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With Messi at his best, Barcelona had no title rival

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Without Cristiano Ronaldo around to at least keep it interesting, a spectacular Lionel Messi had no rival to stop him from helping Barcelona successfully defend its Spanish league title.

Barcelona clinched the crown with three rounds left on Saturday, after Messi scored to beat Levante 1-0 at Camp Nou.

But this was coming for a long time. Barcelona lost only two games in 35 rounds, and opened up a significant lead early in the season.

It brushed off the only timid attempt to give it a fight, by Atletico Madrid, to secure an eighth title in 11 seasons.

Overall, Barcelona has 26 Liga trophies, second only to Real Madrid with 33.

Now Barcelona can put all of its focus on completing a rare treble of titles. It will face Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals from Wednesday, and plays Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on May 25.

How did Barcelona do it with such apparent ease?

Here are a few reasons:

MESSI

When Messi couldn’t possibly get any better, he did just that and guided Barcelona to its 10th league title of the 15 he’s disputed.

Messi will be in the running to win a record sixth Ballon d’Or for his season, after scoring 46 goals in all competitions so far and setting up a bunch more for his teammates.

The Liga’s all-time leading scorer was particularly deadly from set-pieces. Six of his 34 league goals came from direct free kicks. At one point, Messi scored from a free kick in three straight matches in late March and early April.

At 31, he is still faster with the ball than most players are without it. His vision of the pitch is unmatched. His left boot is pure danger for goalkeepers whenever he gets a sliver of space near the area.

And to top it off, Messi took over as Barcelona’s vocal leader after the exit of Andres Iniesta last summer.

Long gone was the floppy hair, tight-lipped Messi from his early days, who shied away from the camera and the microphone. Now, it is Messi who speaks for his teammates on the field with referees, and – on occasion- to the media following the match.

His majesty was exemplified in a game in Seville on March 17.

When Messi scored his third goal with a nonchalant-looking lob that floated over the goalie and grazed the bar before going home, the Real Betis fans stood up, applauded, and chanted “Messi! Messi! Messi!” in tribute to his unforgettable performance.

DEFENSE

Long defined by its excellent midfielders, Barcelona’s defenders stepped up as its most complete unit.

Gerard Pique led a back four with his best season to date. Pique, 32, redoubled his dedication to the club after retiring from international football last summer. The result was a constantly flawless series of performances.

Clement Lenglet surpassed expectations as Pique’s partner in the center of the defense. After arriving from Sevilla, he was supposed to be Samuel Umtiti’s backup. But his skill at making timely tackles won him a starter’s job after Umtiti went down with injury.

Jordi Alba was one of Messi’s favorite players to look for in his speedy incursions down the left flank, while Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo gave coach Ernesto Valverde two fast and reliable options at right back.

SQUAD DEPTH

Luis Suarez again was a perfect second scoring option to Messi, chipping in with 21.

Coach Ernesto Valverde masterfully mixed his other weapons to help his team do damage, alternating between the speed of Ousmane Dembele at winger, the ball control of Arthur, and the muscle and hustle of Arturo Vidal as each moment dictated.

Ivan Rakitic also excelled as Valverde’s sturdy two-way player. The Croat provided balance in attack and helped Sergio Busquets sweep the center of the pitch.

The strength of Barcelona’s squad was never more evident than on Oct. 28, when Suarez scored a hat trick to fuel a 5-1 rout of Madrid while Messi was out with an injured arm.

NO CHALLENGERS

It wasn’t hard to predict that if Madrid had rarely stopped Barcelona from winning the title in recent years that it would have an even greater difficulty once Ronaldo left for Juventus.

But Madrid was a disaster from the second month of the season. It was out of the title chase before the winter break and fired coaches Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari before Zinedine Zidane returned to a team with just pride to play for.

Atletico Madrid was the only team worthy of being called a candidate for the title. But a 2-0 win by Barcelona over Atletico thanks to goals by Messi and Suarez ended the slim chances for Diego Simeone’s side with seven rounds left.

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

Study: MLS improves racial hiring, slides in gender hiring

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A diversity report shows improved racial hiring practices for Major League Soccer but also highlighted a continuing decline in gender hiring efforts.

The annual report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida on Wednesday gave MLS an A with 93.9 points for racial hiring in 2019 for its highest score in 15 years.

[ MORE: Top 25 players in USMNT pool ]

But the gender score of 72 points for a C grade fell for the third straight time, down from 76.8 points in 2018 and 81 points as recently as 2016.

The overall grade for MLS was a B at 82.9 points, falling from a B-plus and 85 points in 2018.

TIDES director Richard Lapchick, the lead report author, called lower gender hiring numbers across men’s professional sports a “systemic problem.”

Online: http://tidesport.org/

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Medel: Chile players decline friendly over civil unrest

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Chile had already canceled a home friendly with Bolivia this international break, and now the players will not play Tuesday in Peru either due to unrest in their country.’

A nationwide strike and protests against the government, spurred by a rise in metro fares, have Chile on edge.

[ MORE: USMNT-Canada preview ]

La Roja stars Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal both posted lengthy messages on their Instagram accounts, saying that the decision was made “in response to the social moment in our country.”

They urged both protestors and law enforcement to turn away from violence.

From Mega.CL:

“We are soccer players, but above all people and citizens. We know that we represent a complete country and today Chile has other priorities much more important than next Tuesday’s game.”

Chile is ranked No. 17 by FIFA and 22 in Elo Ratings.

Slumping USMNT big favorites v. Canada

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Let’s start with two statements which might be a bit controversial given the tone and tenor of the United States men’s national team program.

  1. The CONCACAF Nations League very much matters to Gregg Berhalter’s era and the program in general, even if the coach’s job is not in jeopardy and the tournament is in its infancy.
  2. The USMNT are the oddsmakers’ heavy favorites to win (nearly +500), even given the current injury problems, and it will be shocking but not surprising if they lose to the Canadians.

Point No. 1 might be a bit surprising, but this is a competition with silverware and Berhalter hasn’t won any of it yet in his tenure as USMNT boss. It’s also relevant because losing to Canada twice in a month after not losing to them since the Billboard No. 1 single was the sensual “One More Night” by Phil Collins.

And even without Christian Pulisic and a raft of injury excuses, plus taking into account Canada’s sincere re-emergence on the CONCACAF scene, the USMNT has no business losing a meaningful match at home to a team that, while improved, has far more holes than the hosts.

If you remember from October, Berhalter didn’t call upon his men to press an inexperienced Canadian back line (I just realized I’m still angry about this). There is literally no way he’ll do that at home.

If John Herdman keeps his backs the same as the one that shut out the Yanks at BMO last month, he’ll have Kamal Miller, Derek Cornelius, Steven Vitoria, and Richie Laryea out there. Three of the four aren’t full-time starters for their MLS clubs (Vitoria is an every week man in Portugal’s top flight). Goalkeeper Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade) is capable of stealing a result, but shouldn’t have the chance if the Yanks pressure the ball on Friday.

The midfield and attackers are where the U.S. will have its hands full. Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David beg speedy and/or smart defenders. John Brooks being in the mix should help in both counts, plus he’s the best passing back in the pool right now.

Whether the match is cagey or comfortable will come down to the midfield. Scott Arfield is going to make it difficult on the Yanks, but Alfredo Morales plays with a nasty streak and will not be as bullied as his peers were in Toronto.

The one thing to fear is how bamboozled Berhalter was by Herdman’s plan in Ontario. This isn’t to pile on the coach, who is known for his tactics but hasn’t seen them deliver against too many opponents of quality. Herdman may be the novice in terms of overall club experience, but he’s got a better handle on the international game.

If the Yanks look out-foxed and unprepared on Friday, that’s a big problem.

How will the USMNT line up versus Canada?

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No Christian Pulisic.

No Tyler Adams.

No Timothy Weah.

No Michael Bradley, Matt Miazga, and no Zack Steffen, either.

Ugh.

[ MORE: NYCFC teen signs for Gladbach ]

Still, the United States men’s national team will be favored to get a home decision over Canada on Friday as the CONCACAF Nations League begins its final two match days of the group stage.

How will Gregg Berhalter line up his team without so many key components?

Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan is probably going to get the start here, and he won’t kill the team, but we’d love to see Sean Johnson get a chance to improve on his 100% clean sheet success rate across two tournament caps for the U.S.

Back line: It would be insane if Sergino Dest didn’t start at one of the full back spots given his election of the USMNT over the Netherlands. Also insane would be not starting a finally-healthy John Brooks.

After that, it seems likely Berhalter will opt for Aaron Long to pair with Brooks. If his left back option is Dest, then it’ll be DeAndre Yedlin at right back (or Reggie Cannon). If Dest is on his preferred right side, than Daniel Lovitz may get a look over Tim Ream on account of the speed in Canada’s attack.

Midfield: Might Berhalter pull back an attacker and use a four-man midfield against the Canucks? Weston McKennie and Alfredo Morales will take two spots, and it seems pretty likely Jackson Yueill will get the chance to be a deep-lying playmaker with McKennie and Morales running their shorts off to make his life easier. We suppose Berhalter could opt for Wil Trapp over Yueill. It’s possible. A little too possible.

Attack: Josh Sargent is going to get the center forward spot, and it would be wild if Jordan Morris doesn’t join him. Then it’s down to Tyler Boyd or Paul Arriola, exciting versus a bit safer. And Arriola would give him more of a midfield presence than the forward-thinking Boyd.

Here’s how we think Berhalter starts in Orlando:

Guzan

Yedlin — Long — Brooks — Dest

Yueill

Morales — McKennie

Morris — Sargent — Arriola