Shipped from abroad, England: Blackburn visited by the ghost of chaos’ past

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In a season that will end with a new club winning the title (this has only happen five times in 20 seasons), one of the Premier League’s few previous winners will go down. Not that this hasn’t happened before. None of Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea have sniffed relegation since finishing atop Sky’s league, but Blackburn Rovers? They’ll be making their second trip to the Championship since Jack Walker bought the title in 1995.

(Don’t take offense, Blackburn fans. All titles are bought.)

That fate was confirmed on Monday. Perhaps you heard about it? The match with the chicken? Well, like all matches, it also ended with a final score: 1-0 in favor of visiting Wigan, with Paraguayan international Antolín Alcaraz’s 87th minute winner helping Blackburn fill the Premier League’s quota of sending one chaotic mess back into the Football League.

Three years ago, that mess was Newcastle. The club’s season was sent spinning early when manager Kevin Keegan walked away amidst disagreements with then-maligned owner Mike Ashley. By season’s end, Match of the Day face Alan Shearer (also a wildly prolific scorer with Newcastle) was brought in to keep the Toon up, only he couldn’t guide the club to a final day win at home over Aston Villa, a side whose season had long since been decided.

Two years ago, Portsmouth adopted an involuntary ownership rotation scheme, apparently intent on testing the bounds of fit and proper personhood. By March they were on their fifth owner, had been docked nine points, and were relying on Avram Grant to save them (fact: nothing says chaotic ownership like Avram Grant). Two years later, the club’s been relegated to the third tier, a 10-point deduction dropping them from 18th to 22nd in the Championship. But at least the doors are still open.

Last year, West Ham started the season by looking at Pompey’s problems and demanding “get us the man who orchestrated that.” Grant was brought in and didn’t disappoint. The Hammers finished dead last despite an array of enviable talents (by relegation standards): Scott Parker, Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Mark Noble, Carlton Cole, Victor Obinna, Wayne Bridge, Tomas Hitzlsperger, Demba Ba, Pablo Barrera amongst them. They were no match for the power of Avram, nor the powers of Davids Gold and Sullivan, a duo that had previous guided Birmingham City into the Championship.

Blackburn is the latest club to fall beneath the scythe of ownership chaos. Last year, Venky’s Limited Group (best known for interests in poultry, hence the chicken) bought the team at the behest of agent Jerome Anderson. Quickly, it became known that Swiss sports agency Kentaro (affiliated with Anderson) where the brains behind the Venky’s soccer operation. Manager Sam Allardyce was let go, presumably for stylistic reasons, yet ownership never replaced interim manager Steve Kean, who proved willing to accept the Kentaro-introduced policies. One year later, downtrodden Rovers supporters are releasing live chickens during matches.

Looking to next season, which club could become the Premier League’s annual inane ownership offering? There aren’t any obvious candidates, but you can’t sleep on a club that made the brilliant decision to hire the manager of a recently-relegated arch rival. That’s what Aston Villa did at this season’s onset. Now, two years after a string of three consecutive sixth place finishes, Villa could finish 17th. It’s difficult to see next year being better if Alex McLeish is still in charge.

This season, Blackburn predictably filled the chaos quota. Hopefully next year will see 20 ownership groups appropriately value their club’s place in the first division.

Elsewhere in England

Saturday’s results
Arsenal 3-3 Norwich City

Sunday’s results
Newcastle 0-2 Manchester City
Aston Villa 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Bolton Wanderers 2-2 West Bromwich Albion
Fulham 2-1 Sunderland
Queens Park Rangers 1-0 Stoke City
Wolverhampton 0-0 Everton
Manchester United 2-0 Swansea City

Monday’s results
Blackburn Rovers 0-1 Wigan Athletic

Races

Champions League: Manchester City (86 points/37 games), Manchester United (86/36), Arsenal (67/37), Tottenham (66/36)*

Europa League: Newcastle (65/37) (Liverpool has already qualified by virtue of winning the League Cup; Chelsea has qualified by virtue of winning the FA Cup)

Survival (relegation): Aston Villa (38/37), Queens Park Rangers (37/37) Bolton (35/37) (Blackburn and Wolverhampton have already had relegation confirmed)

* – if Chelsea wins Champions League, they take Spurs’ spot in the 2012-13 tournament, relegating Tottenham to Europa.

Stuff that stuck out:

  • Steve touched on it on Saturday, but with Sunday’s results, Arsenal got a bit of an undeserved reprieve. Tottenham dominated Aston Villa but couldn’t get more than a point, leaving the Gunners in control of their own destiny ahead of a final round visit to The Hawthornes. That match is far from a foregone conclusion. Arsenal’s winless in four, and if they can stumble at home to Norwich, they certainly can be had in Roy Hodgson’s last match with West Brom.
  • Robin van Persie scored twice on Saturday, giving him a four-goal lead atop the league’s scoring charts after Wayne Rooney failed to find the net against Swansea.
  • Speaking of scoring charts, Clint Dempsey’s goal against Sunderland (a team that checked out when they were eliminated from the FA Cup) leaves him alone in fourth place amongst Premier League goal scorers. He’s the only player amongst the chart’s top nine whose total hasn’t been bolstered by a penalty kick.
  • Despite their loss to Manchester City, Newcastle can still qualify for Champions League, though they will have to win at Everton. Should they do so, they finish top four with as little as a +8 goal difference. It’s been seven years since a club finished as high was a worse ratio, Everton remarkably claiming fourth in 2004-05 with a -1.
  • It’s the least Djibril could have done. Since arriving from Lazio in the winter window, QPR’s Djibril Cisse has seen red twice. On Sunday, he may have reclaimed the points he’s cost Rangers, his 89th minute winner giving QPR three from Stoke.
  • Mark Hughes’ team is still in dire straits. They have to get a point at the Etihad on Sunday, which isn’t going to happen. Bolton go to the Brittania to face a Stoke side that’s last in the league in goals scored. One will do for Owen Coyle’s boys.
  • If ownership is a hint as to who will and won’t survive relegation battles, it’s no wonder Wigan keeps pulling off these May escapes. Dave Whelan has kept his small-ish club in that rugby-ish town up for seven straight seasons. The faith he’s shown in Roberto Martíne, has been admirable. There’ve been many times over the last three seasons another owner would have changed course. A steady hand with realistic goals, Whelan has the Latics set for an eighth season of Premier League soccer.

Up next: It’s Survival Sunday, we’re told. Ten matches, all kicking off at the same time (10:00 a.m. Eastern), only a few of which are worth your time:

  • Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers: City will win and claim the title.
  • Sunderland vs. Manchester United: I suppose United could make up their eight-goal disadvantage in difference.
  • West Bromwich Albion vs. Arsenal: If Arsenal draws, they can finish no worse than fourth. If they win, they claim third.
  • Tottenham vs. Fulham: Spurs win only gives them third if Arsenal stumbles. Anything less opens the door for Newcastle.
  • Everton vs. Newcastle:
  • The Magpies can only move up with a win. If they get it, they need Arsenal to lose or Fulham to win to climb into (at least) fourth.

  • Norwich City vs. Aston Villa:
  • Villa would have to lose by at least 16 goals, have QPR get a point from Man City and have Bolton win in order to go down. I don’t know why I bothered to type that out.

  • Stoke City vs. Bolton Wanderers:
  • The Trotters need a win. If they get it, they should survive (with QPR’s loss at City).

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.

Leicester City 1-1 West Brom: Mahrez nets first goal of PL season

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The Foxes haven’t had the start to the season that Craig Shakespeare and Co. would have hoped for, but Monday’s performance was certainly a step in the right direction.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Leicester City pulled out a 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion at the King Power Stadium, however, the Foxes remain in the bottom three of the Premier League.

Riyad Mahrez had plenty of chances on the day, and he rescued his side with 10 minutes remaining after powering home a strike into the far corner. The goal marks the Algerian’s first of the 2017/18 campaign.

Despite a frustrating opening hour, the visitors led on 63 minutes when Nacer Chadli curled home a brilliant free kick that left Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel stunned.

For the Belgium international, Chadli becomes West Brom’s seventh different goalscorer of the season.

Leicester nearly came out flying in the second stanza whenMahrez had an open chance in the center of the Baggies penalty area, however, the Algerian winger’s left-footed attempt was too high to hit the target.

[ MORE: Liverpool’s Lovren accuses Lukaku of deliberate stamp ]

Mahrez’s chance came just minutes after West Brom keeper Boaz Myhill was nearly sent off after the 34-year-old took out a streaking Jamie Vardy on the edge of the penalty box.

Monday’s result means both clubs have now gone six matches with a win in PL play.