Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: at Real Madrid 3, Manchester City 2

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Man of the Match: Is Ángel Di María still underrated? Perhaps, with today’s performance the perfect example why. The Argentine winger was vital to two Real Madrid goals, but within the context of one of the more dramatic matches you’ll see, the highlights won’t have time to adequately highlight his contributions.

On Real’s opener, Di María made a key run from the right, took a pass from Mesut Özil and drew in the defense before finding Marcelo. Moments later, Real Madrid was even, 1-1.

On Real’s second goal, the Argentine international dribbled from the right into the middle of the defense before threading a ball to Karim Benzema, who was left with only one man to beat for Real’s second equalizer.

Di María will get one, maybe two assists today, but within the context of Real’s dramatic comeback, those contributions will be undersold. As always, he was left to walk the line between overlooked and star.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • The match started flat, but with four goals in the final 15 minutes of regulation time (three in the last six), day one of Champions League group stage gave us an immediate classic.
  • Both teams made surprising changes in defense, starting young center halves few predicted would see time. Nineteen-year-old French defender Raphaël Varane was in Real’s XI, relegating Sergio Ramos to the bench. Serbian Matija Nastasic, also 19, came in for City, pushing Joleon Lescott out of the team.
  • With Michael Essien (for Real Madrid) and Gareth Barry (for City) also in, the teams set up slightly defensive. City had sacrificed a striker to go 4-2-3-1, putting Yaya Touré behind Carlos Tévez. José Mourinho started neither of his playmakers: Mesut Özil or Luka Modric.
  • Perhaps predictably, Real Madrid was able to control the first half. City was content to sit back and absorb pressure, and while that left a number of opportunities for Real to try from distance (Cristiano Ronaldo took a number of cracks at Joe Hart), the containment plan worked.
  • The only cracks in City’s first half defense were two Gonzalo Higuaín chances, both times running on to Di María chips to earn chances on Hart. The first was snuffed out by a nice read from the `keeper. The second was shot wide.
  • City’s best chances of the half came on counters, taking advantage of Touré’s advanced role, though chances in the 31st and 38th minute broke down before testing Iker Casillas.
  • Roberto Mancini was forced into a change in the 38th minute, Samir Nasri coming on with a right leg injury. Aleksandr Kolarov came on to play in front of Gael Clichy for the rest of the half.
  • The substitution eventually brought about a formation change. Kolarov played deep on the left, pushing Clichy into the left side of a central three. Maicon played Kolarov’s opposite wingback, and with Touré dropping deeper into midfield, City played a 3-5-2, with David Silva playing in support of Tévez.
  • The shift served Maicon well. The former Inter defender was initially able to push up the right and disrupt Real left back Marcelo, who Real had trouble building through after the change.
  • It took Real Madrid about 13 minutes to figure out what City had done. Then, they resumed the same dominance of play they had in the first half, creating 60th and 65th minute chances for Marcelo just outside the box.
  • And Manchester City returned to the counter attack, with Touré finally pulling the right string in the 69th minute. A turnover created just inside City’s half gave Touré the opening to burst forward to create a two-one-one – he and Edin Dzeko versus Varane. Twenty-five yards out, Touré released a pass for Dzeko who, with Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira in pursuit, slotted the opener past Casillas.
  • The lead didn’t last long. Seven minutes later, Real Madrid was able to create another chance for Marcelo. This time, the defender took his time, opted for precision instead of power, and opened his right foot on a ball that flew just under Hart’s crossbar.
  • Nine minutes later, luck smiled in City’s favor when a restart by Kolarov skidded behind Madrid’s defense, possibly deflected off Xabi Alonso, and went inside Casillas’s far post, giving City their second one-goal lead. The outcome may have been fortunate, but if it wasn’t for Pablo Zabaleta – who hustled to draw the foul on Karim Benzema  – the goal wouldn’t have happened.
  • Benzema got revenge two minutes later, taking a pass from Di María, moving around Nastasic, and beating Hart  inside the right post for another quick equalizer.
  • Three minutes later, Real had their first lead. Cristiano Ronaldo, in possession just to the left of the box, cut back on Zabaleta and onto his right foot. He launched a topspin heavy shot that confused Hart, the keeper seemingly expecting Vincent Kompany to block the ball. Hart hesitated, didn’t react as the ball dipped, and let in a winner most goalkeepers would have stopped.
  • The comeback would have been amazing in it’s own right, but within the context of what Real Madrid’s league struggles, it became both necessary and a possible turning point. Losing to Manchester City would have thrust the club into an identity crisis. Forced to comeback twice, Real Madrid’s attack had to wake up. That it did will help the club re-grasp its mystique.
  • For City, this is a match you forget as soon as possible. They weren’t expected to get anything out of today’s game. That they lost their point on a howler makes it hard to reconcile (Javi García threw both arms up and fell to the ground when he saw the ball go in), but in the bigger picture, this one of the more acceptable losses City will ever be dealt.

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.