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One theory for MLS failures in Champions League

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A few years ago I wrote critically and frequently about Major League Soccer’s chief flaw on the field. That is, the faulty element most guilty of holding back the league from achieving better quality between the white lines (i.e., MLS imperfection on the field, not in marketing matters).

It was simply that too many matches didn’t matter. When 80 percent or 60 percent of teams make the playoffs (MLS first decade or so), every single match simply was not important enough. That tolerance for imperfection infected everything, from daily practices to match-day management. Mistakes weren’t punished sufficiently, so the drive to improve individually and collectively suffered.

It’s gotten better, of course, but the math still works in opposition to genuine, night-in, night-out, down and dirty competitiveness. Simply put, each individual match does not drip with the weight of importance as it should.

Making the playoffs is still the brick and mortar of Major League Soccer from a competitive standpoint. And more than half the teams still qualify (10 of 19). So there is still not enough “gotta have it” for each contest.

The basic league structure is just too forgiving in terms of individual match importance; too many contests cannot be earnestly stamped “Code Red Critical!”

When MLS teams get themselves into Champions League seriousness, they aren’t quite equipped to deal tactically, emotionally or intelligently when it comes to one match (or a pair of them) that simply must be had.

We saw it twice last week, as Seattle couldn’t properly manage a home match against Santos Laguna. Left in a 1-0 hole, last night’s 1-1 draw in Mexico was insufficient.  Santos advances into the CONCACAF Champions League final; MLS misses another chance.

The LA Galaxy conceded two goals late against Monterrey, and the chances of something heroic tonight in Mexico do not look good. At all.

Quality depth in the rosters (better on the Mexican side) has a lot to say about this ongoing imbalance, as Mexican sides continue to dominate the regional tourney.

But the lenient playoff qualification standards still hinder MLS progress. We saw it last year as clubs that finished fourth and fifth in their conferences made the MLS Cup final. LA was about as bad it could be in March, April and May … and still won the championship.

When a smaller percentage still of Major League Soccer teams make the playoffs, every match will ring the bell of importance. Organizations and individuals will know that a match in April, May, June, etc. should carry all the serious weight of a stretch-run contest in September. Only then will the best practices of approaching a match and managing out matches become muscle memory for MLS players, coaches and clubs.

Until then, well, we’ll just have to enjoy a few more all-Liga MX CONCACAF Champions League finals.

West Ham extend Payet’s contract in “enormous show of faith”

West Ham’s Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring while soap bubbles are blown during the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham and Newcastle at Boleyn Ground in London, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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West Ham United hope Dimitri Payet is going absolutely nowhere after the club announced on Thursday the 28-year-old Frenchman has signed a contract extension through the summer of 2021.

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Payet’s current contract was scheduled to keep him at the Premier League club through the summer of 2020, but a series of standout performances (6 goals, 4 assists so far this season, mostly during the season’s opening three months) and rumors of interest from “bigger” clubs meant tacking on another year — and plenty more cash — was the best way to keep Payet in east London for the foreseeable future. The club confirmed earlier this week that negotiations over an extension were underway.

“He’s the best player I’ve signed in 25 years,” said West Ham co-owner David Sullivan. “He’s a [$43 million] player. He’s a supreme footballer. He makes every player in our side play better. On his day, he’s world class, he’s unstoppable.”

Payet, who’s been at West Ham just eight months after signing last summer, could still depart in the summer should he finish the current season strong and/or show up and show out at the European Championship, which kicks off in June. In that event, West Ham would now bag a much heftier transfer fee than they would have done prior to the extension.

VIDEO: Dele Alli’s magnificent juggling goal recreated in hand-drawn crayon

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Remember that Dele Alli goal? No, not that one… that one. Of course you remember it. How could you not?

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How often does a player receive the ball out of the air, flick it over his head, spin 180 degrees and hit an inch-perfect volley from 20 yards out to secure all three points for his team? The answer is, of course, not very often.

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Thus, a goal such as Alli’s stunning winner against Crystal Palace last month has been, and will continue to be, immortalized through numerous recreations in this Digital Age. Above is Alli’s goal recreated in hand-drawn crayon.

Watch Live: Guatemala vs. T&T; Canada vs. Guyana in Olympic qualifying

Canadian players wave to fans after a 2-1 loss to England in a quarterfinal of the Women's World Cup soccer tournament, Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
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Group B is set to kick off Thursday night at the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, as Canada, third-place finishers at the 2012 Olympics, begin their quest to qualify for this summer’s games in Rio de Janeiro.

Guyana versus Trinidad and Tobago is up first (6 p.m. ET) from BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Tex, followed by the Canadians, who will take on Guyana (8:30 p.m. ET) in the nightcap.

[ WATCH LIVE: Guatemala vs. T&T live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

[ WATCH LIVE: Canada vs. Guyana live on line on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

The U.S. women’s national began its Olympic qualifying campaign in impressive fashion on Wednesday with a 5-0 victory over Costa Rica, while Mexico jumped to the top of Group A with a 6-0 victory over Puerto Rico.

Sunderland terminate Adam Johnson’s contract after guilty pleas in sex case

Sunderland winger Adam Johnson arrives at Bradford Crown Court, England, Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016. Johnson has pleaded guilty in court to one count of sexual activity with a child and another of grooming. The 28-year-old Johnson, who has made 12 appearances for England, denies two charges of sexual activity with a girl under the age of 16. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE
Peter Byrne/PA via AP
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SUNDERLAND, England (AP) Sunderland has fired winger Adam Johnson after he pleaded guilty to grooming and sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl at the start of his trial.

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Johnson, who has played 12 times for England, continues to deny two further counts of sexual activity with a child.

Sunderland dismissed Johnson ahead of his trial resuming on Friday at Bradford Crown Court.

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In a statement, Sunderland announced Thursday that “in light of Adam Johnson’s guilty pleas, the club has today terminated his contract with immediate effect.”

The former Manchester City player joined Sunderland in 2012 for 10 million pounds (now about $14.5 million).