In search of second title, Beckham providing glimpse of Bryant’s future

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Hopefully the coincidence wasn’t lost on David Beckham, in attendance with Robbie Keane Tuesday night at Staples Center. The LA Galaxy duo was on hand for the Lakers’ season opener against the Dallas Mavericks – what was supposed to be the beginning of LA’s romp through the NBA’s Western Conference. After the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the hype’s been incredible.

So have the expectations. When the Lakers lost to Dallas on Tuesday, one media outlet noted the team wouldn’t go 82-0. There was a tinge of irony in the caption, an irony that played to the jaws that have remained dropped after Los Angeles acquired Howard.

Eight months ago, the Galaxy were in a similar situation. Major League Soccer media openly debated whether the Galaxy would be the best team of all-time. After capping a championship season in November, the Galaxy added Edson Buddle, Marcelo Sarvas, and extended Juninho’s loan from Sao Paulo. How many trophies? was the question before LA crashed out of the Champions League. If wasn’t a word until Torsten Frings and Toronto FC brought LA back down to earth. The defending champs would win only three of their first 13 games.

With their loss to the Mavs, the Lakers did their part to preserve the parallel, reinforcing the coincidence by stumbling badly in Portland Wednesday night. But as their 0-2 start sees the front page pundits baiting their egos, the Lakers can look west to Staples Center and draw inspiration from the LA Galaxy, who recovered to make the MLS playoffs. Winning nine out of 12 during a mid-season surge, were as good as anybody before locking up their playoff spot. You don’t have to look long to find somebody picking the defending champions to upset Supporters’ Shield-winning San Jose in the semifinals (should they beat Vancouver on Thursday).

MORE: Previewing Thursday’s Galaxy-Whitecap elimination match | Will Steve Nash be there?

If the Lakers manage a similar turnaround, it will only add to a list of parallels between the two teams. Like their NBA counterparts, the Galaxy have become the marquee team in their league. It’s a stature that’s fueled by their success, media affinity, and their ability to spend more than their competition, ensuring the roster always features recognizable names. On the basketball side, there’s Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol, while Home Depot Center has Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.

And of course, then there’s Kobe and Becks, the franchises’ figureheads. While nobody approaches Kobe Bryant’s stature in Los Angeles, the one Galaxy player oblivious Angelinos are likely to know is soccer’s global icon. Even if most of Los Angeles doesn’t know what makes him so great, they know that the great David Beckham plays in their city.

But to continue to call Beckham great could be an exaggeration. While he put in his best Major League Soccer season in 2011 (earning many media members’ votes for MVP of the MLS Cup final), this year age has make up time on the 37-year-old. For years people asked how Beckham could maintain himself at such an advanced age. You don’t hear those questions anymore. In the first year of his new, two-year contract, David Beckham finally looks like he’s inching toward retirement.

Now, after making his name on the right, Beckham’s fully converted to a central midfielder’s role, where he continues to be a fulcrum in LA’s attack. But if his range of passing has not suffered, his range of movement has. The fitness that helped define his ability to patrol the right now only appears in spurts. The circle of influence you can draw around Beckham’s central position is much smaller this year than last, part of the reason he was omitted from Team Great Britian’s Olympic team this summer. Dependent on the work of Juninho and Sarvas, Beckham’s effectiveness is limited to the middle-third, where his ability to read the game often provides Los Angeles’s main creative spark.

MORE: Beckham discusses his future … kinda

On rare occassions, Beckham can transcend those limitations. This year’s best example came in mid-July, when Beckham turned back the clock in Portland. He struck early from just inside the final-third, scoring from distance as opponents paused, as if watching a highlight from a YouTube clip. Five minutes later, it was too easy to give the league its second goal-of-the-week nominee, finding the tiny fault in the Timbers’ wall that gave him an early double.

But like Bryant, the moments of true dominance are becoming rare. Although the 34-year-old Laker is still among the best in his sport, Beckham’s mid-30s regression may foreshadow what’s to come for LA’s other sports icon. As the world saw at this summer’s Olympics, Bryant now has to pace himself. He can’t be brilliant every minute, every night. Like Michael Jordan before him, the last part of his career has forced him to swap drives for fallaways. As much as Bryant’s lucky to have Nash, Howard, and Gasol, he needs that caliber of player if the Lakers are going to maintain their title hopes.

Three years older than Bryant, Beckham’s dependence on his teammates isn’t so surprising. He’s always depended on others. It’s the nature of his position. As much as he’s made his name for his ability over a dead ball, more often than not, he’s needed people on the other end of those crosses. For LA, he needs Donovan’s speed to run into passes. He needs Keane’s movement to open up space. He needs Sarvas and Juninho to provide outlets when the Hollywood ball isn’t there.

MORE: Landon Donovan acknowledges damage to USMNT relationships

With both Bryant and Beckham, we have to wait to see if they can still raise their game on the biggest stage. With Kobe, we’ll have to wait until spring, though if the Olympics are any indication, he’ll be there when it counts.

With Beckham, the time is now. The playoffs start tonight with a must-win against Vancouver, and although LA can beat the Whitecaps without Beckham at his best, it would be a mistake to assume he can’t get there anymore. It was just one year ago that he was one of the best players in the field as his team won a title.

Report: Man City bid for Mendy rejected

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According to a report by Sky Sports, Manchester City has seen a bid for Monaco full-back Benjamin Mendy rejected, and will have to significantly increase their offer for the transfer to be completed.

The report states that Manchester City bid $58 million for the 23-year-old French international, but Monaco values Mendy at the $65 million level Man City paid for Kyle Walker, a world record for a defender.

[ MORE: Barcelona president warns PSG over Neymar move ]

Monaco is in an advantageous position in this situation, with Manchester City desperate for full-backs and Monaco not obligated to sell. Mendy’s current contract with the defending Ligue 1 champions runs through the summer of 2021.

City has already purchased Walker, but with the departure of aging full-backs Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, and Bacary Sagna, the club is almost completely devoid at the position, with just Walker and Aleksandr Kolarov on the roster.

Mendy has shown blistering pace and great crossing ability, racking up 11 assists last season across all competitions, including four in seven Champions League appearances. His tackling numbers are also surprisingly competent for such a young defender, completing just about 50% of his attempted tackles during league play last season, and sporting a 64% completion rate in Champions League play.

MLS to add VAR replay in early August

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Less than a month from now, Major League Soccer will introduce Video Assistant Replay to its matches, the league confirmed Thursday.

VAR took its biggest jump forward yet when it was introduced at the 2017 Confederations Cup. Referees on the field were alerted by video assistants in a booth about questionable calls, and the on-field ref would then have the opportunity to review a decision themselves on a video screen.

The MLS press release read, “A fifth member of a game’s officiating crew, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), located in a booth at the stadium, will have access to all available broadcast angles and check all plays for potential clear and obvious errors or serious missed incidents in four game-changing situations — goals, penalty decisions, direct red cards, and cases of mistaken identity.” The league confirmed August 5th would be the introduction of VAR.Major L

For VAR to be successfully implemented and affect the flow of game as little as possible, the system will have to be tightly monitored as to not be used to challenge 50/50 decisions or those too close to call. In addition, quick decisions will be paramount to the system to keep confusion at a minimum and continue play as quick as possible.

There were examples of both good and bad use of VAR during the Confederations Cup. Early in the tournament, Portugal saw a goal correctly wiped off against Mexico thanks to a blatant offside call, with the decision coming 53 seconds after the ball hit the back of the net. However, later in the tournament, Chile saw a goal by Claudio Vargas controversially erased when the system was used to overturn an incredibly close call.

MLS says its decision to use VAR comes after three years of research and testing. It’s somewhat surprising the system is being implemented in the middle of a campaign, with any possible kinks to work out despite the stretch run of the regular season.

Back in early July, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said there is “nothing standing in the way of VAR” use at the 2018 World Cup.

Africa Cup of Nations moving to summer

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The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations has been moved to the summer, neutralizing the effect of the tournament on domestic leagues, the CAF has announced.

In the past, players were forced to choose between club and country with the tournament taking place in January and February. Now, players will not have to choose, and will be able to play for their country without missing any critical club time. Last season, clubs like Liverpool struggled in the absence of key players like Sadio Mane while they left to play for their country.

With the change to playing in June and July, teams will need to manage the heat of a summer tournament in Africa, although it wouldn’t be as bad as one might expect. The 2019 tournament is set to be played in Cameroon, where average temperatures in June start at around 87 degrees and fall throughout the month, reaching closer to 80 degrees by the start of July. Cameroon hosted Morocco in their most recent AFCON qualifier 10 days ago in Yaoundé, and the high temperature for that day (June 10) was 78 degrees.

The CAF also confirmed that the tournament will expand from 16 teams to 24 teams, despite qualification for the tournament having already begun. To fill out the additional slots, the CAF has not announced how it will change qualifying, but it’s likely that 2nd place finishers in all 12 groups would make the field, rather than the top three 2nd place finishers that currently progress. In the current format, the host country automatically qualifies, but still participates in qualification. Cameroon is currently leading Group B after one match.

Eight additional teams could pose problems for Cameroon, who admitted on Wednesday that preparations were behind schedule for the 2019 tournament. “Despite security concerns, social and economic crises, the government and President Paul Biya are totally engaged to do everything for the Nations Cup to go ahead,” said Cameroon Sports Minister Ismael Bidoung.

Finally, the CAF release confirmed that the tournament will, in the future, stay on African soil with only African teams. That means there will be no tournaments held in foreign nations such as China, and non-African teams will not be invited. Both were possibilities the organization was considering.

Barcelona president warns PSG over FFP

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Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is warning Paris Saint-Germain that even if they try to sign Neymar, they would condemn themselves to UEFA sanctions.

With PSG heavily linked to the Brazilian superstar, rumors suggest the French club is hoping to activate Neymar’s monstrous release clause set at $258 million.

However, that could have serious consequences, warns Bartomeu. “These clauses are impossible to activate if you want to comply with Financial Fair Play,” the Barcelona president told the Associated Press. “If someone doesn’t want to comply, then of course it can be activated.”

The Spaniard assured fans that Neymar is a critical part of Barcelona’s success.

“He has a contract for the coming four years and, of course, we count on him,” Bartomeu said. “He’s part of our team. He’s part of this trident [with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez].”

The 25-year-old signed a five-year contract extension last October that runs through the summer of 2021. Club vice-president Jordi Mestre also said he was “200 per cent” sure Neymar would stay with Barcelona.