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Columbus acquires Nagbe from Atlanta for $1M in allocation

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Darlington Nagbe is headed for a reunion with old boss Caleb Porter.

Columbus has sent over $1 million in allocation money to Atlanta United in order to claim the influential midfielder.

[ MORE: Top 25 players in USMNT pool ]

Porter coached Nagbe at the University of Akron and the Portland Timbers, and has 25 USMNT caps but has turned down Gregg Berhalter’s requests for service.

Nagbe made 46 appearances across all competitions for the Five Stripes this season, scoring twice with five assists. He has 313 matches played between Portland and Atlanta.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Darlington Nagbe is a proven winner and the type of player who can be a difference-maker in our team,” Crew SC president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko said in a statement. “In addition to his skill set, we believe that Darlington is someone whose character and values fit well within our organization. As we stated heading into this offseason, we continue to look both domestically and internationally for players that will make our team better, and we believe Darlington is an important part of those efforts.”

It’s a bold statement from Columbus, who had a reputation for getting the most of its talent under Berhalter but faded under Porter after a hot start. The Crew began 2019 with a 4-1-1 record but lost 13 of its next 15 matches.

Of course, being MLS, the Crew then only lost 2 of their final 13 matches. Shoulder shrug emoji.

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.

Three things we learned from Atlanta United-Toronto FC (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Level at one but holding the hosts at bay, Toronto FC looked content to drag the life out of the Eastern Conference Final. One of its attackers had other ideas, though, as Nick DeLeon dribbled into and then out of traffic to smash a shot past Brad Guzan from outside the box and earn the Reds their third MLS Cup Final berth in four years (all against Seattle Sounders).

The Five Stripes came out of the gates hot in both halves. Julian Gressel rolled a ball over the line in the fourth minute of the first half and Atlanta won a penalty with embellishment only to see Quentin Westberg deny Josef Martinez from the spot. Both Westberg and Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan were very decent in the first half, Nicolas Benezet’s equalizer a curling thing of beauty. A league with almost unrivaled home field advantage saw two celebrated home sides beaten by cagey former champions. MLS is a riot.

One more note: Here’s a nod to USMNT hero Michael Parkhurst, whose career ends one match short of another final.

“I have to say that today was resiliency,” said manager Greg Vanney. “It wasn’t beautiful soccer. These guys refused to give up, kept looking for their moment and got it. I don’t think there were too many statistical categories we won.”

[ MORE: Liverpool 5-5 Arsenal | GK hero reacts ]

Three things we learned

1. Bradley, TFC caught sleeping early: Toronto FC’s hopes of taking the Mercedes Benz Stadium crowd out of this one took a seismic shake when Michael Bradley somehow didn’t realize Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was right behind him to blaze onto a terrific through ball from in-form Ezequiel Barco. Martinez held onto the ball as long as possible before sending a pass to Gressel for as easy a finish as you’ll see at this level. 1-0 in the fourth minute. Bradley then conceded a penalty to an embellishing but fouled Martinez, but French-American goalkeeper Quentin Westberg bailed him out with a fine save on Josef Martinez to keep the deficit at one. Buy him dinner, MB90.

2. TFC makes only attacking moments count: Nicolas Benezet quickly restored the deadlock with a terrific finish from the corner of the box. The ex-Guingamp midfielder ran onto a marvelous diagonal pass from center back Laurent Ciman. Benezet cut in freom the left and spun a curling effort toward the back post that ex-Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan could not rescue before it rippled the netting for 1-1 in the 14th minute. You could argue that there wasn’t another threat from the Canadian side until DeLeon’s winner, which was a smashing shot to cap a smash and grab.

3. Westberg, Mavinga keep Reds in the match: Yes, of course, the penalty kick save was an outstanding moment for the former Troyes and Auxerre goalkeeper, but he would be needed many times over the course of the match including two moments in the first few moments of the second half. Decisive off his line and composed on it, the 33-year-old continues to validate Greg Vanney’s decision to put him in the lineup over MLS Cup winner Nick Bono. As for Chris Mavinga, the physical Congolese defender was a force. A few days after a Man of the Match performance in New York, Mavinga rebounded from an in-game injury to make two decisive interventions in the final five minutes.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Westberg.

Goalscorers: Gonzalo Martinez (4′), Nicolas Benezet (14′), Nick DeLeon (78′)

De Boer makes a most satisfying comeback with ATLUTD

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) Frank De Boer never seems to get flustered. The stoic Dutchman can switch from one language to another with ease. He speaks bluntly and rarely betrays any sense of doubt in his coaching abilities.

Yet, this has been a year when he’s had to show some flexibility.

[ MORE: Cryptic Zlatan Ibrahimovic hints at return to Spain ]

Maybe he didn’t have all the answers. Perhaps he needed to listen to his players a bit more.

“As a coach, you want to put your stamp a little bit on the team,” de Boer said after a training session at Atlanta United’s glitzy suburban complex. “But in the beginning, maybe we did it too much. We put too much stamp on it.”

De Boer chuckles.

He is clearly enjoying this most rewarding of comebacks.

After failing so miserably in Serie A and the Premier League, then enduring a sluggish start and some missteps away from the field in Atlanta, de Boer has guided United to the cusp of its second straight championship in Major League Soccer. His club will host Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night before another raucous crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the winner advancing to face either Los Angeles FC or the Seattle Sounders for the MLS Cup title.

“I knew it’s always difficult coming to a new culture. They have to know you. I have to know the players. So it always takes time,” de Boer said. “You think, `OK, everything is going to be very easy, you’re going to win your games easily.’ No, it’s not like that. That why I chose Atlanta United. I wanted to feel that they would give me time.”

Arriving in Atlanta not long after United had given this title-starved city its first major championship since baseball’s Braves in 1995, de Boer faced immediate skepticism. He replaced the immensely popular Tata Martino, who needed only two years to transform an expansion team into a champion before leaving to become coach of the Mexican national team.

[ VIDEO: Every touch from Christian Pulisic v. Burnley ]

De Boer had lasted mere months at both Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, his two previous coaching stops.

When United went out in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League and managed just one win in its first six MLS matches, it looked like de Boer might be headed for another short coaching stint in Atlanta.

“Of course, from the beginning, we wanted a good result,” de Boer said. “But still, we knew if it’s not going well, the confidence is there. We can build something here. I’m very pleased with that.”

A proponent of the “Total Football” philosophy that is ingrained in the Dutch game, with its value on possession and the flexibility to float from one position to another while maintaining the lineup’s organizational structure, de Boer seemed to be imposing a style that just didn’t mesh with a club built on the counter-attacking, seemingly chaotic system Martino preferred.

The squad had just one season before suddenly looking all out of sync, struggling to create scoring chances.

In retrospect, de Boer was probably too heavy-handed in dealing with his new team

He needed to win them over first.

“We obviously came off a very successful year playing a certain way. We were like, `Why would we change it just because a new coach is coming in?'” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “It was maybe two extremes going at each other.”

[ MORE: Emery: Xhaka “devastated and sad” to be booed by Arsenal fans ]

De Boer didn’t exactly endear himself to Atlanta’s fans, who have shattered virtually every attendance record in MLS, by calling them “spoiled” – a remark he quickly apologized for while explaining that it carried a different connotation in his native language. He would stir of more controversy by saying the demand for equal pay in women’s international soccer was “ridiculous,” leading to another hasty apology.

But the criticism faded as Atlanta finally began to resemble a defending champion.

In addition to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference (the same spot they finished a year ago under Martino, though with 11 fewer points), United added a pair of trophies to its collection by winning the U.S. Open Cup – and a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League – as well as the Campeones Cup with a thrilling victory over Mexican powerhouse America.

“We’ve talked a lot and found a way to be successful,” Gressel said. “Frank obviously has adjusted. He’s talked a lot with a lot of guys. Communication has been, obviously, the key factor during that tough stretch at the beginning of the year. We’ve come out on the better end of it.”

United won its first two playoff games with shutout victories over New England and Philadelphia despite the absence of star defender Miles Robinson, who is out with a hamstring injury. Atlanta gained another home game in the conference final when top-seeded New York City FC was upset by Toronto.

Each victory takes de Boer a little farther from his embarrassing stint at Inter Milan, where he was sacked after less than three months. And that dismally short tenure at Crystal Palace, where he lasted just four Premier League games before getting a pink slip.

“After six months, you can normally see a little bit the hand of the manager, what he wants,” de Boer said. “I think if you’ve won two titles and are still involved for the most precious of titles, you can be satisfied.”

But, he quickly added, “I want to win everything.”

MLS Best XI includes three LAFC stars, Zlatan

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EDIT: The first edition of this post incorrectly listed Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro as a member of the Best XI. Carles Gil of New England claimed the spot.

Minnesota United’s remarkable turnaround landed two players on the MLS Best XI, one of three clubs to place multiple players in the Best XI.

LAFC led the way with three, while Atlanta United also posted two names on the board.

[ MORE: Dest a win for Berhalter ]

Toronto FC, New England, the LA Galaxy, and New York City FC were also represented

We tried our luck at it last month, and failed pretty miserably in landing six of the eleven.

But we got to speak to the Goalkeeper of the Year, so we’ll accept the silver lining.

2019 MLS Best XI

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone, Minnesota United

Defenders
Ike Opara, Minnesota United
Walker Zimmerman, LAFC
Miles Robinson, Atlanta United

Midfielders
Carles Gil, New England Revolution
Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC
Maxi Moralez, NYCFC
Eduard Atuesta, LAFC

Forwards
Carlos Vela, LAFC
Josef Martinez, Atlanta United
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy