Arsenal's Walcott celebrates his goal against Chelsea with Wilshire during their English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge in London

Arsenal’s frustrating season and their newfound grit

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It’s been quite a season for the Arsenal.

Widely recognized for their free-flowing, ooh là là style of play, the trials and tribulations of the 2012-13 season has forced the Gunners to grow into a grittier, more-hardened side.

The media ramped up their witch-hunt for Arsene Wenger this season, seeking to crucify him for everything from player selection to transfer targets to club finances. It all came to a boil before the second-leg of the Champions League quarter-finals at Bayern Munich when the Frenchman showed his towering frustration by sarcastically explaining to the media, “we want to lose tomorrow’s game so you can all be happy.”

It was an uncomfortable moment for all involved and one that could have tipped either way. Fortunately, it tipped in Wenger’s favor when his words ignited an impassioned fortitude  among the players resulting in a 2-0 victory over the Bavarian giants.

It was a moment that should not be undervalued, especially after the demolition that Barcelona suffered at the same venue this past Tuesday. The return leg at Bayern was a hand that Arsenal could easily have folded, opting instead to put out a second-string squad to provide youth products with experience and veterans with a respite before a furious conclusion to the Premier League season.

But Wenger refused, his players responded and the Gunners gave Bayern hell. It will be interesting to see if in next week’s semi-final second leg Barcelona are made of the same ilk.

It’s been an equally trying year for the players.

Arsenal’s center-back situation has been the source of constant drama and question marks as Thomas Vermaelen looks a shell of his former self and Laurent Koscielny continues his high-highs and low-lows. Per Mertersacker has been solid for the Gunners but always looks one step away from crumbling and hardly feels like the rock around which to build a back four.

In the midfield, Jack Wilshire was named to the short-list for PFA’s Young Player of the Year but the Gunners’ puppet-master has struggled with an ankle injury and currently looks a shadow of his former self.

After six months of hinting he wanted out of North London, Theo Walcott put an end to the drama by re-signing yet his on-field inconsistency remains a stress point for Arsenal supporters. When he’s on, he’s the most dangerous winger in English football. But when he’s off, he’s merely a boy who picked up football after a lifetime of athletics.

The list goes on as Gervinho leads the league in shots that go out for throw-ins, Bacary Sagna defends with his body in England and his mind in France, and Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny have both had their moments but neither has stepped up to the forefront of Premier League goal-keeping.

A huge source of this season’s stress arose from the sale of Robin van Persie to United. It wasn’t that Arsenal could have done something to convince him to stay at the Emirates – the striker’s mind was made up. But he absolutely should not have been sold to a club in the Premier League. Even if it meant accepting 5M less for his transfer, the Dutchman should have been sent to Italy or Germany where his heroics may have been seen but not felt.

Selling van Persie to United and watching him score hat-tricks to confirm league titles was like getting dumped by the prom queen and spending the entire summer watching her make-out with your best friend. And what are Arsenal supporters left with? Olivier Giroud. A talented player in his own right but hardly the rebound that will make your ex lover jealous.

Point being, Arsenal have endured immense growth this season, albeit different growth from previous years. They have acquired a much-needed chip on their shoulder, and rightfully so. They back down from fewer challenges and are now more more likely to grind out points for the sake of merely grinding out points. The change in personnel has also compelled the club to become more resourceful in where they find goals.

If Arsenal are to compete for next year’s Premier League title the club has to show a willingness to financially compete with United, City and Chelsea. They also need to tailor the majority of their signings to players who are proven stars rather than high-upside talent. With this kind of ambition, combined with this season’s mental advancements and the high quality of football for which Arsenal is so famous, the Gunners may soon return to the top of English football.

Blatter says he will accept verdict as CAS appeal begins

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter arrived for his appeal hearing against a six-year ban from football on Thursday, pledging to accept the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport

“I do hope it will be positive for me,” Blatter, sporting a light gray beard, told reporters at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) ahead of a hearing expected to last several hours.

The court’s verdict is expected within several weeks, and could be challenged in a further appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

The 80-year-old Blatter denies wrongdoing in authorizing a $2 million payment to former FIFA vice president Michel Platini in 2011. They claimed it was for backdated and uncontracted salary for work Platini did in advising Blatter from 1999 to 2002.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The so-called “disloyal payment” led Blatter to be put under investigation for criminal mismanagement by Swiss federal prosecutors last September. That investigation is ongoing.

FIFA’s ethics committee judged the $2 million deal was a conflict of interest and initially banned Blatter and Platini for eight years last December. FIFA’s appeal committee cut both bans to six years.

Platini’s appeal to CAS was already judged in May, when Blatter appeared in person as a witness. Platini promised a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal after his ban was only cut from six to four years.

Platini arrived at the hearing around midday local time to be a witness. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter’s comments Thursday suggest he would not pursue a federal case. Federal judges can intervene only if legal process is abused.

“We are football players, we learned to win but also we learned to lose and it will not be the end of the world,” Blatter said outside CAS.

The three-member panel for Blatter’s case is expected to respect the verdict of a separate panel which judged Platini.

A failure to overturn the ban for Blatter would likely end his hope to one day be named FIFA honorary president by its 211 member federations.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The case already ended Platini’s chance to replace Blatter as FIFA president, and also forced him out of European governing body UEFA.

On Sept. 14, UEFA members will elect a successor to replace Platini who had a mandate through March 2019. By imposing a four-year ban, the CAS panel ensured UEFA had to replace Platini, rather than wait for him to return.

The “disloyal payment” emerged last year when Platini was strongly favored to win the election to replace Blatter, who had announced his departure plans after 17 years as president amid pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption implicating senior FIFA officials.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Both men were questioned at FIFA headquarters last September by Swiss investigators who were waiting for them outside an executive committee meeting.

During the turmoil in world football, Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, submitted an election candidacy on the entry deadline day and won the vote in February.

Arriving at the hearing with his Zurich-based lawyer Lorenz Erni, Blatter said he hoped the CAS panel “will understand that the payment made to Platini was really a debt that we had against him.”

“This is a principle, if you have debts you pay them,” Blatter said.

NASL weekend preview: Miami, Minnesota meet playoff fortunes head on

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There are still two full months of soccer to go in the NASL’s Fall Season, but this weekend could be a major day for the title fortunes of one squad in particular.

Miami FC and Minnesota United are level on points with 15 heading into Saturday’s match at FIU Stadium.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

If you’re unfamiliar, the NASL Playoffs involve four teams: the Spring champion (Indy Eleven), the Fall champion, and two other teams with the best combined record between seasons.

Miami’s played one fewer game, and both it and Minnesota — fresh off the news it’s headed to MLS in 2017 — are seven points shy of first-place FC Edmonton.

But Minnesota is on pace to make the playoffs through combined schedule, while Miami had a poor first half and would be better served to win the Fall Season if it wants a shot at the NASL Soccer Bowl Trophy.

Saturday
Carolina Railhawks at New York Cosmos
Rayo OKC at Tampa Bay Rowdies
Minnesota United at Miami FC

Sunday
Indy Eleven at Ottawa Fury
Puerto Rico at FC Edmonton

Arsenal reportedly set for $69 million double Friday buy

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14:  Lucas Perez of RC Deportivo la Coruna reacts during the La Liga match between Rayo Vallecano and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Teresa Rivero on September 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger‘s much-maligned transfer business is about to take the “much” off the verb.

Lucas Perez of Deportiva de la Coruna is reportedly going to be joining Arsenal on Friday, and the Gunners are also close to finally landing Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Perez, 27, broke out for a career-best 17 goals last season, and scored on debut last weekend. He’s set to cost $22.5 million, while Mustafi makes up the other $46.5 million.

The 12-times capped German center back stands 6-foot, and would bring stability to a Gunners unit which has (again) been beset by injuries.

From the BBC:

Spaniard Lucas, 27, scored 17 goals in 37 games last season and Arsenal will meet a 20m euro (£17.1m) buyout clause.

Germany international Mustafi, 24, is set to join for a fee in excess of £35m.

Is this, coupled with the Granit Xhaka buy, enough to help Wenger right the ship? Mustafi, especially, would be a key piece. Perez is a bit of a lesser-known quality.

MLS Weekend Preview: Desperation mounts as rivals meet in Oregon

Portland Timbers defender Vytas Andriuskevicius, second from right, trips up Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, right, in the second half of a MLS soccer match, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, in Seattle. Andriuskevicius was called for a foul on the play, and the Sounders' Clint Dempsey scored a goal on the resulting penalty kick. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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Desperation is up-and-down the schedule this weekend in Major League Soccer, as the playoff race really heats up.

The calendar turns to September next week, and teams will end this weekend with a clear view of their runs into the season’s final Sunday: Oct. 23.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

The tumult that is an MLS season means only one team is more than two wins out of a playoff spot right now, and that’s Houston (7 points back of Western No. 6 Portland).

Here’s who is feeling the heat of their matches this weekend:

Portland and Seattle: The Cascadia Cup rivals tangle Sunday in Oregon, with the Timbers holding a one-point edge on the Sounders for the West’s final playoff spot. Seattle has played one fewer games than Portland, and a win on Sunday would be a double-whammy for PDX; The Timbers would be level on points with Seattle and Vancouver in the Cascadia Cup standings with just one match to go (compared to their opponents’ two).

Vancouver: The ‘Caps don’t have a Cup game this weekend, but will face an L.A. team which hasn’t lost at home. Vancouver is in real danger of moving more than one win behind in the fight for a playoff spot. If they lose to L.A. and both San Jose and Portland win, the Whitecaps will be five points back of a playoff spot. Of course, this being MLS, a win and help could see Vancouver in sixth when the smoke clears.

Columbus and New England: No one likes to comment on job status, but Revs’ boss Jay Heaps and his Columbus counterpart (Gregg Berhalter) have to be a bit concerned at this point. New England is a total mess, opening up a goalkeeping controversy, and is pinning its hopes on some Open Cup final karma. The Crew was supposed to contend for a title after last year’s final run, but is currently in the East’s cellar with just three home wins from 13 matches.

Schedule

Friday
Colorado at Real Salt Lake — 8 p.m. EDT

Saturday
Chicago at DC United — 7 p.m. EDT
Sporting KC at Philadelphia — 7 p.m. EDT
San Jose at Columbus — 7:30 p.m. EDT
Montreal at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. EDT
FC Dallas at Houston — 9 p.m. EDT
Vancouver at LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. EDT

Sunday
New England at New York Red Bulls — 2:30 p.m. EDT
Seattle at Portland — 5 p.m. EDT
New York City at Orlando City — 7 p.m. EDT