12/16/16 Wow Seattle Wins 1st MLS Cup, Champ League Sweet 16 Set, Renaldo wins POY, Indy 11 NASL future still in doubt?

So first Wow Seattle – my Sounders Gang Green –finally win an MLS cup.  Two months ago they fired their coach Sigi Schmidt and lost US Superstar Clint Dempsey (heart issues) for the season.  They also picked up Nick Lodiero as a true #10 and the rest as they say is history.  After 120 minutes of  honestly being dominated by Toronto at home, 20 shots and 8 on goal to zero shots actually on goal – the Sounders won the game on the 6th shot in the shootout 5-4.  Disappointing to see the showcase the Superbowl of American soccer come down to a zero/zero tie and a shootout after 120 minutes of truly exhilarating soccer.  Altidore was just barely off target all night long as he man-handled the center of the Seattle defense but his shots and his amazing header at the 114 minute mark which was unbelievably saved by the Seattle keeper Stefan Friei (formerly a Toronto keeper) the SAVE OF THE YEAR in MLS were not able to find the back of the net.

The over capacity crowd of nearly 40,000 red clad and maybe 3K Seattle supporters in the upper corner provided a raucous atmosphere unlike few in US professional sports.  And Fox Network and Fox Sports 1 I thought did a fine job with pre-game, post game and in game Coverage.  I would have like to have seen more shots of Seattle’s Crowd – last year in Columbus the green of Portland on the endline was overwhelming and this year is seemed to disappear because of the camera angles simply not scrolling over the portion of the crown until the shootout.  Still overall I thought it was a well delivered final.  Honestly if there was a true soccer god – Toronto deserved to win it in OT on the Jozy Altidore header but soccer can be a cruel sport in that the better team doesn’t always win.  Still make no mistake that Toronto introduced itself as MLS Soccer Royalty this season and should be a force to deal with especially at the FORTRESS in Toronto for a long time to come.

As for Seattle what can you say but perseverance was the middle name of this team, and on this night – they found a way to win on the road after beating the West’ best team in Dallas and its 2nd best team in Colorado on their long quest to their first title.  Seattle has long been a bastion of soccer in America since joining the MLS 7??? years ago – and for some like me just the chance to watch the GREEN Masses on TV is enough to make me a fan.  But for Seattle to make the run this year – with so many things going wrong by mid-season was a bit of a miracle.

Congrats to Renaldo who rode the World Cup win and Champions League win with Real Madrid to win his 4th Ballon d’OR  – Player of the year edging out Messi and Greizmann of Atletico.  Renaldo and Real Madrid will go for their 2nd straight World Club Cup Trophy in 3 years as they face Japanese club  on Saturday morning at 5:30 am on Fox Sport 1.  That will be followed by Man City hosting Arsenal on NBCSN at 11.

Champions League ROUND OF 16 DRAW:

The first legs will take place on Feb. 14, 15, 21 and 22, and the second legs will take place on March 7, 8, 14 and 15.

Manchester City v Monaco
Real Madrid v Napoli
Benfica v Borussia Dortmund
Bayern Munich v Arsenal
Porto v Juventus
Bayer Leverkusen v Atletico Madrid
Paris Saint-Germain v Barcelona
Sevilla v Leicester City

A quick glance at the Champions League Sweet 16 gives us some Intriguing games as poor Arsenal gets the raw end of the draw with a match-up against German power Bayern Munich.  Man City seems to have an easier draw with Monaco and Leicester City gets one of the easier Spanish teams in Sevilla.  The other battle of huge teams features Barcelona vs PSG – though PSG is not the team they were over the past 2 years.  I want to take this time to wish everyone a safe and Happy Holiday’s and a Happy New Year !

MLS Cup

Seattle Win leaves both teams in disbelief ESPN FC McIntyre

Frei’s Transcendent Save Sparks Sounders to 1st MLS Cup Grant Wahl SI

Gritty Seattles Improbable Run – Graham Parker with hi-lites

Sounders Finally Make MLS Cup Breakthru – Jeff Carlisle ESPNFC

Win was unbelievable –Morris

Toronto vows to come back stronger next year – Graham Parker EPSN FC

Save of the Year in MLS – MLS Cup History

How Seattle and Toronto can avoid post MLS Cup Hangover – Arch Bell ESPNFC

Indy 11/NASL

The Game of Soccer in America – what about the American players?

What Does the Future hold for NASL and the Indy 11 – Indy Star

NASL Future and whats happening

Statement about 2017 season and NASL?

Vote best 11 Moments of 2016

Champions League

The Draw

Arsenal get Bayern Munich Screw

Real MAdrid Advances to World Club Cup

EPL + World

World Rankings

EPL Predictions

Loris Blunders cost Liverpool the Win again

Costa Strike keeps Chelsea on top

 

GAMES ON TV

 

Sat. Dec 17

7:30 am NBCNS            Crystal Palace vs Chelsea

9:30 am FS1                   Red Bull Leipzig vs Heatha BSC –

2:45 pm beIN Sport     Juventus vs Roma

Sun,  Dec 18

5:30 am Fox Sport 1 FIFA CLUB WORLD CUP – Real Madrid vs Club America  SET THOSE DVRs

11 am NBCSN                Man City vs Arsenal

Mon,  Dec 19

2:45 pm NbCSN           Everton vs Liverpool

Weds,  Dec 21

2 pm FS1                           Red Bull Leipzig vs Bayern Munich

Sat,  Dec 31

12:30 pm NbCSN        Liverpool vs Man City

Weds,  Jan 4

2:45 pm NbCSN           Tottenham vs Chelsea

Rumors swirl as future of NASL, Indy Eleven remains unclear

Matthew Glenesk , matthew.glenesk@indystar.com6:54 p.m. EST December 15, 2016

It’s been more than a week since the United States Soccer Federation postponed its sanctioning announcement regarding the North American Soccer League – home to the Indy Eleven – and the United Soccer League.On Dec. 6, the USSF said it was delaying its decision seven to 10 days. Friday is Day No. 10. So where do things stand?Well, that’s a question with no clearer answer than a week ago.NASL, which has lost three teams this offseason, is tenuously holding onto its second-division status. USL, which continues to grow and has the backing of Major League Soccer, lies in the third-tier of U.S. Soccer with hopes of moving up to Division 2. However, both leagues would need concessions from USSF to satisfy Division 2 requirements.Reports Thursday from Empire of Soccer and Big Apple Soccer cited sources claiming the NASL plans to stave off dissolution and will compete in 2017 with eight to 10 teams.”That is the goal,” the source told Michael Lewis of Big Apple Soccer. “Not every ‘I’ is dotted or T’ is crossed.”Which teams would make up that eight to 10 club projection is unclear.

  • Defending league champions New York Cosmos disputed reports the team had folded despite canceling all player contracts and furloughing front office staff.]

The Carolina RailHawks franchise rebranded last week as North Carolina FC, eyeing a future bid at MLS expansion, but didn’t commit to either the USL or NASL in its announcement.

ll this club turmoil doesn’t paint an optimistic picture for the future of the NASL.Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien told The Guardian this week that playing in a league with fewer than eight teams is not an option for them.“There are a number of folks with the NASL, many of my colleagues there that believe in the future. It’s not that we don’t believe in the future of the league – it’s just that we can’t play in a seven-team league,” O’Brien told The Guardian. “As a business, you’ve got to react to that. And that is what we have done. We are trying to tidy everything up as professionally as we can in the interim and look for how to move forward, that’s what we are here to do.”Puerto Rico FC president Thomas Payne echoed those sentiments to Nipun Chopra, an Indy-based soccer blogger, and cited a potential USL-NASL merger as a potential option.“A league with only 5 to 6 teams is not competitive and not meaningful, and ultimately not something we’re interested in,” Payne told Chopra. “This is why we hope this merger will happen, or we’ll continue to explore our other options.”A merger between the two leagues was shot down at a board of governors meeting earlier this month, according to Sports Illustrated.So where does that leave Indy Eleven?A report by Sports Illustrated last week suggested Indy Eleven were one of three NASL teams ready to leave for the USL.After last week’s USSF announcement to postpone its NASL/USL decision, Indy Eleven released a statement which didn’t mention either league.“To our fans & partners. We cannot thank you enough for your incredible patience as these unique circumstances continue to be resolved. Know that Indy Eleven continues to plan ahead for the 2017 season at Carroll Stadium and that we provide updates as possible.”Part of the holdup could be the potential negotiations of exit fees for clubs leaving the NASL. FiftyFive.One delved deeper into that aspect Thursday. Wes Burdine of FiftyFive.one writes:”The current stalemate is a high-stakes soccer version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Each club that is currently viable needs to have a league to play in for the 2017 season. However, to discourage defection, the NASL made the cost of leaving its league very high under normal circumstances. And that creates a strong financial incentive to stay as long as possible before jumping ship. Leave the NASL too early and risk paying millions in exit fees. Jump too late and a club may find itself without a league to play in, suspending play for its first team for an entire season (at best).”The NASL operates in near secrecy, so gathering information on particulars is hard to come by. FiftyFive.One got its hands on 2014 league paperwork, and while things may have changed since then, if the 2014 bylaws are taken into account, the two most recent defections (Ottawa and Tampa Bay to the USL), would have been required to pay $1.5 million each, according to FiftyFive.One.”The remainder of clubs, assuming they decide before December 15, would have to pay out $2 million each, unless the league drops below seven teams, at which point a club would only have to pay $25,000 to exit.”So what’s happening with the NASL?Like we said earlier, that’s a question with no clearer answer than a week ago.Stay tuned. From Indy Star

Seattle’s MLS Cup triumph leaves Toronto and the Sounders in disbelief

TORONTO — As one would expect, the scene in the Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders locker rooms couldn’t have been more different after the Sounders beat TFC 5-4 on penalty kicks to win MLS Cup on Saturday night after 120 scoreless minutes.Champagne flowed on the victors’ side. Tears did on the other. Despite the contrast in emotions, the one feeling players on both teams seemed to share was disbelief.After all, the hosts had the better of the play all night long. They managed 19 shots in all, seven of them on goal, while Seattle became the first squad in 21 MLS Cups not to put a single attempt on target. Yet when it was over, it was the Reds left wondering how they had been beaten in this typically chippy title decider. Meanwhile, the Sounders were almost sheepish about the good fortune that landed them their first championship. They knew they stole this one, not that they really cared.”It can be a cruel game sometimes,” Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley, one of two TFC players to have his penalty saved by match MVP Stefan Frei in the tiebreaker, said afterward. “The margins are so small. We were strong and brave and went after the game in a hard way, from the first minute to the 120th. On a different night, if you get a goal — if you get the first one — you probably get a few more. But that’s the game. That’s how it goes.”The home side could have gone ahead just two minutes into the contest, when Jozy Altidore whistled a low shot just wide of Frei’s net after a neat combination with Sebastian Giovinco. The Reds absolutely should have scored in the first extra-time session, but Frei magically parried Altidore’s looping header around the post.”That save was darn near impossible, and he pulled it off,” said Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, a onetime MLS keeper.”It looked like it was going to go in, and then all of a sudden here comes his paw,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer added in his post-match news conference. “I think we were fortunate to get the game to penalty kicks.”No doubt. And as Altidore pointed out, “it’s a game of luck at that point.”Even Frei, who spent five seasons with TFC before being traded to Seattle three years ago, admitted that the outcome was harsh on his former club.”I have to say I’m not a big fan of PKs,” Frei said. “I guess somehow you have to decide the game, but for me football is a team sport. That’s the beauty of it. It sucks that it has to come down to an individual.”This isn’t to say the Sounders don’t deserve credit for their win. They were able to limit TFC, which had scored a gaudy 17 goals in five playoff games to reach the final, mostly to half-chances in front of an overflow crowd of 36,045 at frigid BMO Field, putting them in position to take the honors.”They always had numbers around the goal and around the box when we got into those areas,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. “We just couldn’t get that final pass to someone who could finish it. A game like that needs a goal sometimes to loosen up one of the teams defensively. The longer the game went on, the harder they were protecting their goal.”They came into a tough place and held strong and came away with the win. Congratulations to them for doing so.”It always takes at least a little luck to hoist a trophy, though. And for whatever reason, all of it seemed to be on the visitors’ side on this night, from Frei’s save to the spot kicks that were missed by Bradley — who was flawless the rest of the way — and defender Justin Morrow and even to the winning kick by Sounders defender Roman Torres, who had failed to convert a penalty in practice the day before. “I’m glad he missed that one and not the one today,” Frei said.”I thought they dominated us, to be honest,” said Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan, who absentmindedly wrung out a champagne-soaked Sounders scarf as he spoke to reporters, smiling faces all around him.Down the hall in TFC’s dead-silent space, Toronto native Jonathan Osorio, his eyes still red from crying, struggled to compose himself as he fielded questions.”We controlled the whole game,” he said, his voice breaking. “You lose on penalties in a game where the other team didn’t have a shot on goal. What can you say?”Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN. 

Stefan Frei’s transcendent save sparks Seattle Sounders to first MLS Cup

QUICKLY-In an instant, MLS Cup turned on its head, when Jozy Altidore’s looping header that was earmarked for the upper right-hand corner of the goal was swatted by a soaring Stefan Frei.

GRANT WAHLSunday December 11th, 2016

TORONTO — Here’s one great thing about sports—and, especially, about soccer. You can slog through a night of mostly nothing, of missed chances and utterly unmemorable exchanges, and then out of nowhere comes a moment so transcendent that you know it’ll be seared into your cortex for as long as you roam this earth.That’s what happened on Saturday here in the 2016 MLS Cup final. Seattle and Toronto played a tense but unfulfilling game, the kind where even neutrals shake their heads and wonder when it’s going to get good. At one point toward the end of regulation, before the penalty kicks, Seattle star Clint Dempsey (out due to a heart condition) informed coach Brian Schmetzer on the bench that the Sounders didn’t have a single shot on goal.He was right. It was a record low for an MLS final.But then in extra time of a 0-0 game, something truly magical happened, the kind of moment that can redeem an otherwise stultifying night. Toronto’s Jozy Altidore received a cross and unspooled a looping header back across the Seattle goal. It looked certain to be the goal that would put Toronto ahead in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 36,000 mostly TFC fans.Time froze.So did the feet of Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. He had already moved from the near-post to the center of the goal with the flight of the cross, and now Altidore, who had scored in a record five straight playoff games, was heading the ball back across the area from where he had just come.If you stop the video and look at the expression on Frei’s face, there’s a moment when something fires in his brain and you can see a look of engagement take hold. It’s a completely different expression than the one Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had recently when teammate Gary Cahill sent an own-goal looping past him. Courtois’s gaze was one of despair. Frei’s was one of possibility.As the ball that would determine the fate of the 21st MLS Cup final hung in the air, Frei exploded back to his left, took leave of his feet and stretched with the grace and determination of a soccer Nureyev. Somehow he thrust his left hand behind him and to the ball, parrying it wide of the goal.“Well done by Jozy trying to go against the side where I’m coming from—it’s probably exactly how you want to hit that one,” Frei said. “Sometimes as a goalkeeper you feel like you’re not going to get to a ball, but you never know until you try. I tried to keep my feet moving and give it my best shot.”From his vantage point on the sideline, Toronto coach Greg Vanney saw Altidore hit the ball and thought it was heading for the back of the goal.“I thought the ball had eyes for that corner it was heading toward,” Vanney said, “and I thought [Frei] was maybe caught a little bit in the middle of the goal and wasn’t going to get there.“But just because it was kind of looping and it didn’t have a lot of gas behind it, it just gave him enough time to set his feet and get back across the goal. It seemed like he almost pulled it out from behind him in some ways. It was one of the great saves I’ve seen in a big moment. Because that goal to me ends the game.” Seattle’s Jordan Morris was nearly speechless about it afterward. “An unbelievable save,” he said.How often does Frei find himself reaching behind himself to make a save?“Usually something will have broken down for you to do that,” he explained. “But sometimes it’s just ‘throw technique out the window’ and just try to make the save.”Frei would use his same left paw to make a save on Michael Bradley’s attempt in the penalty-kick shootout, the one that finished in the sixth round with Justin Morrow’s kick off the crossbar and Román Torres’s confident trophy-winning clincher for Seattle.nd so the Sounders won a final without having a single shot on goal. But that hardly means they didn’t earn it. Frei allowed this to happen with that save in extra time. And to hear him tell it, that defining moment came down not just to a man straining to make the save. It came down to all the practices and all the games since Frei came to Seattle, after two years of injuries and coaches’ choices had led Toronto, of all teams, to trade him away three years to the day before Saturday’s final.Frei thanked not just his goalkeepers coach, Tom Dutra, but also his Seattle goalkeeper backups, Charlie Lyon and Tyler Miller, and the Seattle organization for “their simple belief in me to give me a chance in Seattle. At that point I had been on the bench or rehabbing for two years. So for them to take a chance and then go through growing pains but keep on reassuring me that ‘you’re the man, we’ve got your back, we believe in you,’ it allowed my confidence to come back.”“You need people around you to believe in you so that you believe in yourself.”That belief paid off in extra time here, when Frei made the greatest high-stakes save in MLS history.

Toronto FC heartbroken but resolved to rebound, fight for MLS Cup in 2017

TORONTO, Canada — The pain on the faces of Toronto FC’s players was palpable. How could it not be after the most crushing of losses, 5-4 on penalty kicks to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday after a scoreless MLS Cup final that really shouldn’t have been?The Reds had their chances to go ahead in the match both early and late and send a record BMO Field crowd of more than 36,000 long-suffering fans into the frigid night air celebrating the championship season they’d been dreaming about since they arrived in the league a decade ago.They couldn’t do it.”Some days a team can dominate all they want and the ball just won’t go in the net,” red-eyed Reds midfielder and Toronto native Jonathan Osorio told reporters afterward. “It wasn’t meant to be for us this year.”On another night, TFC forward Jozy Altidore might have been holding the Cup and MVP trophies when it was over. But he flashed a shot wide in the opening moments and was denied by Sounders keeper Stefan Frei’s ungodly save in the first extra time period; Frei ended up taking home the hardware instead. And when the contest went to the tiebreaker, there was a sense in the stadium — and on the sideline — that the Reds had squandered a golden opportunity.”In all honesty, when it comes down to penalty kicks, I was a little bit numb,” coach Greg Vanney said during his post-match news conference. “By that time, the game was gone in a sense. I was in a position where I was disappointed with penalty kicks.”Such a hard-fought season and this game in particular, and for it to end in penalty kicks, it’s just not the way you want to finish a game like that.”Whenever the suffering eventually wears off, though — and whenever big-spending TFC inevitably does take a title — 2016 will be looked back upon as the season when the league’s most historically hard-luck club finally turned its fortunes around.”There are a lot of lessons to take away from this run that I think will only make us better going into next year and stronger as a group as we try to get back to this and come away winners,” Vanney said.Sometimes teams have to lose to win. It took seven consecutive postseason failures for the Sounders to reach the summit. Toronto used the embarrassment of being routed by rival Montreal in the club’s first playoff game in 2015 to help it get to this year’s title match, beating the Impact along the way. Getting this close to glory cuts so deep; the idea for the hosts is that they will redouble their efforts in an attempt to avoid ever feeling that way again.That was the message in TFC’s dressing room, and it wasn’t just lip service.”This one is going to sting for a little while, there’s no two ways about it,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said. “Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.”But ultimately, the hope is that at some point when you can start to process it all, that both individually and collectively we’re able to use this as even more fuel for what we’re trying to do. That we use it to make us even more determined and make sure that the group is able to use this. Not only are we coming back to this point, but when we do get back to this point we’re better for it and we’re ready to take the next step.”

Stefan Frei came up with the biggest save of MLS Cup, batting away Jozy Altidore’s looping headed effort.

There’s no reason in the world the Reds can’t do it. Toronto’s three designated players, Altidore, Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco, are all still on the right side of 30. A revamped defense that posted three shutouts in six postseason games (including on Saturday) will have an extra year of experience together. Vanney, whose cool demeanor and tactical acumen impressed greatly during this run, will be an even better coach. The Reds have gone from being the most dysfunctional organization in MLS to enjoying one of their best runs over the past three seasons.This is not the same old TFC, even if the heartbreaking ending is a familiar feeling for its supporters. The Reds will be back.”I’m proud of the team, I’m proud of the organization,” Altidore said. “The whole city was behind us and you kind of feel like we let them down, but I don’t think we did. I think we showed them what this could be.”There’s a long period now to reflect, refuel and try to get back at it again. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but at the end of the day, we’ve made a lot of steps forward as a club.”Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN T

MLS Cup win against Toronto helps validate staying with Seattle – Morris

Jordan Morris called his Seattle Sounder team’s penalty-kick shootout win in the MLS Cup final against Toronto FC “unbelievable,” adding that he was thrilled to have stayed with his hometown club instead of making a move to Europe after graduating from Stanford.Morris, 22, was a homegrown player for the Sounders, but had trained with Bundesliga club Werder Bremen after winning the national championship in college and ultimately chose to play in MLS.Although he and his Seattle teammates were largely held in check during 120 minutes of regular and extra time against Toronto, the team prevailed 5-4 in the shootout, making for a dream ending for the player whose father is the Sounders’ team doctor.Morris said after the match: “It’s been an unbelievable year with a lot of ups and downs, but those two championships are something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. It’s been amazing. “I love it here [in Seattle]. I love being able to play for my city and represent my city and play for the best fans in the league and play in front of my family. It’s been an absolutely unbelievable year and this just kind of caps it off. “It was a very tough game, it was cold, this is a tough environment to come into, and all credit to Toronto, they are a very, very good team and they made it really difficult for us.”But the thing about this team is we are a team and we always fight. Everyone is fighting until the last minute and at the end we were probably playing for PKs a little bit and thought we could win that way, which we ended up doing.”Seattle didn’t register a shot on goal during the match, but were kept in it by finals MVP Stefan Frei, who saved a sure Jozy Altidore goal in extra time and made a save on Michael Bradley’s PK attempt to help set up the win for the Sounders.Frei was equally ecstatic following the match, crediting his teammates for not giving up even when they were out of playoff contention as the MLS regular season entered its final weeks.”It’s just about not quitting, you know,” Frei said. “We put so much hard work into this. It’s a credit to our keeper coach and my fellow keepers, we push so hard on a daily basis and I think that save [on Altidore] was a culmination of that.The former Toronto FC keeper went through some hard times during his spell in Canada, but admitted that those hard times helped get him to the position he is in today.”It was amazing. I think success feels like success when you go through hard times and hardship,” Frei said. “I’ve always been fortunate to have good people around me and help me out and help me bounce back and they’ve got me into this situation today and we wanted to make the best of it and I think we did make the best of it and we’ll celebrate that.”As an athlete I think confidence is everything and once we strung a couple of results together, I think that confidence started picking up. We made an incredible achievement just making it into the playoffs, but we didn’t want to stop there we wanted to make history. “[Penalty kicks] are such a brutal thing you know. I love football for it being a team sport, but it’s gotta come down to something right? Roman [Torres] on the night. A big center-back to step up and be calm cool and collected and the rest is history.”Follow @ESPNFC on Twitt

How Seattle and Toronto can avoid a post-MLS Cup hangovers in 2017

MLS Cup 2016 is done and dusted, and now thoughts turn to 2017. Champions Seattle Sounders and runners-up Toronto FC will be keen to not suffer the post-MLS Cup blues that afflicted 2015 finalists Columbus and Portland in 2016. But how? Injuries are a given; every MLS team will see players miss time in the treatment room. But there are various other factors at play. Here are three steps that the Sounders and TFC can take to avoid a post-cup slump.

  1. Address roster needs ASAP

The large majority of MLS teams have had nearly a six-week advantage over Seattle and Toronto when it comes to offseason planning, so both clubs need to work quickly to get their rosters firmed up for 2017 and try to avoid mistakes, such as the ones made by Portland last winter. The Timbers never recovered from the departures of left-back Jorge Villafana and winger Rodney Wallace. Their replacements, Chris Klute and Lucas Melano, respectively, failed to meet expectations, and a team that only conceded 39 goals in 2015 ended up coughing up 48 in 2016.For Seattle, adding depth up front will be a must. The status of Clint Dempsey’s heart ailment is still uncertain, and there is a good chance that Nelson Valdez leaves the club. The Sounders could also use some help on the wings, so that area of the pitch will have to be a priority of general manager Garth Lagerway.Some depth in defense would be wise too. After struggling for most of the season, Tyrone Mears did well down the stretch and in the playoffs. But he’s 33 years old, so Seattle should look to shore up the right-back position.Making sure Armando Cooper returns in 2017 needs to be one of the main priorities for Toronto FC. The Panamanian midfielder arrived over the summer on loan from Arabe Unido and extending that loan or perhaps an outright purchase would make sense. Cooper is so effective in Greg Vanney’s 3-5-2 and is just the type of player whose play can make the difference between a loss and a draw on the road. Should free agent Will Johnson also depart, bringing in some more experience in midfield would be wise.Like Seattle, defensive depth would help Toronto stave off any dips in 2017. Drew Moor was terrific in 2016 playing in the middle of a three-man back line, but he’ll be 33 when the season starts. A sturdy, versatile backup for Moor would be welcomed.

  1. Limit the road woes

Out of the 34 away matches played this season by Portland and Columbus, the two teams combined for a paltry two wins, and both of those by the Crew. After a 2015 season in which they earned 23 points away from Providence Park, Portland mustered a mere six points in 2016. Columbus was not much better; 22 points in 2015 turned into 10 points in 2016.In 2016, Toronto matched Portland’s 23-point road haul, while Seattle’s late charge saw them conclude the regular season with 16 points. Keep in mind that a single road win for Portland would have made all the difference in making the playoffs, as opposed to becoming the first MLS Cup champion to miss the next postseason since 2006.

  1. Spare us the drama

Outside of injuries, there is nothing that can throw a team off course more than bad chemistry and off-field issues, and Columbus and Portland had their healthy share of it in 2016. The Crew’s 2016 will largely be remembered for the bizarre dust-up between Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain back in May. Two players who were so integral to Columbus’ 2015 run suddenly could no longer co-exist, and days later the joint-top scorer in MLS for 2015, Kamara, was shipped to New England. There’s no question that impacted Columbus’ season.There were extracurricular headaches in Portland too, namely with the drunken driving arrests of Liam Ridgewell and Jake Gleeson in October, which wrapped up the Timbers’ disappointing season.Toronto remained a steady, drama-free bunch in 2016 thanks in large part to hard-working veterans like Michael Bradley, Moor and Johnson. However, if a European club swoops in and tries to pluck Bradley away, there would be a leadership vacuum in the TFC locker room.Seattle’s chemistry really came alive in their late-season charge, with the dance-loving Roman Torres leading the way after his return from injury. Will we see the same post-match boogie in 2017 now that they are champions? Or will the hunger and music fade together? Maintaining that cohesion stands to be Brian Schmetzer’s biggest challenge in his first full year as coach.Arch Bell covers CONCACAF 

UCL draw delivers big games like Bayern vs. Arsenal and lots of pressure

Take a deep breath and remind yourself: We have nine weeks, one transfer window and a whole load of holidays to run between now and the moment the Champions League anthem rings out and these teams actually stride on the pitch for the Round of 16.The landscape could be a whole lot different, for better and for worse. That said, neutral viewers got served up the two blockbuster clashes they — and broadcasters, sponsors or anyone who likes to see a potential winner out early — wanted.Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona pits two juggernauts in a high-stakes collision. Unai Emery may be a knockout competition specialist but PSG are adding up to less than the sum of their parts right now. Success in the Champions League (and knocking out Barcelona) may be his best shot at a lifeline. Equally though, Luis Enrique may have a lot more credit stored up, but his deeper squad and domestic rotation has drawn criticism. With Barcelona already six points off the pace in La Liga, an early exit might prompt some at the Camp Nou to reconsider the way forward.The pressure extends to Bayern and Arsenal, too, albeit in different ways. For Arsenal, it’s five straight seasons of Round of 16 exits and there’s obviously a cruel irony that after finally winning their group, they get stuck with the Bavarians. The Gunners’ European record hasn’t impacted Arsene Wenger’s job security and that likely won’t change here, but he knows the clock is ticking and he won’t have too many more shots at the big one.Over at Bayern, Carlo Ancelotti knows his job is probably safe — the Bavarians tend not to be trigger-happy — but having overcome a slow domestic start, he knows a misstep here won’t help his transition out of the Pep Guardiola Era, particularly given his reputation as a Champions League specialist.Speaking of Guardiola, on paper Monaco is a wonderful draw for his Manchester City side after conceding four goals in their last league game. More than most, though, he ought to be aware that Leo Jardim’s uber-tactical counterattacking style is precisely what has outdone City in recent weeks. He needs to find countermeasures.Rational observers know better than to ascribe too much importance to a knockout competition like this one but then owners, fans and media are often not overly rational. And there is little question that Champions League success can provide a lifeline; it would be somewhat ironic for Guardiola given his three years in Munich when he dominated domestically but missed out in Europe.In many ways, that will be the theme for Roger Schmidt and Diego Simeone when Bayer Leverkusen face Atletico Madrid. Both (particularly Simeone) have a strong enough legacy at their respective clubs that failure here won’t bring the sack. But it’s the converse that applies: with hiccuping starts domestically, a run in the “big cup” could turn a mediocre campaign into a success.Nuno Espirito Santo at Porto also had a star-crossed start to the season. He too will be judged more on domestic matters (his team are currently four points behind leaders Benfica) but tripping up Juventus would give him some serious sporting capital. It would also be hugely disappointing for Max Allegri in his third season in charge. Indeed, given the enormous investment on veterans in the summer and the club’s belief that they need to take advantage of this window of opportunity, a false step at this stage could be costly come the end of the season.So are there also managers who can relax a little bit, knowing the pressure is off?Sure. Claudio Ranieri for one. Leicester City have made history getting this far, just as they did winning the Premier League last year. His reckoning, if it comes, will be on the home front. Given the circumstances (lack of serious summer spending, his first season in Europe), his opponent Jorge Sampaoli could chill a little bit knowing the benchmark for Sevilla this season is La Liga, where they’re doing well. (That said, anyone who has seen him prowling the touchline knows all too well the man doesn’t really relax, ever.)Benfica coach Rui Vitoria, too, is in as solid position. He won the league and reached the CL quarterfinal last season, he’s top this season and facing a Borussia Dortmund side that blow hot and cold under Thomas Tuchel. Dortmund’s youth and frenetic style of play make them one of the more unpredictable sides (for better and for worse) in Europe and Tuchel, in his all-important second season at the Westfalen, knows he needs to find some consistency. There is little question that the screws are wound tighter on him than on his counterpart.Finally, there’s Napoli and Real Madrid and here, Napoli and coach Maurizio Sarri has little to lose. They won their group and the draw was cruel to them; all they can do is pit their wits against the defending champions and hope the Bernabeu alumni (Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol) extract a modicum of revenge. Heck, you wonder if Sarri will call upon his predecessor, Rafa Benitez, for some intel and whether Rafa will want to share some pointers given that this time last year, he was on the hot seat at Real.Speaking of which, Zinedine Zidane is obviously under pressure like every Madrid boss before him. But given their lead in La Liga, the 35-game unbeaten run, the fact that he won it last year and that he’s Florentino Perez’s hand-picked choice, you figure it’s not quite ratcheted up to 11 as it might have been with some of those who came before him.Managers come and go based on what happens in Europe. It shouldn’t be that way, not to this degree at least, but it often is. That’s why the stakes are so high for so many. But as we said at the top: Two months can be an eternity. And it can all look so different come early February.Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti. 

Chelsea stil No. 1 in Power Rankings, Real Madrid No. 2, Juventus No. 3

  1. Chelsea(no change)

To win a league title, sometimes you have to nick a result when not at your best. Chelsea did that twice last week, first against West Brom and then at Sunderland. Back-to-back 1-0 victories mean Antonio Conte’s men have won 10 straight league games.

  1. Real Madrid(no change)

Real Madrid refuse to lose these days as Zinedine Zidane’s side extended their unbeaten run to 36 games with a last-gasp win over Deportivo and then handling Club America 2-0 in the Club World Cup on Thursday morning. What’s truly remarkable about their form is how they find different ways to win: Sergio Ramos’ injury time header secured the victory on Sunday while Cristiano Ronaldo turned in a superb 90 minutes against the Liga MX side in midweek. Ignore them at your peril.

  1. Juventus(no change)

When Torino opened the scoring on derby day, it looked like Juventus might lose for the second time in three league games. However, Gonzalo Higuain picked a good time to end a Serie A goalless run dating back to October by scoring twice in an eventual 3-1 win.

  1. Barcelona(+1)

After three straight league draws, Barca needed a boost, and a trip to bottom-of-the-table Osasuna provided just that, though it took almost an hour to break through. In the end, Luis Enrique’s side cruised to a 3-0 win with Lionel Messi scoring twice.

  1. Roma(+1)

In the battle of second and third in Serie A, Roma prevailed 1-0 against Milan. The win was built on a fine goalkeeping display by Wojciech Szczesny, who saved a penalty to set the stage for Radja Nainggolan’s winning goal. Next up for Roma? Juventus.

  1. Bayern Munich(+1)

Since a blip at the start of November, when they took one point from two games, Bayern have reeled off three straight wins. The latest, which when combined with a Leipzig loss took them back to the top of the Bundesliga, was an emphatic 5-0 triumph vs. Wolfsburg.

  1. Nice(+2)

Nice were knocked out of the French Cup midweek vs. Bordeaux but not to bother: After all, it just means that Lucien Favre’s league leaders can concentrate on securing what would be a miraculous Ligue 1 title. Last weekend, Les Aiglons swooped into the Parc des Princes and took a 2-0 lead over Paris Saint-Germain. Though Unai Emery’s side eventually rallied for a 2-2 draw, the result was yet more proof at how this team can more than handle their own in French football this season.

  1. Benfica(new)

The best team in Portugal continue to stay out in front of the competition, beating their nearest rivals Sporting CP 2-1 in last weekend’s derby. Goals by Eduardo Salvio and Raul Jimenez secured all three points. Rui Vitoria’s side are four points clear atop the table as the season approaches the halfway point.

  1. RB Leipzig(-5)

The surprise Bundesliga leaders suffered their first defeat of the season — an equally surprising 1-0 reverse at relegation-threatened Ingolstadt. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side are now second, but they retain a healthy six-point advantage over third-placed Hertha Berlin.

  1. Sevilla(new)

Jorge Sampaoli’s first European management job couldn’t be going better as Sevilla continue to flourish under his intense tutelage. Sitting comfortably in third place just a point behind Barca, they got back to winning ways last weekend with a 3-0 win at Celta Vigo, with Vicente Iborra coming off the bench to score an improbable hat trick. This team is still a work in progress, but it’s safe to say they’re ahead of schedule.Dropping out: Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan

Los Blancos arrived to Yokohama on Sunday, where they’ll try to win their second Club World Cup trophy in three years.

Zidane’s “brutal truth” policy had the French manager admitting an unconvenient fact: he is rather unfamiliar with their Club World Cup opponents next Thursday.  Back-to-back CONCACAF Champions, Club América, will be the team Los Blancos will battle against in order to reach a spot in the tournament’s final. As uncomfortable as it may seem, Zidane revealed he’s had barely a glimpse of the Mexican club’s tactics prior to Thursday’s game.”I watched their games along with my staff. I saw their game against the Korean side, a Derby they played recently and one more Cup match and that’s it. Honestly, I knew nothing about them until a few weeks ago. We have to sit down, analyze them and decide how we’ll play against them,” Zidane stated.Club América is the most-winning team in Mexico. Las Águilas (The Eagles) have won 12 league titles in their 100-year history, and they have already sealed their spot in the Apertura 2016 final, but had to postpone that matchup to play in the Club World Cup. The Mexican side has racked up 16 straight games without a loss, all of them under current coach Ricardo La Volpe, who took the job back in September as Ignacio Ambriz’s replacement.Speaking about the competition’s format, Zidane revealed that Los Blancos will have to deal with a number of issues if they want to add one more trophy, especially due to jet lag and other reasons.”This tournament is different from the one I played. Added to that, we’re a bit tired after the long flight here. We followed the advice of experts that prepared this trip, but to be honest with you, I’m really tired,” Zidane added.

HEATH, NAMED 2016 U.S. SOCCER FEMALE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

tobin-poy-heath-winnerDec 13, 2016

CHICAGO (Dec. 13, 2016) – Tobin Heath and Ashley Sanchez have been voted the 2016 U.S. Soccer Female and Young Female Player of the Year, respectively.Heath, who has long been a fan favorite for her entertaining style of play and dynamic work with the ball, wins the award for the first time in her ninth year with the U.S. Women’s National Team. She won after earning 40 percent of the vote. Crystal Dunn came in second with 34 percent.

“It’s obviously an honor to win an award like this, especially when you look at the list of amazing players who have won it before,” Heath said. “This year was a difficult one for our team, but overall we played some great soccer so it’s humbling to be recognized individually. I’m just proud to be in the company of all the great players that were nominated and all of the players that played for the USA this year. I couldn’t have accomplished anything without the support of my teammates and my coaches, and while it was a fun year for me personally, I’m excited not only about my own future, but also the future of this team as I know we have a lot more room to grow and many more goals to achieve.”

This year saw the 28-year-old Basking Ridge, N.J. native elevate her game to an even higher level. Heath played in 22 games, scoring six goals while recording eight assists tying for second-most on the team with Dunn. Both numbers were career bests for Heath, who this year competed in her fifth world championship for the USA. She played 1,747 minutes in 2016, good for second-best on the team.

Heath was one of the USA’s best players at the 2016 Olympic Games where she recorded two assists. In her fourth season playing for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns FC, Heath finished the year with 10 assists – a new league record – in only 14 appearances for the club – while helping PTFC to the regular season title. She was named to the NWSL Best XI.

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