Getty Images

Midseason awards: Overachievers, most to prove, under the radar

Leave a comment

After reaching the halfway point of the 2016-17 Premier League, Pro Soccer Talk is handing out its awards over the next few days.

[ MORE: PST’s full midseason awards ]

Click on the link above for all of the midseason awards, while below we discuss who has overachieved, who has the most to prove and who has flown under the radar.

[ LISTEN: The 2 Robbies, Rebecca Lowe, midseason review


Team who has overachieved most

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Burnley – With the squad they have, the fact that Burnley is within one point of the top 10 is superb. Turf Moor is a fortress.

Nick Mendola’s pick: West Brom – They’ve overachieved the most, but astute Tony Pulis has adapted from his infuriating defensive methods to follow more of a Leicester 2015-16 model.

Matt Reed’s pick: West Brom – It wasn’t impossible believe that this could be a top 10 side but the Baggies have certainly outdone themselves at the halfway stage. While the team is still lacking a signature win, Tony Pulis’ side is in a good spot for the time being.

Eric Scatmacchia’s pick: Chelsea – Chelsea were not among the top echelon of title contenders at the start of the season and now they are the odds-on favorite to win the Premier League. There wasn’t much turnover from last year’s roster that struggled mightily, but a few key additions, most notably N’Golo Kante, and a system change have Chelsea in historic form.

Player who has overachieved most

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Adam Lallana – We always knew he had this quality but he has added goals and assists to his game and is arguably Liverpool’s most important player. A machine.

Nick Mendola’s pick: Theo Walcott – All things considered for an English international at Arsenal, has overachieved on the finishing front with his eight goals.

Matt Reed’s pick: David Luiz – Since making his Stamford Bridge return, the Brazilian has played a massive role in Chelsea’s three-back system. Luiz and the backline have allowed just eight Premier League goals since he made the move back to the PL and the club hasn’t lost since September.

Eric Scatamacchia’s pick: Jermain Defoe – This is not about Defoe’s talent as he has been a productive striker in the Premier League for over a decade, but rather what he has around him. The Sunderland striker has been in great form this season, but is part of one of the worst offenses in the Premier League. Defoe has 11 of Sunderland’s 19 goals and is tied for the team lead in assists with two. He is on pace for one of his highest scoring seasons of his career and every goal will be vital as he appears to be Sunderland’s only hope of Premier League survival.

Coach who has overachieved most

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Antonio Conte – We know he is top quality but without doubt he has overachieved in his first few months in charge. High expectations from Chelsea’s fans now.

Nick Mendola’s pick: Walter Mazzarri – He has overachieved as a manager, though Watford’s drop-off makes this a risky call.

Matt Reed’s pick: Eddie Howe – The Cherries finished 16th a season ago, and while they likely won’t pull off a Leicester-like upset in 2016/17, Howe has done a tremendous job of putting Bournemouth on the map. Wins over Leicester and Liverpool, as well as a draw against Tottenham, has the Cherries well above anybody’s expectations.

Eric Scatamacchia’s pick: Antonio Conte – So much for needing time to adjust to the Premier League. Conte has 16 wins from his first 19 matches in the Premier League and has frustrated opposing sides with his 3-4-3 system. Conte has had great success in his managerial career, but it would have been unfair to expect this type of success so soon for the Italian.


Team with most to prove 

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Manchester United – Mourinho’s men have finally got going in recent weeks but there’s still plenty more to come from them.

Nick Mendola’s pick: Swansea City – They have the most to prove, largely in the transfer market. There’s a lot to prove for a club which fired two managers before you get to a necessary transfer window.

Matt Reed’s pick: Manchester United – Considering the big-time moves at manager and across the pitch, the Red Devils shouldn’t be content with just finishing top six.

Player with most to prove 

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Claudio Bravo – Much has been made of his arrival at City and the subsequent departure of Joe Hart. I’ve yet to see why Bravo was brought in.

Nick Mendola: Paul Pogba – He has been absolutely wonderful for United but will remain under the microscope due to his record transfer and non-English status.

Matt Reed’s pick: Jamie Vardy – You could really go with the entire Leicester squad but five goals over the first half of the season surely isn’t where the striker expected to be. It’s beginning to get to the point where the Foxes aren’t just floating above the bottom but seriously in danger of falling into the relegation zone, and Vardy has to improve if his team is to last another season in the PL.

Coach with most to prove

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Slaven Bilic – West Ham must now kick on in the second half of the season after a poor opening 20 games. Bilic must prove that last season was a one-off.

Nick Mendola’s pick: Claude Puel – He has a lot to prove at Southampton, as both Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman have raised expectations for what a Saints boss should be able to do almost regardless of tumult.

Matt Reed’s pick: Jose Mourinho – His second stint at Chelsea had its ups and downs but the Portuguese now has great expectations to turn around a United team that has had more struggles than positives since Sir Alex Ferguson‘s exit from Old Trafford. There’s no question that the Red Devils have talent in the squad, so it’s more a matter of seeing what Mourinho can get out of his roster and prove once again that he is in fact the “Special One.”


Under the radar awards

Joe Prince-Wright’s pick: Ander Herrera – Ask any Manchester United fan what they think of Herrera. You’ll hardly ever hear a bad word about him. He does all the leg work for the flashy stars and has been sublime this season.

Nick Mendola’s pick: Matt Phillips – JPW and longtime readers will be rolling their eyes as I’ve loved him going back to his days in the PL with QPR, but Matty Phillips of West Brom has only gotten better and smarter as a crosser of the ball. At $7 million? Not bad, Mr. Pulis.

Matt Reed’s pick: Jermain Defoe – He’s 34 and still banging in goals left and right, and honestly Sunderland would be buried at the bottom right now if it weren’t for the veteran. Defoe has 10 of the team’s 18 finishes this season and barring some major transfer signings in January the Black Cats will need Defoe to survive the rest of the way.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Leave a comment

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

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Leave a comment

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

AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Leave a comment

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.