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Making a title case for each MLS playoff team

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Major League Soccer’s playoff format has made the route to the MLS Cup Final a bit easier for a Cinderella.

Yes, the home games have dried up for Team Nos. 5-7 in all likelihood.

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Yes, home games in MLS have provided a wild advantage, with only three teams posting sub-.500 records at home and only two teams above . 500 away from home.

And yes, having so many playoff teams should allow for the top seeds to waltz — Less than 42 percent of the league misses the playoffs.

But making the final means winning three games now, instead of outlasting a superior team over 180 minutes home and away. And that means it’ll be difficult to rule out anyone.

So here is at least one reason all 14 teams can lift the MLS Cup.

New England Revolution — Bruce Arena is on a revenge mission, and Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou have been let loose to worry about little besides scoring. Easily the longest of long shots.

FC Dallas — Young and hungry, FCD has the sixth-best possession numbers in MLS (52.6 percent) and passes better than anyone other than Toronto.

New York Red Bulls — Only four teams scored more goals from open play than the Red Bulls’ 39, and New York leads the league in tackles. They are a tough out, but their 68.6 percent passing percentage is shocking.

Portland Timbers — One of five teams to score double-digit goals from set pieces and the leader in goals off the counter (7), the Timbers have a sneaky good tactician and obviously strong motivator in Gio Savarese.

DC United — Only LAFC allowed fewer goals than Bill Hamid and his center back pairing of Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum. Also, Wayne Rooney is a difference maker and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him ride out of MLS on top of the league.

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Toronto FC — Haven’t lost since Aug. 3, and have made two Cup final runs under Greg Vanney. Experience is key, and TFC is the best passing team in MLS (85.3 percent).

LA Galaxy — Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the best attackers in the history of football, even without any defenders.

Minnesota United — Their path to the title demands overcoming both LA sides, but Ike Opara and the Loons have been solid at deploying Adrian Heath’s defensive game plan. Vito Mannone at the back is capable of stealing games, and Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso are about as tough a midfield duo as you’ll find in MLS.

Philadelphia Union — Take a walk around the advanced stats pages, and you’ll see Jim Curtin’s men at or near the top of the league is just about everything. A complete if unspectacular team who can catch opponents off guard.

Real Salt Lake — The lack of an out-and-out star scorer scares us, but RSL gets scoring from all over the team sheet and has motivation to send Nick Rimando out on top.

Seattle Sounders — Another team which has done this dance before, they have a pair of game-changers in Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris.

Atlanta United — They did it last year, Pity Martinez is finally firing on all cylinders, and you know they’d love to send Michael Parkhurst out on top. Don’t rule out the champs.

New York City FC — For at least two rounds, Dome Torrent’s men will host more weary opponents on their postage stamp pitch at Yankee Stadium. That’s a huge advantage, and they would be one LAFC misstep away from hosting the final.

LAFC — I mean, come on. This is the best regular season team of all-time with a top-end manager in Bob Bradley. As long as they respect their opposition and dodge heat in El Trafico should it happen, the title is theirs.

MLS takes big step with All-Star Game update

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For the first time since 2004, the Major League Soccer All-Star team has a new opponent.

In a press conference in Los Angeles, MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX executive president Enrique Bonilla jointly made the announcement that the 2020 MLS All-Star Game would test the best players from MLS against the top stars in Liga MX, with the match set to take place on July 29 at Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium.

The news of MLS taking on the Liga MX all-stars is the realization of an idea that has been floated by fans and media members for the last few years. The annual MLS All-Stars vs. club giant had grown stale in recent years, especially since those clubs weren’t ever incentivized to take the game seriously. Big stars might have only played one half, if at all, as they built match fitness for the start of their seasons in Europe, and it ultimately is a bad marker for MLS.

If MLS really wants to compare itself with other top leagues in the world, then there’s no better an opponent than Liga MX. The Mexican first division has continued to basically wipe the floor with MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League, though this season Atlanta United did triumph over Club America in the Campeones Cup.

In addition, MLS may have a decent chance to beat Liga MX in an all-star game. The talent at the very top of MLS is arguably higher than in Mexico, though the Liga MX clubs are stacked with talent in the middle of the rosters, which is where MLS clubs are exploited year after year. However, if it’s Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, and Nicolas Lodeiro up front for the MLS All-Star squad, they could have a very good shot to succeed.

“We are so pleased to bring the 2020 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target to Los Angeles, one of the great soccer markets in North America,” Garber said in the press conference. “As we celebrate our 25th season, we wanted to deliver an unique and unprecedented format for our annual All-Star Game. Our first ever game between the best of MLS and LIGA MX’s top players is the perfect way to build on the growing relationship between the two top soccer leagues in the region.”

It’s unclear whether this will be a recurring match in the future. However, moving away from the prior all-star game model will help MLS grow as a league and catch up to Liga MX in the long wrong.

How the USMNT found and kept Dest

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With the stroke of a pen on Gregg Berhalter’s lineup card and the referee’s whistle to finish the game, a 4-1 U.S. Men’s National Team victory over Canada, Sergino Dest officially tied his future to the USMNT. It was arguably the final step in a recruitment that began more than three years ago thanks to a message from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Dave van der Bergh.

Since retiring as a player, the former New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas winger has spent his time coaching youth teams within U.S. Soccer, and in this instance, he was working with then U.S. Under-17 head coach John Hackworth. Hackworth was unavailable for comment on this story.

Dest first came on van der Bergh’s radar from a contact at Ajax, where van der Bergh came through the youth academy, and it led to Dest’s first call-ups to the U.S. U-17s in 2016.

“I was tipped off by people at Ajax that there was a player with a dual nationality, and considering that we had been looking at dual nationalities, that I should take a look at him,” van der Bergh said in an e-mail. “I found out about him through the club itself, actually.

“The first time I saw him, I asked for video footage from Ajax, which they gave to me and that was great. Then I asked a really good friend of mine to take a look at him for us. He is somebody I really trust as far as scouting goes, and he said the same things that I thought I had seen. That’s when I decided to tell John Hackworth about him.”

Hackworth and co. brought Dest along slowly, getting him incorporated in the group. He was a reserve in the 2016 Nike International Friendlies as a 15-year-old, with Sporting KC defender Jaylin Lindsey starting ahead of him at the time.

But while the U.S. Soccer Federation was at turmoil at the top – this was just months after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena after his season with the LA Galaxy wrapped up – Dest was making a very good first impression to the coaches.

“I thought that it was unusual,” former U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos recalled in a phone interview. “Normally, our defenders on youth national teams, 1-on-1 they usually have a lot to learn. I felt that Sergino was one of those defenders that never got beat 1-on-1, and that caught my attention.”

Dest wasn’t part of the U.S. U-17s run to the CONCACAF Under-17 final in 2017, but he earned a spot on the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup roster, and it’s where he became a breakout star for American soccer fans. His impact  play from left back or right back added a new element to the U.S. attack and he held his own defensively.

Since then, Dest has continued to progress for club and country at a rapid rate. He helped lead the U.S. U-20s to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and a run to the quarterfinals at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and for Ajax he went from the U-19s in 2017 to Jong Ajax a year later and now a sure-fire starter at right back for the first team in 2019.

“He just became more and more mature,” Ramos said of Dest’s progression as a player in a short span. “He became more of an impact player on the attacking side of the field, and in general I give the players the freedom to express themselves within the context of the way we want to play. I think he was happy with the way we played and it allowed him to express himself, so it worked really well.”

His success in the Ajax first team of course got the attention of the Dutch National Team, who suddenly had an interest in Dest. In the youth stages, it made more sense for Dest to play with the U.S. because he’d have a better opportunity to play at a youth World Cup. The Netherlands hasn’t made the World Cup at U-20 or U-17 level since they hosted the U-20 World Cup in 2005, a shocking statistic considering all the stars they’ve produced over the years.

Suddenly, Dest was being faced with the prospect of competing for playing time on a team that made the final four less than a decade ago and looks to be surging back to prominence, or staying with the only national team program he’d known. The U.S. stepped up its recruitment in September when Gregg Berhalter called Dest in for a pair of matches, first against Mexico and then against Uruguay, where the teenager started both matches. At the same time, his former coach Ramos was keeping in touch with Dest once he decided in October to take more time to make his decision between the U.S. and the Netherlands.

“I continue to be in contact with Serg like I do with many of the players,” Ramos said. “Basically, my recommendation to him was to go with his heart. I feel like, of course you can listen to your agent and you can listen to people in the press, and you can always choose what’s more convenient to you, for your career. But I think the most important thing when playing for a country is to choose where your heart is. That’s basically what I told him.”

Dest made his decision to stay with the U.S. on October 28, and it was a big win for a USMNT program that had lost promising midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez in a similar situation to Mexico. Even bigger, Ramos noted, was that Dest wasn’t born and raised in the U.S., and his main connection with his nation was through the national team itself.

“I’m very proud of that, because it means he has a trust in our program and he’s confident that he’s going to get the most out of his opportunities that he gets here with our program,” Ramos said. “I think it goes to show the great job Hackworth did with him and how happy he was to be with us in the U-20s that he feels like this is his home.

“You have to remember this a kid who never lived in the U.S., he grew up in Holland, and that the closest thing for being home for him has been our youth national teams. I think he felt comfortable. He’s been comfortable and he felt like we took care of him, and he’s been happy. That’s just my feeling.”

Report: Salah, Robertson out for Liverpool trip to Crystal Palace

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Liverpool has some significant injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace, with the international break not serving to give its top players the required rest.

Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson both sat out key international games hoping to be healthy enough for Liverpool’s return to Premier League play, but that has not come to pass. Sky Sports has confirmed that both will miss the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Salah re-aggrivated his persistent ankle injury near the end of Liverpool’s big win over Manchester City just before the break, and while he reported for international duty with the Egypt squad, he did not appear in either of the country’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya or Comoros, both of which ended in draws. He has dealt with this ankle problem for over a month now, since it was injured against Leicester City in early October.

Robertson, meanwhile, has played every minute of the Premier League season to date, but withdrew from international duty with Scotland thanks to an ankle problem of his own. That leaves a gaping hole at left-back for Jurgen Klopp to fill, with backup full-back Nathaniel Clyne also out long-term thanks to an ACL tear. Candidates could include James Milner or even Xherdan Shaqiri, while he could also potentially move one of the center-backs in Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren out wide. Joel Matip is not expected back until the end of the month.

Liverpool kicks off against Crystal Palace at 10:00 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jose Mourinho speaks: ‘I couldn’t be happier’ at Spurs

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Jose Mourinho, speaking to Tottenham Hotspur’s official club channel Spurs TV, gave his first interview as Tottenham manager and speaking for the first time on camera after taking the job earlier Wednesday morning.

The Portuguese boss, who shockingly took over for Mauricio Pochettino, said he “couldn’t be happier” to take charge of the club currently floundering in 14th place in the Premier League table.

“I couldn’t be happier, and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here,” Mourinho said, referring to Spurs emphatically as “my club.”

“In relation to the Premier League, I think we know where we are, and we know that we don’t belong there,” Mourinho said, promising improvement. “We should just play match after match, the next match we want to win, and that’s the same about the next and the next and the next until the last. [At the] end of [the] season, we will see where we are, but I know that we are going to be in a different position than we are now.”

“These are not words of the moment, these are not words of me being the Tottenham head coach,” Mourinho said. “These are words I’ve told and I’ve repeated in the last four or five years, even as an opponent: to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane was always hard but beautiful. It is a place I used to go with passion but also it was also with respect.”

“I really like this squad, and looking to the young players, there is not one manager in the world that doesn’t like to play young players and to help young players develop. There is not one. The problem is sometimes you get into clubs where the work that is below you is not good enough to produce these players, so I look to our history and you see that the academy’s always giving talents that the first team needs.”

Referring to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new ground which Spurs have played in since April, Mourinho did not mince words. “When you say ‘beautiful stadium’ you are too humble. You have to say ‘the best stadium in the world.’ I think that is the reality.”

Mourinho continued to gush, talking about the amenities he has available to work with between matches. “The training ground is second to none. It probably can only be compared with some American football training grounds, you cannot compare with European football at any level, and I’ve been at the majority of the best places.”

He finished by saying, “I look forward for the challenge, for the responsibility to bring happiness to everyone that loves the club.”