team under Emery. They aren’t and something drastic will have to change for them if Emery is going to win over the fans, and pundits, once again.

Ronaldo not ready for retirement: ‘Age is just a number’

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Cristiano Ronaldo reassured Juventus supporters and his legions of fans worldwide that at 34 he’s not ready for retirement yet.

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“Age is just a number. It does not mean that at 34, 35, 36 you are at the end of your career,” Ronaldo said at a news conference ahead of Juventus’ Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday. “I can show that with my performances, how I play, the way I play, the way I still feel good, sharp, thinking about the game, more mature. This makes the difference.”

In the second season of a four-year deal at Juventus, Ronaldo had sparked concern among his fans when he said in an interview published a few weeks ago that he was starting to enjoy seeing himself “outside of football, so who knows what will happen in the next year or two?”

Ronaldo recently scored his 700th goal as a professional while on international duty with Portugal and has been nominated for a record sixth Ballon d’Or award – which would break his tie of five with Lionel Messi.

But Ronaldo said he’s more interested in winning a treble with Juventus.

“We want to win Serie A, we want to win the Cup, the Champions League,” he said. “Juventus should think big. … We are going to try to win all the trophies, we know it will be difficult, especially the league and the Champions League, but I think it is possible. Everything is possible.

“In terms of individual, I have nothing to say as this is individual. It is not the most important thing,” Ronaldo added. “The most important is the collective awards. If you win the collective awards you have more chance to win the individual awards. … The Golden Ball is for me in second place.”

While retirement may not be on Ronaldo’s mind yet, family time is a big part of his life now.

“To win games, to score goals, to enjoy myself, to arrive home and see my kids happy and say, `Congratulations daddy for scoring a goal.’ That makes me happy,” he said. “This is my motivation to come to train, for the games, to entertain people and the fans with my passion.”

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

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Carragher apologizes to Evra over Suarez t-shirts

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Jamie Carragher has apologized to Patrice Evra after Liverpool wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez in 2011.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The day after Suarez was banned for eight games by the English Football Association, who found him guilty of racially abusing Evra, Liverpool’s players put on t-shirts with Suarez on the front and back during their warm up in a Premier League game against Wigan Athletic.

Carragher and Evra were both analysts for our partners at Sky Sports in the UK on Monday Night Football for the clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal, and discussed the current problems with racism in the game.

“There is no doubt we made a massive mistake; that was obvious,” Carragher said.

Liverpool’s former vice-captain asked Evra how he felt regarding the situation with Suarez, and the former Man United, Juventus and Monaco left back revealed his disgust at the way the situation was handled.

“When I saw it I was like, this is ridiculous. This is unbelievable,” Evra said. You put your own club in danger when you do those things. You always have to support your player because he is from your team but this was after the ban. If it was before and we were waiting for the sanction, I would understand. What message do you send to the world? Supporting someone being banned because he used some racist words.”

Click play on the video above for the full discussion between Carragher and Evra.