Manchester United — Are they Premier League title contenders in 2015-16?

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As the 2015-16 Premier League season gets ready to spread its wings this weekend, Pro Soccer Talk is getting you ready with a week full of projections, lists, news and views.

It has been exactly 836 days since Manchester United last lifted the Premier League trophy. For the non-mathletes among us, that means two PL seasons.

[ MORE: Season previews of all 20 PL teams

While that doesn’t sound all that long to someone who doesn’t support the Red Devils, that’s practically an eternity in Man United years.

Thus, the spectacularly expensive rebuild under the new direction of Louis van Gaal ($356 million spent in his two summer transfer windows in charge) has been universally welcomed by the Old Trafford faithful. But to what effect has the Dutchman overhauled an aging, stagnant squad and turned them into Premier League title contenders?

Van Gaal’s first transfer window, in the summer of 2014, could be described, largely, as a flop. He splashed out $99 million for Angel di Maria, who scored just three league goals last season and left the club for Paris Saint-Germain a year later, for a fee of $68 million — not only was Di Maria largely a flop while at Man United, he cost the club a loss of $30 million in just 12 months.

Van Gaal’s other big buys — Ander Herrera ($48 million), Luke Shaw ($45 million), Marcos Rojo ($27 million) and Daley Blind ($24 million) — all proved to be varying levels of “meh” in their first seasons at Old Trafford, as well.

[ RELATED: Petr Cech’s Arsenal arrival — the final piece for a real PL title challenge? ]

source:
Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger & Matteo Darmian

United’s signings in the summer of 2015 look to be less “this player is available, so we should sign him” (Di Maria) and more “this player fits a very specific need of ours, and he’s really good, so we should sign him.” That goes for all four of Van Gaal’s latest recruits — Memphis Depay ($48 million), Morgan Schneiderlin ($39 million), Bastian Schweinsteiger ($22 million) and Matteo Darmian ($20 million).

The problem with United’s title chances in 2015-16 is as follows: As outlined in yesterday’s piece regarding Arsenal’s title hopes, of the last 13 Premier League champions, all 13 possessed either one of, or both, the league’s top defense or attack, measured by goals conceded and goals scored.

United finished the 2014-15 season the fourth-best in both categories — five more goals conceded than Chelsea’s 32, and a whopping 19 fewer goals scored than second-place Manchester City. While that seems a daunting enough task in itself, there’s also a matter of the gap in points won — 17 — from last year’s winners, Chelsea, to United in fourth.

[ MORE: Predicting the final league standings — Who wins? CL places? Relegation? ]

While the Blues have largely stood pat this summer — the signing of now-former Man United striker Radamel Falcao being the lone exception — have United done enough to close a gap that vast? The simple answer is, “Probably not,” but then I begin to think deeper and wonder, “If not United, then who will challenge Chelsea for the title?”

source:
Memphis Depay & Louis van Gaal, Manchester United FC

The midfield is lightyears ahead of where it was last season — the trio of Scheiderlin, Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick will form perhaps the best two- and/or three-man midfield in the league — while Memphis, a winger/center forward hybrid, seems a much better fit than his departed predecessor when ask to play on the left and combine with Wayne Rooney. Depth is now an issue, though, with Robin van Persie departing and all signs pointing toward Javier Hernandez doing the same.

Then there’s the defense, which despite solidifying the right back spot with Darmian, still has a ways to go at left back (Shaw) and looks all but set on beginning the season with some combination of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Daley Blind at center back.

In brief summation, Man United’s 2015-16 title hopes: 3/10. Other non-Chelsea sides’ title hopes: 2/10.

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.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

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.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

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.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

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