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MLS Notes: Toronto’s system, weapons too much; Cascadia rising

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Heading into the home stretch of the Major League Soccer season, some thoughts on where the 2017 season stands.

[ MORE: What’s next for Palace? ]

Toronto… holy smoke! A friend of mine gave me tickets to take my young son to BMO Field for a match-up between Toronto FC and San Jose on Saturday, so we crossed the border to see the Reds hope to clinch a playoff spot versus the Earthquakes.

San Jose was coming off a 3-0 win in the Cali Clasico and another victory would’ve boosted the Quakes into the Top Six. Now bringing a second grader to a game, all I was hoping for was that TFC would handle its home field like the majority of MLS, score a goal so the kid could cheer, and to not be sucked into the vortex of overgrown Toronto traffic.

The game gave us that, and then some, with the Reds rolling to a 4-0 win and leaving me with the thought that this TFC team has two big things we’re not often talking about: a masterful coach in Greg Vanney and a “gem unearther” in GM Tim Bezbatchenko.

The Reds move so well with and without the ball, a master class in shape. Days after Costa Rican star Marco Urena exploited space in the United States back line, Vanney’s defensive corps — which includes USMNT captain Michael Bradley at CDM — either eliminated the channels for San Jose’s star and, at one point, forced Urena to dribble the width of the defense just to find a step in the corner.

(Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press via AP)

Knowing the many Americans in TFC’s XI, the Reds’ clear understanding of their duties and roles, and with Urena’s work against the U.S. fresh in my mind, I literally wondered for a moment if the U.S. shouldn’t just hire Vanney and call up TFC’s 3-5-2 for next month’s World Cup qualifiers, plugging Christian Pulisic in for Sebastian Giovinco (TFC players below in bold).

Altidore — Pulisic

Morrow — Bedoya — Bradley — Delgado — Yedlin

Zavaleta — Moor — Hagglund

Howard (Not yet, Alex Bono)

All of TFC’s center backs in its 3-5-2 were marvelous with the ball, and the team seemed especially dangerous when it was on the left peg of Chris Mavinga. The left-most CB allows Justin Morrow to fly up the side of the field. In the middle, it’s Drew Moor who shows an innate ability to play off of Bradley.

For TFC, Bradley is the marshall expected by USMNT fans, and this simply isn’t because MLS is different from CONCACAF competition. He tries just as many creative balls and does get caught jumping towards the ball, but his midfield mates quickly suck into the ball.

This is true for essentially every position on the field, as TFC does a tremendous job attacking the ball when it reaches vulnerable points of opposition positions. If an attacker gets too tight to the end line or, even better, the corner, either Morrow or right-sided wing man Steven Beitashour are quickly on the case, pressing.

Keeping in mind that 27-year-old Jozy Altidore and 30-year-old Sebastian Giovinco as a pair are borderline unplayable at this level, the Reds attack is augmented by savvy pick-up Victor Vazquez from Club Brugge and Barca’s famed La Masia Academy. And when trio-completing Marky Delgado went down, the Reds were able to turn to TFC vet Jonathan Osorio.

And, by the way, note how an incisive pass victimizes Honduran center back Victor Bernardez to help Altidore beat Danny Tarbell, the promising American backstop who had a day to forget at BMO Field.

Seeing a match in person without any writing duties usually brings a few new reflections to mind. Last year in Orlando, I saw visiting NYCFC midfielder Frank Lampard dominate physically in a way that showed the previous criticism of his career status in MLS was ridiculous.

This year, it was the fact that this Toronto side can not only snare a treble with the Supporters’ Shield, Canadian Championship, and MLS Cup, it can compete with anything CONCACAF will offer in the Champions League. It’s a shame it’ll have to keep its corps in tact over an offseason in order to do so.

Bonus TFC/MLS in a nutshell fun fact: The flags on the left are indicative of how Major League Soccer would love its international and American stars to help raise the tide for all American boats, in this case on a Canadian team (Stats via WhoScored.com):

Bonus TFC “Power Couple” fun fact: Jozy Altidore scored a pair of goals on Saturday, the same day his girlfriend Sloane Stephens won the U.S. Open. Lunatics will hope their glorious love blossoms and provides USMNT and USWNT champions deep down the line…

Other quick hitters:

  • Portland goes top — As long as Caleb Porter’s in charge, and he’s gonna be there a while, I’ll be nervous to confidently state we know which Portland Timbers team is going to show up: the flashes of brilliance side which can run to an MLS Cup Final, or the flashes of brilliance side which fails to make the playoffs. But the win over New York City FC, Andrea Pirlo mistake-aided or not, has the Timbers remaining in a fine spot.
  • Cascadian trio leading West — Matches-in-hand means Sporting KC and perhaps FC Dallas will stop the table from finishing this way, but Vancouver stayed hot by knocking off a good Real Salt Lake team and Seattle remains unbeaten since mid-June to make the table 1-2-3 with Cascadia Cup rivals.
  • Atlanta’s big week — The “Five Stripes” clobbered Dallas to christen Mercedes Benz Stadium, and now make up one of their matches-in-hand at midweek. With visits from New England and Orlando City, it’s not crazy to think AUFC will be in the driver’s seat for a home playoff match after this weekend.
  • Crew looking tricky — Columbus is going to run out of time to climb the table thanks to playing more several matches than their competition at this point, but no one’s going to want to see the unbeaten in five Crew on their playoff docket.
  • Impact slowing — Three-straight losses for Montreal have the Impact outside the Top Six, as the buoyant arrival of Blerim Dzemaili has cooled a bit in Quebec.
  • Revs closer to road imperfection — Houston’s 1-0 win at Columbus mean New England is the only team without a road win. The Revolution still have trips to Atlanta, KC, Orlando, and Montreal, and will need to win more than one of those to make a surprising run into the playoffs. The six-pointers versus Atlanta and Montreal — the first is Weds. — are huge.

MLS preview: TFC, Seattle running out of time; Rooney vs. ATL

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Week 21 of the 2018 MLS season features 10 games on Saturday (nine) and Sunday (one). Here’s a few key storylines to keep an eye on…

[ MORE: Miami City Commission sends Beckham stadium to Nov. ballot ]

Jozy’s back, but is it too late?

It’s been nearly three months since Jozy Altidore last appeared for Toronto FC, and not much has changed with regard to the Reds’ place in the standings: they at south of the playoff line then (after going all-in on the CONCACAF Champions League), and they remain there ahead of Saturday’s trip to Chicago. Greg Vanney’s defending champions currently sit 11 points back of sixth place with 15 games left to play.

As for Altidore, he was hugely important in TFC’s run to the CCL final, but it would be a massive oversimplification to say his absence has been the only — or main, even — cause for struggles this season. In fact, it’s been injuries up and down the entire squad (every center back on the roster, multiple midfielders and playmakers, as well as Altidore). Finally, after months of walking wounded, nearly everyone is back and available for selection. TFC’s charge up the stands begins, presumably, soon.

Rooney makes DCU better, but by how much?

As I opined following his D.C. United debut last weekend, Wayne Rooney was quite good during the opening 32 minutes of his MLS career. That was against the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of the slowest playing teams in the entire league, though. On Saturday, Rooney and Co., will come up against something not so dissimilar to European quality and competition in Atlanta United.

There’s the level on competition to consider as Rooney continues on in his MLS journey, but also this: against Vancouver, there was very little flash or attempt at end product from Rooney, which was fine considering he quickly and smartly facilitated play and opened the field up for others to make and score the goals. The questions are: for how long is he happy to be a simple cog in the machine, and are United getting their money’s worth if that’s Rooney’s regular contribution?

What about Seattle?

Just like Toronto, the Seattle Sounders currently find themselves 11 points back of sixth place (though they do have one more game still to play). Just like Toronto, injuries have completely ruined the Sounders’ 2018 season. Just like Toronto, they have been to back-to-back MLS Cups, and won one. Just like Toronto, they can’t really miss the playoffs, can they?

Now, though, Raul Ruidiaz has been added for some much-needed firepower up top (the Peruvian is a back-to-back Golden Boot winner in Liga MX), Gustav Svensson is back from the World Cup, and Nicolas Lodeiro has shown signs of coming out of his slumber in recent weeks. Just like Toronto, Brian Schmetzer’s men have no choice but to begin their playoff chase on Saturday, when Vancouver comes to town.

Full weekend schedule

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United — 3:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 4 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. LA Galaxy — 7 p.m. ET
New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew SC vs. Orlando City SC — 7:30 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas — 9 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids — 10 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. Montreal Impact — 11 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. Los Angeles FC — 7 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Leicester sign Ward from Liverpool; Boufal out on loan

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LONDON (AP) — Leicester signed Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward from Liverpool on a four-year contract on Friday.

Ward dropped in the pecking order at Anfield following the arrival of Brazil goalie Alisson.

Leicester’s fourth signing of the offseason will offer competition to Kasper Schmeichel and Eldin Jakupovic.

Ward will join the team on Monday for a training camp in Austria.

“I’ve come here to develop my allround game and hopefully help deliver some more success,” he said.


Southampton winger Sofiane Boufal was sent to Spanish club Celta Vigo on a season-long loan.

Boufal came to Southampton in 2016 from Lille, and made 59 appearances, scoring four times.

The Moroccan fell out of favor with manager Mark Hughes at the end of last season.

Neymar says he’s staying at PSG; rumors “invented by the press”

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Neymar insists he is going nowhere this summer, that he’ll spend (at least) one more season at Paris Saint-Germain, and he intends to bring another handful of trophies back to the French capital in doing so.

[ MORE: PSG in “advanced negotiations” for N’Golo Kante, but must sell first ]

Speaking during a press conference on Friday, his first media availability session since Brazil were eliminated in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals, the 26-year-old superstar went so far as to say that reports linking him with a move to other European mega-clubs (most notably, Real Madrid) were “invented by the press” — quotes from ESPN:

“Yes, I will stay in Paris. I have a contract with PSG. The speculation? The majority of it is invented by the press.

“I have a contract and people know the objective, the reason why I went to PSG. I want to win with this club and I hope this season will be wonderful.”

While it seems a no-brainer that PSG would want Neymar to stay, there’s unquestionably a case to be made that selling him would give them the financial flexibility needed to address needs elsewhere in the squad. N'Golo Kante, for instance, is reportedly transfer target no. 1 at the Parc des Princes, but sales will have to be made before a fee of that size can be paid, due to financial regulations.

Report: PSG in “advanced negotiations” for Kante, but must sell first

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N'Golo Kante might just be the best midfielder in the world, and he might just be leaving Chelsea for Paris Saint-Germain in the coming days or weeks, as French newspaper Le Parisien has reported that the defending Ligue 1 champions are in “advanced negotiations” over a mega-bucks contract with the World Cup winner.

[ MORE: Neymar says he’s staying at PSG; rumors “invented by the press” ]

The report goes so far as to say that a “provisional contract” has already been agreed. “Provisional,” in this instance, means there has likely been little — if any — contact between the two clubs thus far.

One major sticking point remains: following last summer’s outlandish spending spree, in which they shelled out nearly $500 million to sign Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, PSG are in serious danger of failing to comply with financial regulations set forth by UEFA and could/would be banned from European competition should they fail to achieve compliance.

The likes of Angel Di Maria, Goncalo Guedes, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jese Rodriguez and Alphonse Areola have had their names floated as possible departures to recoup the necessary funds before paying another fee of (presumably) over $100 million.

[ MORE: Conte to sue Chelsea over how firing was handled ]

After helping the Blues to the Premier League title two seasons ago (and doing the same with Leicester City three campaigns gone by), Kante was powerless in saving Chelsea from themselves in 2017-18. They finished fifth in the PL and failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League.

Given his age — 27 — it’s wholly understandable that Kante would prioritize playing in club soccer’s top competition (while also making even more money) every season going forward. Throw in the fact that uncertainty is the only certainty at Stamford Bridge these days, and trading west London for Paris — where Kante was born — starts to sounds pretty good, pretty quickly.

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