Can lower-tier teams still go far in US Open Cup?

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It is the romance of cup competitions that sparks passion, dreams and drama into the lives of every soccer fan.

I’m no different. I love the knockout formats and with this year being the 100th US Open Cup, I’m expecting something special.

Today the Centennial edition of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup kicks off, with the play in rounds set for this evening.

Find out the draw for the early rounds here, and loads of really cool facts, figures and Open Cup snippets too.

But as I was sat back thinking about the Open Cup, a sad thought entered my mind. “What if second or third tier teams could no longer compete with MLS sides in the future?”

Many would argue that point arrived long ago and we are way past it. But we have to remember that in the early rounds of this competition, MLS sides often send out weakened teams filled with youngsters and reserve players. The level evens out and as we saw on multiple occasions last season, upsets occur.

In the 2012 competition, Carolina defeated LA Galaxy, Cal FC beat Portland, the Michigan Bucks defeated Chicago, Harrisburg beat New England, San Antonio beat Houston, Minnesota defeated RSL and the Charlotte Eagles beat FC Dallas…all in one round!

Last seasons US Open Cup filled me with hope that the burgeoning soccer pyramid in the US was growing stronger by the season and smaller clubs could have the chance of replicating the famous upsets we see in the FA Cup and other cup competitions in Europe, season after season.

(More: New stadiums now heavier in lower tiers, US soccer moving forward)

Lower league teams are getting closer to MLS in terms of infrastructure and the gap is definitely closing. Therefore, every season the US Open Cup acts as a litmus test for just how far the rest of the US soccer pyramid is growing. Last season proved smaller teams can now compete with MLS, and this season people will judge NASL and USL sides on how well they perform against teams from Major League Soccer.

However, with the USL Pro-MLS Reserve League deal, ultimately this US Open Cup will become a little more complex, with player shared from parent clubs etc. Add to that the fact that two MLS U-23 sides have qualified for this seasons competition and we may lose some of that regional, almost tribal, rivalry.

(More: US Open Cup field set, as Centennial tournament awaits)

When the Galaxy rolled into Cary, North Carolina last May, they were the reigning MLS Champs, everyone knew who they were. But the Railhawks battled hard, the fans created an intimidating atmosphere and Bruce Arena’s face was a deep shade of scarlet after his side were upset by the NASL outfit.

I am not saying those days are over, because last seasons Open Cup proved NASL and USL Pro teams are drawing closer to the level of MLS sides all the time. But I am hoping a lower-league team can make it to the finals, or even the semis. Is that too much to ask?

The Rochester Rhinos won the Open Cup in ’99 and the Charleston Battery lost to D.C. United in the 2008 final. But those are the only two non-MLS teams to make it all the way to the final since MLS arrived in 1996.

I can see Orlando City, Tampa Bay, Carolina and possibly Charleston going far in this seasons competition.

Wouldn’t it be great for US soccer if a lower-tier team steps up and takes the Centennial US Open Cup? It would provide hope for the future anyway, that this terrific cup competition won’t fall by the wayside into obscurity.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”