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MLS Cup Final roundtable: Plenty of talking points for a ‘three-match’

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Don’t call it a three-match. Or do. That’s fine, too.

The MLS Cup Playoffs are down to two very familiar teams, as Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC sprung upsets to set up their third final in four seasons.

[ MORE: Berhalter calls up 20 ]

We asked our writers to lay out the main talking points for the Nov. 10 final in Washington state.


So, Toronto v. Seattle again. MLS won’t tell you they hate it, but the league almost certainly wanted LAFC and Atlanta in this spot, xyeah? What’s your level of interest for the final besides the inherent attraction that comes from it being the last match until Spring?

Joe Prince-WrightI’m like 8/10 intrigued. Toronto and Seattle have provided two very tight and chippy finals in the past. Seems like there’s some bad blood between these teams and add to that an incredible atmosphere at a sold out CenturyLink Field, it should be intense on the pitch and off of it. Also, it’s tough not to focus on Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore for Toronto. With the decline of the USMNT in recent seasons, they’ve taken a lot of stick traveling around MLS from disgruntled U.S. fans. If they deliver a second MLS Cup in three years with Toronto, their moves back to MLS can be deemed a success even if things haven’t been going well on the international stage.

Nick Mendola: There were so many reasons to love the idea of LAFC-Atlanta, with weapons like Carlos Vela, Pity Martinez, Diego Rossi, and a now in-form Ezequiel Barco trying to outdo each other while big names Bob Bradley and Frank De Boer match tactical wits. I also think Atlanta would’ve traveled very well to make a riotous (in a good way) atmosphere even wilder. But… I like this rematch. In terms of tactics, Vanney-Schmetzer should be just as fun for neutrals as Bradley-De Boer, and the USMNT-heavy lineups will make for proper industry and added emotion. Plus, it’s Canada against the U.S. sandwiched between the two nations dueling in high-tension CONCACAF Nations League matches.

I also really like the contrast of the quality dual national goalkeepers, with Quentin Westberg playing his entire career in France before taking Alex Bono’s job in Toronto and Seattle backstop Stefan Frei moving from Switzerland youth player to American college and MLS star.

Kyle Bonn: They definitely wanted LAFC v. Atlanta, which would have been awesome. Now it’ll still be fun, but way more meh.

Joel Soria: I’m moderately interested in this final, mainly because we saw this matchup in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017, respectively. If this were a Champions League Final, then repetition would be much easier to digest. But MLS is supposed to be based around parity, and this has no inklings of that.

What could have been… (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

MLS has shown a home-field advantage that perhaps no other top flight can boast, for lack of a better word. Whose loss was more surprising, LAFC or Atlanta?

Joe Prince-Wright: Hmmm, I want to say LAFC because they were so damn good during the regular season. But they did ease off in the final months and you always sensed they had an early playoff exit in them. For whatever reason, Bob Bradley’s side looked like they were feeling the pressure and the weight of finishing off an incredible season in style was too much. I’d actually vouch for Atlanta being the bigger shock. Frank de Boer’s side finished the season so well and in front of that huge, fired-up crowd they start so well. But fair play to TFC, they dug deep and delivered when it mattered most. ATL’s decision to start an injured Josef Martinez backfired spectacularly and kind of summed up their season. FDB turned it around in the end, but it was far from smooth for the reigning champs.

Nick Mendola: Atlanta, mostly because Toronto was without Jozy Altidore and started Wednesday’s match like the game plan was, “Just play a high line against an electric team and let ’em go back to the final.” Bob Bradley’s LAFC was fantastic, but was bidding to go to their first final. There’s something to be said for going somewhere you haven’t been before, and the three other semifinalists had all won the MLS Cup over the past three seasons. I’m more surprised that Bob Bradley was out-foxed than Frank de Boer’s failure, for what it’s worth.

Kyle Bonn: Atlanta’s was more surprising because they made uncharacteristic mistakes. LAFC always felt like it was on the verge of a disappointment despite all the excitement and positivity surrounding that team. With Atlanta, they really felt like they had figured things out, but suddenly made insane defensive mistakes and misses in front of net uncharacteristic of that team, especially at home.

Joel Soria: LAFC’s without a single doubt. What was destined to be the greatest season put together by any team in the league’s history ended in sheer disappointment at home, inches away from a final. Hard pill to swallow.

Seattle righteously deserved their win while TFC looked very sloppy aside from two impeccable moments from Benezet and DeLeon. How heavy favorites should Seattle be at home?

Joe Prince-Wright: Very heavy. They have so many attacking talents and Toronto have had injury issues to deal with all season long. Seattle should win this by two or three goals, but we all know how crazy and unpredictable MLS can be. I actually think playing away suits TFC. They can sit back, soak up pressure and rely on the talent they have in attack from Pozuelo and Alitdore, if he’s fit to play.

Nick Mendola: Are Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore fit and ready to start? If that’s the case, I think I like the idea of Gonzalez, Laurent Ciman, and the stellar Chris Mavinga combining to make this a much closer match than any are suspecting at the moment and Altidore giving Seattle fits at the back. That said, Altidore’s health is the bane of both TFC and the USMNT over the past two seasons, so Seattle should be considered as comfortable under pressure as David Lee Roth in the bridge of “Panama.”

Kyle Bonn: Quite heavy. In fact I think Toronto is nearly +300 in some places. Anything can happen in this crazy league and Toronto is good enough to win a one-off game like this clearly, but Seattle should win.

Joel Soria: Sure, they’re favorites, but the topic should be approached cautiously. This is MLS, anything can happen.  CenturyLink Field is not immune to the disease.

What’s the top story line, or two, for this final?

Joe Prince-Wright: Redemption for Michael Bradley? He’s quietly been plugging away since Couva and he’s still in the USMNT but as we mentioned, for many he will always be the scapegoat for why the USA didn’t reach the 2018 World Cup. Bradley lifting the MLS Cup trophy with the captains armband on would be oh-so-sweet for his family, especially after LAFC’s failure to reach the final.

Nick Mendola: Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo and Seattle’s Nico Lodeiro are kindred spirits in that they had fits and starts outside of MLS but are megawatt talents in this league. Tell me which one plays better on Nov. 10 and I probably tell you your MLS champion. And I agree with my NBC teammates about Bradley carrying intrigue: The American legend has been fine but just that the past two seasons after spending his first four years with Toronto FC as an absolute game dominator. A title here would be very redemptive.

Kyle Bonn: The top storyline here is a number of U.S. internationals going at it for MLS glory. LAFC v. Atlanta wouldn’t have featured this kind of battle. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley against Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan. I’m excited to see how they do going up against one another.

Joel Soria: Seattle wins an MLS Cup in front of their massive fan base.

Rapid fire. Who would you rather have, assuming full health: Jordan Morris or Jozy Altidore? Nico Lodeiro or Alejandro Pozuelo? Michael Bradley or Cristian Roldan?

Joe Prince-Wright: Altidore, Lodeiro, Bradley

Nick Mendola: Altidore, Pozuelo, Bradley

Kyle Bonn: Altidore, Lodeiro, Bradley

Joel Soria: Altidore, Lodeiro, Roldan

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Either Brian Schmetzer or Greg Vanney will have two MLS Cup titles after Nov. 10. Both, seemingly, don’t get a ton of credit for what they’ve accomplished? If it came down to the better coach, who are you picking to win?

Joe Prince-Wright:  Vanney. I like Schmetzer a lot, and he’s proven to be a very good tactician over the past few years. That said, if it’s a tight, scrappy game, as we expect, then Vanney seems to be able to organize his teams better defensively for these one-off occasions.

Nick Mendola: Schmetzer’s story is wonderful enough that I despite choosing between the two, but what Vanney has done to stabilize an organization (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment) which was a bonafide stranger to success is remarkable. Now TFC has a title and is going for two just a few months after the Toronto Raptors claimed an NBA crown. It might sound nuts, but Vanney’s stewardship started it all (as did the purchase of Sebastian Giovinco, but I digress).

Kyle Bonn: Schmetzer has done an unbelievable job with the Sounders in what can only be described as a less than ideal circumstance to begin his first MLS head coaching job. You never want to be the guy after the guy (just ask David Moyes), yet Schmetzer has excelled despite following Sigi Schmid. I think he’s the guy, even though Vanney might be one of the more underrated coaches in the league.

Joel Soria: This is tough, mostly because neither are known for being overly tactically astute coaches. If I had to choose, I’d go with Schmetzer because of his positive demeanor and penchant to win.

Finally, MLS is still gonna MLS, as Andy might say, but this league has grown so much and the trajectory stills feels upward. What’s your state of the league? What’s the best and worst of it?

Joe Prince-Wright: I think MLS is exactly where it should be. Nothing more. Nothing less. There has been some incredible growth in recent years, with Atlanta, Cincinnati and LAFC arriving, plus new stadiums for Minnesota United and the Chicago Fire moving downtown all positives. But with Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger gone and Zlatan Ibrahimovic likely to follow them, where are the next superstar signings coming from? That may be a good thing, as clubs will focus on recruiting young players smartly from Europe and South America, but there’s still a need to attract the world superstars coming towards the end of their careers. Let’s not kid ourselves otherwise.

From a managerial perspective, the league is very strong with a core of American coaches proving their worth (Bradley, Schmetzer, Vanney and Jim Curtin to name a few) and Matias Almeyda, Frank de Boer, Dome Torrent and Guillermo Barros Schelotto all faring well in their first full seasons in MLS. Teams are more interesting tactically and there is now more of a global feel within MLS. With Nashville, Austin, St. Louis, Miami CF and Sacramento all arriving in the coming years via expansion, these are exciting times. But more must be done to improve the fortunes of some of the MLS originals in the Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, New England Revolution and Chicago Fire (who have set the wheels in motion) plus the likes of the Montreal Impact and Houston Dynamo need some TLC. MLS can now build from a position of strength, but the direction the league is going in with regards to big-name player purchases and making sure the spotlight is evenly spread across every franchise is perhaps more unbalanced than it has ever been.

Nick Mendola: The league has grown in quality, no doubt, but two major issues remain for it to take the next steps toward being a next level league. First, the top-end, well-paid stars are great but you cannot expect people to really rate a league when Liga MX is so much deeper due to better pay for guys 14-18 on the match day roster. Second, our country is gigantic and about to take its closed-door system and slam it shut on no more than 30-32 markets. That is insane, this league is never going pro-rel without a FIFA mandate (Heck, I bet many European leagues wouldn’t institute pro-rel if they started today because, well money). But try telling major league media markets like Phoenix, Detroit, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, even Buffalo that they’re never dancing on the center stage.

Kyle Bonn: The growth is there, it’s impossible to ignore. I’m still concerned about the overall skill level of the league even after all these years – it doesn’t look good when Zlatan and Rooney both look done in Europe, and come over to MLS and completely dominate the league despite clear weaknesses (have you seen Zlatan try to run?).  That to me is a bad sign. The pay structure of the league still lends itself to a few top-tier stars that dominate the otherwise mediocre talent across the landscape. Still, the league is growing in popularity and exposure, and youth development, and that’s always a positive. The next step is growing the base-level talent, not just investing in brand name stars. I think it’ll come…the base of the league is stronger than it’s ever been.

Joel Soria: From Zlatan (let’s see if he returns) to Vela, from LAFC to Atlanta United, there are a lot of positives going for MLS, at least from a marketing and quality standpoint. My doubts are in the league’s strategies and methods  behind their never-ending expansion process. Cincinnati, Nashville, Miami, Sacramento and Saint Louis are great additions, but no one wants a 35-team league. The approach needs to be pragmatic and less reflective of what has already been done by other major sports leagues in the U.S. It’s worth noting, however, that it might be too late to dial in damage control.

Solskjaer on Man United: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’

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Ahead of Manchester United‘s clash with Arsenal at Old Trafford on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes his Red Devils are on track.

Despite sitting 13 points off Premier League leaders Liverpool, the man in his first full season in charge at United is cautiously optimistic about the squad and playing style he is building.

Solskjaer sat down with our partners Sky Sports, and told Gerard Brand that United are just about where he expected them to be right now.

“It’s not like the situation we had last year,” Solskjaer said. “There’s no lack of desire there. For us it’s about building a new culture, building a new team, bringing everybody together. Is it the job I expected? Yes. I never said this was going to be a quick-fix job. It’s step after step after step.”

“Of course, we’ve hit a few bumps in the road, I never said this was going to be a quick-fix job. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We need time, and the attitude of the boys has been great. [We must] keep working on improving the understanding and relationships between all players, and the style we want to play.”

Given the fact Solskjaer inherited an almighty mess last season after Jose Mourinho left, then rejuvenated the squad as they looked likely to finish in the top four before a late season collapse, he deserves more time until he’s properly judged.

Defeats against Crystal Palace and West Ham early this season haven’t helped his cause but neither have costly injuries to Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and now Marcus Rashford.

Context is key in life, and in football.

Solskjaer is slowly trying to create a new culture at United and the younger players he is bedding in (Mason Greenwood, Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Scott McTominay to name a few) will take time to find their feet. There is a clear playing style of counter-attacking coupled with more intense pressing in attacking areas, and it has shown glimpses of working well.

Will Solskjaer be given the time to turn United into a top four team, at the very least, once again?

As he says, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But a decent football team can be built in about 6-12 months. The clock is ticking, Ole…

If United aren’t firmly in the top four battle by January, Ed Woodward and Co. may be getting a little twitchy.

At this point, blaming the manager is probably not the answer. Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and David Moyes have all come and gone since Sir Alex Ferguson retired while the rest of the football structure at the club hasn’t changed at all over the last six years.

That tells its own story and should probably buy Solskjaer at least until the end of this season before he is judged.

An Englishman in Bordeaux

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Very few have traveled the path from south London to Manchester, then Sunderland and then the Southwest of France. Then again, few people are Josh Maja.

While Jadon Sancho and Keiran Trippier may garner most of the media attention for English players plying their trade off the British Isle, one young Englishman is poised for a breakout year in Ligue 1. Maja, who joined Bordeaux during the January transfer window in 2019, is finally healthy after a knee injury cut short his first season in France, and he’s ready to make a big impact as part of a young squad.

 [ MORE: Ligue 1 score, schedule ]

The 20-year-old striker has an impressive story, overcoming the odds to not just become a professional, but also to make it to the top division in France. Maja began his career playing for St. Andrews Youth Club, its headquarters just steps away from Westminster Abbey.

He also spent time as a youngster with Crystal Palace and then Fulham, but left the club after three-and-a-half years for personal reasons. He then returned to St. Andrews, all the while going for trials across the country, trying to latch on with a team. While training with Manchester City and featuring in a friendly match against Sunderland, his fortunes suddenly changed. Sunderland liked what it saw, brought him to the northeast of England, and gave him a chance.

After working his way up the ranks from the Under-18s through the Under-23s and reserves, it was then-Sunderland manager David Moyes who gave Maja his first team debut in 2016. After working on his game for another season, Maja had a breakout year with Sunderland down in League One at the start of the 2018-2019 season.

Maja scored in Sunderland’s season opener, a 2-1 win over Charlton, and then went on to score 15 league goals in the first five months of the season, scoring with both feet and his head, and making it look easy at times.

Amazingly, Maja wasn’t even supposed to start that first game of the season. Sunderland had just signed experienced forward Charlie Wyke. But an injury to Wyke in the buildup to the game put Maja in, and he didn’t look back.

“I probably say everything was clicking,” Maja said in an interview with Pro Soccer Talk. “(Wyke) got injured in training so I had to start that game, and then I scored in the first game. From there, my confidence just went up. I think just the momentum and the confidence I had going into games was pushing me on to be successful that season.”

Suddenly, there was interest from clubs in the Championship, Premier League, and abroad. For a player who had trained at Manchester City, Fulham, and Crystal Palace, this could have been a big moment for him to make a move to a bigger club. But Maja said he didn’t see it that way.

“I just felt it was a good time for me to go abroad,” Maja said. “I didn’t feel like I was ready to take the step into the Premier League. I think signing for a PL team wouldn’t have been the right decision for my development.

“Obviously for me developing is playing games and I felt as if going abroad was going to enhance my development and get more game time. I think it was the right decision and I hope this season I can push on.”

By late January, it was done. Maja’s agent, Emeka Obasi helped Maja move from Sunderland to Ligue 1’s Bordeaux on an undisclosed fee, with Maja signing a four-and-a-half year contract. Obasi has been influential in seeing some of England’s top young talents move abroad, including Jadon Sancho’s move to Borussia Dortmund, Ademola Lookman’s move to RB Leipzig and Reiss Nelson’s loan to Hoffenheim last season.

“There was interest before the season, I knew there was a little bit there,” Maja said. “When I was scoring goals as the season was going on, the attention from them grew. My agent was the one, just because he’s got a good relationship with a lot of teams, he basically gave me confidence to listen to clubs abroad, and Bordeaux showed the biggest interest. That’s the main reason I took the opportunity to come here.”

After joining Bordeaux, Maja quickly integrated into the young squad and played in seven matches, starting three and scoring one goal. However, a torn meniscus in his left knee shut down the rest of his season for good. Instead of spending the time injured back home in London, Maja said he remained in Bordeaux to rehab, and he was ready to go at the start of the season for coach Paulo Sousa.

Following a preseason with Bordeaux, in which Maja participated in EA Sports League 1 games in Washington D.C., Maja seems primed for a big season in France. He’s come off the bench in each of the first three league matches of the season, scoring in Bordeaux’s 1-1 draw with Montpellier. Bordeaux’s young team looks to improve from a 14th-place finish last season, in which the club only earned 41 points.

“He’s very young like a lot of players on our team, but he has a lot of experience,” Maja’s Bordeaux teammate Aurelien Tchouameni said. “He played a lot of games in League One in England so he’s a very good player, a very good striker. I think he will help the team this season.”

At just 20, there’s still time for Maja to continue to improve, grow, and potentially return to England as a finished product.

“It’s a possibility,” Maja said about playing in the Premier League in the future. “I am focusing on my work in France with Bordeaux, maybe if the timing is right and the right club comes in, I’d love to take that opportunity. Right now I want to be the best I can be here.”

Delph completes transfer to Everton

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Everton has added an England international in a move to bolster its midfield.

The club announced that it had signed Fabian Delph to a three-year contract, after an undisclosed permanent transfer from Manchester City. Delph comes to the blue half of Liverpool after spending the last four seasons at Manchester City, where he began as a central midfielder but was quickly pushed out wide as a left back, and only featured 20 times in all competitions for the Sky Blues last season.

“Every time I have played against Everton, whether it was home or away, straight away the first thing that comes to mind when you see the fans is passion,” Delph said on Everton’s website. “The Everton fans seem to know football, seem to understand it, it seems to be in their blood and they really back the team. You are always going to hear Evertonians and I’m excited to play at home and hear them when I am playing. I’m really happy to be here, I’m going to give absolutely everything – nothing less than 100 per cent.

Although it feels like he’s been around forever, Delph is actually still only 29-years-old, and should still have a few years left in the tank to help propel Everton to the next level. At the least, Delph adds steel and technical ability in the middle of the park, where he could likely partner with Andre Gomes, who made his move to Everton permanent this summer from Barcelona.

Delph also adds versatility, and that should help him stay in the Everton lineup, should it need him out wide or to play in the center of the park.

However, the most important aspect Delph brings is the winning mentality. Even though he didn’t play a massive role, Delph has had the opportunity to train and play alongside the likes of Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, all winners in their careers who do whatever it takes to get three points and win a title.

Bringing that attitude and mentality to Everton is huge for the club, which needs a lift after the departure of Wayne Rooney and other big names who have departed since the end of the David Moyes era.

Ranieri, Van Bronckhorst reportedly eyeing up Newcastle opening

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Newcastle United’s soon-to-be vacant manager’s seat will be filled quickly, and there’s plenty of interest in the position.

While Jose Mourinho isn’t interested in being at the helm of a team which will not challenge for silverware, others believe Newcastle can be a place of success and want to take over for out-of-contract Rafa Benitez.

Sky Sports say that Claudio Ranieri is interested in making Newcastle his fourth Premier League job, having led Chelsea, Leicester City, and Fulham.

[ MORE: Norwich adds Drmic ]

Ranieri finished the season with Roma following his dismissal from Fulham, where he was one of three managers to fail in a bid to keep the Cottagers in the Premier League.

And Sky also says that Giovanni van Bronckhorst is intrigued by the idea of Northeast England. The 44-year-old Dutch centurion managed boyhood club Feyenoord from 2015-19, leading the club to two KNVB Cups and its first Eredivisie title in 18 years.

Gennaro Gattuso continues to be mentioned as a possibility, and the oddsmakers seem to think ex-Swansea boss Garry Monk, veteran manager David Moyes, and Man City assistant Mikel Arteta are the favorites for the job.