Nicholas Mendola

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Orlando City tabs Pareja as new coach

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Oscar Pareja is returning to Major League Soccer for a third stint.

The former Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas coach will now be plying his trade for Orlando City SC, leading Nani and Dom Dwyer as the fourth full-time coach in six MLS seasons.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A longtime Dallas player and assistant, Pareja led the Rapids to the playoffs in 2013 before leaving for the head job at his former club.

FCD won the Supporters’ Shield and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup under his watch before he left for Club Tijuana in 2018, where he went 23W-4D-21L.

Here’s Pareja, via OrlandoCitySC.com:

“The future of this Club is extremely bright, with so many opportunities to grow and succeed at all levels of the Club – from the new training facility to the world-class stadium and from the Development Academy all the way to the MLS side. Orlando is an incredible soccer city, with an especially passionate and dedicated fan base. I can’t wait to get started.”

Pareja should be a huge asset in developing the club’s top young talents into professionals, but he’s got a lot of work to do in building a competitive roster. Orlando finished eight points out of the playoffs in a league in which making the playoffs isn’t that difficult of a proposition.

PL preview: Arsenal-Brighton; Blades-Newcastle

Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
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The Premier League’s midweek fixture list has two more on the docket, with mid-table positioning at play in South Yorkshire and London.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Both host sides can advance into sixth with wins, while the visitors will also be dreaming of the top half of the table.

Arsenal v. Brighton and Hove Albion — 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Freddie Ljungberg will have his hands full at home, as Graham Potter‘s Seagulls have been anything but a walkover even in a three-match losing skid versus Manchester United, Leicester City, and Liverpool.

Arsenal, meanwhile, saw its winless run reach eight matches in all competitions with a weekend draw at Norwich City. The Gunners only outshot the Canaries by a 16-15 margin, something that will have Potter daydreaming of ways to break down the sloppy Arsenal defense.

Will Ljungberg finally start Nicolas Pepe?

“Nico is someone who is a very, very good player but sometimes when you come from a different league it takes time to adapt; off the pitch and on the pitch. But Nico is someone I plan on talking to. I’m going to have a little chat with him about what I expect and how I want to play.”

Sounds like no, which is good news for Brighton. #FreeNicolasPepe.

Sheffield United v. Newcastle United — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold

Chris Wilder‘s remarkable Blades haven’t lost since September, and will like their chances against a Newcastle side which likes to cede possession.

The Magpies are coming off a remarkable 2-2 draw against Man City, though don’t expect Steve Bruce to keep things the same. He has hinted he’ll ring in the changes and trust his squad depth, with Florian Lejeune, Emil Krafth, and Yoshinori Muto among those tipped for opportunity.

“We are going to have to,” Bruce said. “When you look at the games it is a ridiculous schedule. We will have to adapt and need a bit of freshness.”

Newcastle can join its hosts on 19 points with a win, but would likely accept a draw to take them three points clear of 18th place Everton.

Has the Premier League’s lower tier shrunk?

Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Imagese
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The table looks funny, doesn’t it?

Forget for a moment that Liverpool is running away with the Premier League, and that both Chelsea and Man City are double-digit points off the title pace.

Focus instead on Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester United, and the legion of teams living within a couple of results of either fifth of 18th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Consider that Southampton climbed out of the Bottom Three on Wednesday after beating Norwich City, and is now a Sunday win over Newcastle from rising as high as 12th. That Newcastle side sits 14th but beating Sheffield United on Thursday and Saints on Sunday could have them in the Top Seven (It won’t happen, but I digress).

If it seems odd to you, it’s because it is, indeed, extremely strange. First of all, take a look at the table before we give you a stark contrast of years past.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 15 14 1 0 37 14 23 8-0-0 6-1-0 43
 Leicester City 15 11 2 2 35 9 26 7-1-0 4-1-2 35
 Manchester City 15 10 2 3 43 17 26 5-1-1 5-1-2 32
 Chelsea 15 9 2 4 30 21 9 4-2-2 5-0-2 29
 Wolves 15 5 8 2 21 17 4 3-4-1 2-4-1 23
 Manchester United 15 5 6 4 23 18 5 4-3-1 1-3-3 21
 Crystal Palace 15 6 3 6 14 18 -4 3-2-3 3-1-3 21
 Tottenham Hotspur 15 5 5 5 25 23 2 4-2-1 1-3-4 20
 Sheffield United 14 4 7 3 17 13 4 3-1-3 1-6-0 19
 Arsenal 14 4 7 3 20 21 -1 3-4-0 1-3-3 19
 Burnley 15 5 3 7 21 24 -3 4-0-4 1-3-3 18
 Bournemouth 15 4 4 7 18 21 -3 2-3-2 2-1-5 16
 West Ham United 15 4 4 7 17 25 -8 2-1-4 2-3-3 16
 Newcastle United 14 4 4 6 13 22 -9 2-4-1 2-0-5 16
 Aston Villa 15 4 3 8 22 24 -2 3-2-2 1-1-6 15
 Brighton & Hove Albion 14 4 3 7 16 21 -5 3-2-2 1-1-5 15
 Southampton 15 4 3 8 17 33 -16 2-1-5 2-2-3 15

 Everton 15 4 2 9 16 27 -11 3-1-3 1-1-6 14
 Norwich City 15 3 2 10 16 32 -16 2-1-4 1-1-6 11
 Watford 15 1 5 9 9 30 -21 0-3-4 1-2-5 8

Unless you’re Watford, Man City, Leicester City, or Liverpool, your table position could be wildly different within a week or two.

Let’s focus on that congested group of the bottom half to make the point (Watford’s low total is kinda screwing this up, but we’ll still try to stress the contrast).

2019/20 season after 15 games: Seven teams are within one win of the drop zone, while 11 are within six points (*Arsenal and Sheffield United could cut this figure to nine with Thursday wins).

The gap between 18th and 6th is 7 points.

2018/19 season after 15 games: Six teams were within one win of the drop zone (though all Bottom Three sides are on nine points). The number moves to just seven if you move the margin to six points.

The gap between 18th and 6th (and 7th) is 14 points.

2017/18 season after 15 games: Three teams were within three points of the Bottom Three, and seven within six.

The gap between 18th and 6th (and 7th) is 15 points.

Now perhaps… this is just a weird year. The top of the Bundesliga is incredibly congested, too, and that seems an anomaly. But is there something more to it?

A couple of years ago, I was one of several arguing that the massive money of the Premier League was bound to make more difficult than ever for newly-promoted teams to stay up, and that we were about to see a wildly competitive table from teams outside the so-called Big Six. Call it a shrinking middle class.

That hasn’t exactly happened. Why? Maybe because teams are spending more of that transfer money in the Championship, and thickening up the teams getting promoted.

Perhaps this season is simply down to Spurs, Manchester United, and Arsenal all underachieving, but take a look at 2015/16 when Leicester won the league and both Liverpool and Chelsea turned in woeful seasons: After 15 weeks there were more teams contending for the Top Six, yeah, but also a distinct lower class.

Or maybe it’s down to this just being an unusual year in terms of outcomes meeting expectations; A look at this season’s xG table shows a more familiar Top Four. But it still shows intense congestion.

Still, this could be the start of a new normal for the league, one in which the Big Six will still never sniff relegation but see increased odds of not qualifying for Europe due to squad investment from other sides. And that next tier — Everton, West Ham, etc. — cannot just be presumed capable of escaping early season slides.

Regardless, it makes this season’s congested month of December pivotal. Separation should occur by the time the FA Cup rolls around in early January, and we will return to four classes (Well, three and Liverpool): Relegation candidates, comfortably midtable sides, Top Seven hopefuls, and Liverpool.

That’s not to say the Reds can’t be harmed by their December and slip into a proper title fight, nor that Messrs. Mourinho, Solskjaer, and Ljungberg won’t go on a run befitting their payrolls and reputations to make the Top Seven’s only question where Leicester City will slot.

But this month’s status as the most decisive on the Premier League calendar seems like it has increased importance. Whether that’s a one-year rising of intensity or not remains to be scene, but buckle up.

Klopp: Liverpool provided ‘a lot of great football moments’ in derby win

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The latest gem in Liverpool’s glittering season came courtesy of their depth in an emphatic 5-2 defeat of Everton in the first Merseyside Derby of the season.

Wednesday’s win at Anfield was a little leaky at the back, yeah, but Liverpool’s offensive show left little hope for their rivals.

[ MORE: Match recap | Silva, Holgate react ]

With Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino on the bench, Liverpool scored three times in the first 31 minutes and led 4-2 at halftime.

Divock Origi had two goals and Xherdan Shaqiri another by the time Sadio Mane added a goal to his pair of first half assists.

Their manager was loving it. From the BBC:

“Oh, a lot of great football moments in that game. We spoke before about the five changes. I had to show respect to the boys for what they do in training. I speak a lot about the quality of the squad so have to show it. What they made of it was incredible. Divock’s goals, Sadio’s passes, Shaqiri’s everything, Lallana was everywhere.”

Klopp rang in the changes with Shaqiri, Origi, Adam Lallana, Adrian, and James Milner. He said he would’ve liked to play Naby Keita as one of six changes, but he “was not brave enough to make six changes, that is the only problem.”

The Reds were actually out-attempted 12-11 by the visitors but were oh-so-clinical with the ball in the danger areas (until late, when Mane missed a pair of bids which could’ve supplied a hat trick).

Next up is Bournemouth away at 10 a.m. ET Saturday.

Lampard: Pulisic can reach ‘top level of world football’

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There haven’t been goals or assists coming from Christian Pulisic the past couple of matches, but Frank Lampard keeps getting asked about his playmaker.

Pulisic was tidy and solid again in Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat of Aston Villa, strong in possession and oh-so-good in tight spaces. It had the media asking the manager about his American youngster.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 2-1 Aston Villa ]

“Really impressed,” Lampard said, via Football.London. “I think he is playing really well. Since he came into the team, at Burnley got those goals and carried on with his form. He can score more but we’ve got a player in Christian that is really exciting and when you see this type of player in the modern day and you see their quality.

“He has got the ability to go on to the extra level, which is the top level of world football. At the minute he is doing really well and I hope he keeps that up.”

Chelsea’s “Captain America” went 85 minutes in the win, subbing off for Callum Hudson-Odoi. Pulisic forced a save out of Heaton that Abraham couldn’t finish, and nearly cashed in on a free kick rebound in tight.

He finished an 88 percent passer with five shots (three blocked, one on target), winning 10 of 18 duels and making one tackle.

On the season, Pulisic has six goals and six assists in 17 appearances. He’s one goal behind his single-season best, set last season at Borussia Dortmund, and needs seven assists to match his 2016/17 highs with the Bundesliga outfit.

You’d bet on him to get there.