Top 10 defenders from the 2014 World Cup

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With forwards and midfielders already done, we move on the defenders, making an attempt to have representation across the back line. Continuing our World Cup review, here is PST’s top 10 defenders from Brazil 2014, in alphabetical order:

[ MORE from our 2014 World Cup review ]

Daley Blind, Netherlands – Ostensibly a left wing back, Blind also saw time at left center back and in midfield, all the while building on an opening match performance that helped the underdog Dutch rout reigning champion Spain. Only 24, Blind has yet to play outside the Netherlands, possibly explaining why we heard two different pronunciations of his last name, but after a standout World Cup, it may not be long before the Ajax defender has a chance to make that name abroad.

Stefan de Vrij, Netherlands – Another young player brought into the team by Louis van Gaal, de Vrij excelled on the right side of the Netherlands’ three-man central defense, a group that only conceded four goals in seven games. The 22-year-old led his team in tackles, interceptions, and tied Ron Vlaar for most aerial duels won. Scoring in the opener against Spain, de Vrij also tallied his first international goal, part of the Feyenoord man’s standout World Cup debut.

Vincent Kompany, Belgium – Coming off an erratic season with Manchester City, Kompany was back to his commanding self in Brazil, a tournament where he struggled through the knockout stage with a leg injury. Despite that ailment, Kompany showed why he’s considered one of the world’s best central defenders, with his athleticism proving vital next to the steady if more stoic Daniel Van Buyten.

Philipp Lahm, Germany – Though he started the tournament in central midfield, a switch back to his natural spot saw Lahm remind the world of the unmatched precision he brings to the right back position. That move proved particularly vital against Brazil, where his runs behind Selecao left back Marcelo helped blow open the teams’ semifinal.

Ezequiel Garay, Argentina – Before the final, Alejandro Sabella’s team had one of the highest possession rates in the tournament, making it all the more remarkable Garay led the competition in clearances per game (10, among those that make at least four appearances). While part of that had to do with the performance of those around him, the number speaks to the aerial presence the 27-year-old had in one of the tournament’s best defenses. Though the partner to his right changed half-way through the tournament, Garay remained a rock in the middle for Argentina.

Mats Hummels, Germany – After illness forced Hummels to miss Germany’s Round of 16 match against Algeria, Hummels gave a Man of the Match-caliber performance against France in the quarterfinal, with his work going forward helping Germany blow out Brazil in the next round. Though he was picked out by ESPN analyst Steve McManaman in the final for his lack of pace, the problem was only an issue against Lionel Messi-level players. The rest (read: vast majority) of the time, Hummels justified his reputation as one of the best central defenders in the game.

Gary Medel, Chile – The Bulldog’s contributions will be forgotten amid Chile’s Round of 16 exit, but strong in the air, tenacious on the ground, and incisive in the middle, Medel provided little hint that he’s actually a natural midfielder. Despite being only 5’7″, Medel led his team in aerial duels won, helping an aggressive Chile team hold its opponents to less than one goal per 90 minutes in Brazil.

Jan Vertonghen, Belgium – After the Red Devils’ opener against Algeria, Vertonghen was dropped in favor of Thomas Vermaelen, a move that lasted less then a half. Once back in the team, the Tottenham defender established himself as one of the best left backs in the tournament, scoring the game-winning goal against South Korea before providing a constant threat against the United States.

Ron Vlaar, Netherlands – Premier League fans will know Vlaar as the steady presence in the middle of Aston Villa’s often besieged defense. In Brazil, the veteran center back went from steady to standout, with his physical presence anchoring the middle of the Dutch’s three-man central defense. With young players on his left and right, Vlaar needed to be as decisive as he was reliable. Averaging nine clearances per game, the Villa rearguard anchored his team to a third place finish.

Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina – The Argentine veteran was steady, impactful in all phases of the game, but the fact that he makes this list is as much a testament to a lack of depth at right back as it is Zabaleta’s talent. Without a doubt, Zabaleta is one of the best right backs in the world, but players like Serge Aurier and Mathieu Debuchy looked better at times in Brazil. But as part of a team that played seven games, made it to the final, and had one of the best defenses in the tournament, it was difficult to overlook Zabaleta’s part. While he wasn’t always his normal, dynamic self, he was still one of the best right backs at the World Cup, a fact that speaks to the lofty standards he maintains at club-level.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

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

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.