A moment’s pause as Sir Alex Ferguson says goodbye to Old Trafford

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Long ago, I thought I was a Manchester United fan, back when I assumed you had to have a team to care about any league. It wasn’t long before I grew out of it – an errant soul unable to believe any of his childhood dreams, disillusioned into a life of criticism and suspicion — but in the days when the only games you’d see if you were a kid growing up in rural California were late, English league matches tape delayed by your regional sports outlet, you either followed Manchester United, Liverpool or whatever other club happened to be playing when insomnia exposed your credulity. Even back when they weren’t good – before the Premier League, Cantona, and the boon of Sky’s bankroll – Manchester United were still on television all the time, albeit at ridiculous hours when even Australian Rules Football had a mid-day highlight shows on the not-yet Worldwide Leader.

I didn’t know who Alex Ferguson was, and I’m not sure when I found out, though when I did, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye. Even to the pre-teen me, whose knowledge of soccer barely went beyond my AYSO league and Ryan Giggs’ ability to set up a defender before his next touch, there was already a ubiquity to man overseeing the Red Devils. To me, he was both unknown and omnipresent; a transcendent figure just waiting to be revealed. The only other people I could equate him to were Quincy Jones or Clive Davis – elusive, omniscient presences that forced me to stop and asked, “Oh, he’s running this? Oh, of course he’s running this. I knew that.” There were no English league-scouring friends or Twitter followers to offer alternatives, and without their second-guessing, I was sure Ferguson had been there all along.

For people my age (mid-30s), Ferguson is as prominent in our English soccer lives as the league itself – a league that fragmented and spawned a leviathan in our early fandom, leaving entities like Manchester United and its manager to transcend the turmoil. Once the chaos settled and the Premier League was born, the United boss was its central figure, having acquired its first big star (Eric Cantona) and featuring a class of player that would define the circuit’s early commercial success: the flare of Giggs; the skill of Scholes; the inspiration of Keane; and the draw of Beckham. And while the van Nistelrooys, Ronaldos, Ferdinands and Rooneys cycled in to played their part, it was the manager that remained the protagonist. In terms of plot, in terms of narrative, there was no Premier League without Alex Ferguson driving it.

source: Getty ImagesIt seems like a stretch, but with 13 titles in the 21-year Premier League era, it’s no exaggeration to say each year’s drama can been seen through a Red Devils’ lens, especially given the contrast of the club’s fortunes before and after the circuit broke of from the Football League. Prior to the Sky-travaganza that started in 1992, spurring a surge that has since redefined world soccer, Manchester United went 26 years without a title. But they won in year one. And every year since, a stretch that’s seen them claim 12 titles in 20 years, each season’s defined by two questions: Is Manchester United supposed to win? And if not, how will the favorite hold them off?

During that time, English football has gone from a lightly-exported regional league to the defining brand in world soccer, a journey which can be tracked by its exposure in this country. Whereas a soccer fan born in the times of an Eastern Bloc and divided Germany had to scrounge low-budget late night repeats for their soccer fix, converts were soon able to see games an honest-to-goodness national entity. And then there was a channel that broadcast soccer. Then there were multiple games, digital packages, and starting next year, a free-to-air network committed to showing games on a weekly basis. Now, South America, Africa, Asia all follow the league with the same zeal as we do. This is not the post-Heysel, pre-inclusion league Ferguson joined in 1986. From exclusion to exemplar, England’s become the commercial benchmark.

And amid that accompanying iconography, few presences have been as constant as Ferguson’s. Perhaps you could point to Manchester United’s titles or the metronomic Ryan Giggs as other heartbeats of the Premiership’s infancy, but that’d only be dodging the obvious. Ferguson is the backbone behind each. Within that handful of clubs (seven) that have been in the league since day one, Ferguson’s has been the protagonist. If you did nothing but track Ferguson over the lifetime of the Premier League – if you were nothing but a true believer who bought into the legend before it was born — you’d be as cognizant as anybody of what the Premier League is all about.

So if you’re relatively new to English soccer – if you were lucky or young enough to not have to wade through its ascendance, to land on the doormat of this pre-constructed Orwellian monolith – this is why day like Sunday’s against Swansea and next week’s at West Brom’s are so important. Today, Ferguson manages his final game at Old Trafford – the final chance for Red Devils supporters to pay tribute to a man who literally defined the club. And next week, at the Hawthorns, West Brom and their fans will get the honor of representing the Premier League at large. The ever-present, the backbone, the constant will be gone, saying goodbye in Sandwell in front of 26,272.

Nobody watching Sunday’s game will know a Premier League without Alex Ferguson, and only those old enough to remember Ron Atkinson can speak to what world soccer was before Ferguson’s arrival. But in our confusion we can still acknowledge our ignorance and realize the change that’s upon us. Most of us don’t know of a league without Ferguson, and many of us would not be watching without him. It’s worth a moment to consider before Sunday’s farewell.

As an American, I normally refrain from calling Ferguson “Sir Alex,” but eight hours before his final match in Manchester, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute. You don’t have to cower to British honorifics to make “Sir” into something else, if only for one day. Use it to recognize his achievement. Use it to recognize his influence. But on Sunday, use ‘Sir Alex’ to recognize an icon is saying goodbye to Old Trafford.

FIFA’s video-review system under scrutiny again in Russia

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OCHI, Russia (AP) FIFA’s new video review system is bringing turmoil to the Confederations Cup, with technology designed to deliver quick, clear decisions agitating players and leaving coaches and fans confused.

Perhaps even worse for FIFA, the latest controversy on Sunday – exactly one week after four goal reviews in that day’s two matches – made one of the world’s highest-rated referees look hesitant and wrong.

Wilmar Roldan sent off a Cameroon defender more than three minutes after a high tackle on a German opponent and only after his own case of mistaken identity.

The Colombian official arrived at what was arguably the correct decision following two visits to the touchline to consult video replays and first showing only a yellow card, then a red card, to the wrong Cameroon player.

“I think everyone is confused, including me,” Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said of referee Roldan after a 3-1 loss in Sochi that eliminated his team. “He and he alone can explain what happened there in that moment.”

Cameroon was also involved in two video decisions last Sunday, when possible Chile goals were reviewed for offside rulings. The first goal was disallowed, the second counted in Chile’s 2-0 victory.

Portugal had most to complain about one week ago when a potential opening goal in a 2-2 draw with Mexico was ruled out by an offside judged in an earlier phase of play.

FIFA stressed last week that all decisions proved ultimately correct, and the controversies were simply inevitable overreactions as world football gets used to a new system being put to its highest-profile tests.

Indeed, FIFA President Gianni Infantino felt confident to proclaim video review was “the future of football” and still on track to be approved by the guardians of the game’s laws before the 2018 World Cup.

Human error by Roldan seemed the biggest problem Sunday though it added to the perception that video review is capable of causing as much controversy as it solves.

FIFA has certainly pulled back from its prediction last year that game-changing decisions – goals scored, penalty kicks awarded, red cards, mistaken identity – could be reviewed and resolved in as few as six seconds.

Accuracy is more important than speed, has become the mantra in Russia.

Neither were in evidence Sunday in Sochi as Cameroon defender Ernest Mabouka eventually left the field around three minutes after his boot connected with Emre Can of Germany.

Mabouka’s teammate Sebastien Siani had sarcastically applauded the referee when he was wrongly sent from the field. Eventually Siani’s slate was wiped clean and he completed the match.

Still, the image of a top referee being openly disrespected will not please FIFA.

Roldan arrived at the Confederations Cup trying to rebuild a reputation that was damaged at the 2014 World Cup. There, he was chosen for the second game of the tournament, and incorrectly ruled out two Mexico goals. FIFA did not pick him for another refereeing duty in Brazil.

To further damage Roldan’s standing, Germany coach Joachim Loew said neither he nor Can believed the tackle merited even a yellow card.

“I didn’t have the impression that it was a mean foul with the intent to hurt the opponent. It was not intentional,” Loew said through a translator at the post-match news conference.

Loew, whose Germany team will defend its World Cup title next year, still thinks video review can benefit the game – with one condition.

“I think it can be fine-tuned over time so that decisions can be made more quickly,” the German coach said. “That would be great.”

Mario Balotelli signs new Nice contract

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Italian striker Mario Balotelli has found himself the owner of a new contract after a successful season in Ligue 1 with French club OGC Nice.

Balotelli’s one-year deal was set to expire at the end of June, but he found a career revival in what many believed would be his last chance in major European soccer. The club officially announced his new contract on Sunday, and while they did not release the length of the deal, they confirmed that Balotelli turned down deals from other clubs to stay in France.

The 26-year-old scored 15 goals in 23 league appearances last year, helping Nice to a fabulous third-place finish in Ligue 1, earning them a Champions League playoff spot.

For a player who saw trouble follow him wherever he went, the only trouble he faced last season at Nice was an erratic bout with injury issues including calf and adductor problems. However, the spells on the sidelines didn’t douse Balotelli’s form. The Italian had an incredible start and finish to the season, scoring six goals in his first five appearances of the season and bagging six goals in the last eight games of the year.

The official release by Nice said that Balotelli made “considerable financial sacrifices and chose the sporting aspect with his heart” in re-signing with the French club.

Morris, Acosta, Roldan highlight USA 23-man Gold Cup roster

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Bruce Arena has released his 23-man roster for the group stage of the 2017 Gold Cup, and it appears heavily experimental as expected, with 16 players MLS based.

The experience comes in spurts, with Brad Guzan paired with the less experienced Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid among the goalkeepers. Along the back line, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Jorge Villafana all make their way from the World Cup qualifiers to the Gold Cup, joined by Chelsea youngster Matt Miazga and Toronto FC’s Justin Morrow.

In midfield, Kellyn Acosta gets additional international time after positive showings in the most recent World Cup qualifiers. Dax McCarty returns to the national team along with Alejandro Bedoya, while bright 22-year-old Seattle Sounders playmaker Cristian Roldan also makes the squad. In addition, New England Revolution winger Kelyn Rowe and left-sided Kenny Saief could be set for national team debuts. Saief has appeared twice for Israel but has yet to be cap-tied by playing in a competitive match for any country and recently had his one-time switch approved.

Jordan Morris leads the way along the front line, along with 24-year-old Juan Agudelo who has not played a competitive minute for the United States since the 2011 Gold Cup. Dom Dwyer also appears, with the 26-year-old striker also hoping for an international debut. Gyasi Zardes shows up as a midfielder, but provides the United States with another versatile attacker who could play up front.

The United States will take on Panama, Martinique, and Nicaragua in the group stage of the Gold Cup, and once that is complete, Bruce Arena will be able to make changes to the roster should the United States advance as expected. At that time, Arena can swap in up to six players who appeared on the initial 40-man roster, including more experienced players like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey.

Another name who could see time in the Gold Cup knockout round would be goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, who does not appear on the initial 25-man roster as his one-time switch paperwork has yet to be cleared by FIFA according to a number of reports. If that happens in time, he can play for the United States. The 22-year-old FC Dallas goalkeeper has played for the Mexico youth setup but has not been cap-tied by either country. After making the 40-man roster, Gonzalez confirmed he would play for the United States should he be called up. However, should he complete the one-time switch, Gonzalez wouldn’t need to be cap-tied, as completing the paperwork is enough to leave him no choice but to play for the United States.

Finally, Christian Pulisic does not appear on the 25-man roster as expected, after Bruce Arena admitted the Borussia Dortmund youngster was unlikely to play for the United States in the Gold Cup. Arena admitted getting rest and then meeting up with his club for preseason was more important for the 18-year-old than playing in the summer international tournament.

Players are set to report to training in Nashville today, with a warm-up match against Ghana scheduled for Saturday in Connecticut before Gold Cup play starts on July 8.

ROSTER

GKs: Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid.

DEFs: Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Hedges, Eric Lichaj, Matt Miazga, Justin Morrow, Jorge Villafaña, Graham Zusi.

MFs: Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona, Dax McCarty, Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Kenny Saief, Gyasi Zardes.

FWDs: Jordan Morris, Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer.

Chile 1-1 Australia: Chile moves on despite Aussie show

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Australia looked the better side for good stretches of the match, and while it wasn’t enough to earn a semifinal place, the Asian champions will go home with a hard-earned point against a top South American team in Moscow. Had it not been for a pair of ugly misses in front of net, the Australians may have had a chance to advance. Alas, an equalizer by Martin Rodriguez was enough to cancel out Massimo Luongo‘s opener and send Chile through.

With Chile holding all the meaningful possession through the first half-hour, their best chance came in the 27th minute. Alexis Sanchez controlled a long ball from Eugenio Mena and was free on goal. While trying to settle and shoot, he was dispossessed from behind by Mark Milligan who recovered brilliantly. Sanchez went to ground, and after no initial call, VAR took a look and determined there was no reason to award Chile a penalty.

[ MORE: Germany eases by Cameroon 3-1 ]

Australia refused to be intimidated by their opponents’ stature. In the 36th minute, James Troisi lofted a brilliant ball for Luongo who had made a scything run into the box. Luongo slid to redirect the ball on net, only stopped by a charging Claudio Bravo.

That was a harbinger of what would come six minutes later. A shot by Robbie Kruse from just inside the top of the box clipped off a defender as he let loose, and the deflection sent the ball straight to Troisi who was free at the far post. With Bravo closing, the Melbourne Victory attacker looped the ball over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net for a shock lead.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The game opened up from there, and both sides had a chance on net before halftime. Arturo Vidal headed from close range, but it was blocked by a defender out for a corner. Down the other end, somehow three Australia attackers worked free on a failed offside trap, but Trent Sainsbury embarrassingly skied it well over the bar with nobody there to challenge.

After the break, it was more of the same as Australia proved dangerous, forcing Bravo into a number of saves. However, it would be Chile to score next and level the score. Past the half-hour mark, Australia failed to clear, and Eduardo Vargas headed back in front of net where Rodriguez was there to touch it in. Chile nearly took the lead moments later, but Vargas headed just wide after great work by Sanchez.

Australia had another golden opportunity to take back the lead, but when Troisi’s pinpoint ball to the far post found substitute Jamie Maclaren, the Brisbane Roar striker flubbed the huge chance, scuffing his first-time attempt, sending the ball skittering well wide. Chile’s point saw them through into the semifinals, where they take on Portugal. Australia’s two points were not enough to keep them in contention.