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.

UCL preview: Three keys to Liverpool-Hoffenheim

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A pair of away goals are under Liverpool’s wing as the Reds prepare for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League playoff round second leg versus Hoffenheim at Anfield.

That’s great, but it’s Mark Uth’s late concession goal for Hoffenheim that will have Liverpool supporters wary ahead of the return match.

Three keys to the match for Liverpool? Well, let’s start with an easy one.

1) Avoid these score lines: The 2-1 score line works for the Reds, of course, who will only fail to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League through some unlikely scenarios:

  • A two-goals or worse loss at Anfield
  • A 2-1 loss plus failing in penalty kicks
  • A one-goal loss while conceding three or more times

2) Don’t allow gaps in the midfield: Kerem Demirbay was being a little cheeky when he said, “We play better football than Liverpool,” and the sides have one major similarity: If you give them room, they can kill you.

Demirbay is a great example of this. The Confederations Cup winner can rip teams apart in the middle of the pitch, and giving him room allows him to choose between unleashing a cannon from distance and spotting Serge Gnabry, Andrej Kramaric, Sandro Wagner, or even Uth for chances on goal. Heck, even Adam Szalai on the bench is a very good option.

Gnabry and Kramaric played less than a half hour each in Hoffenheim’s 1-0 Bundesliga win over the weekend, while Wagner didn’t play at all. Game on.

3) Embrace the occasion: Jurgen Klopp branded Wednesday’s match and the presumed entry into the UCL group stage “the next step” in the club’s evolution under his watch.

This is Liverpool’s second UCL campaign of this decade, and the first UCL night at Anfield since a 1-1 draw against Basel on Dec. 9, 2014.

That night, Brendan Rodgers trotted out this XI: Mignolet, Johnson, Lovren, Skrtel, Enrique, Gerrard (who scored), Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Sterling, Lambert. His subs used? Coutinho, Moreno, Markovic (the last name earned a red card).

In previous home group games against Real Madrid and Ludogorets Razgrad, the Reds managed two more goals. Gerrard had another and Mario Balotelli the other.

So, and this is hopefully a bit overblown but certainly a concern: A whopping six Liverpool players have played in a home UCL match for Liverpool and no one on the Reds roster has scored a goal at Anfield in the competition.

EFL Cup wrap: USMNT’s Gooch shines; Watford upset

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Six Premier League teams dodged upsets upon entering the League Cup, stylized as the EFL Cup for a second season, but a seventh was not as fortunate.

[ MORE: 426 world clubs, ranked weekly ]


Watford 2-3 Bristol City

Etienne Capoue scored just after halftime to give the Hornets a leg up, but goals from Freddie Hinds and Bobby Reid eight minutes apart gave the Robins a lead that Niclas Eliasson buttressed in stoppage time. Adrian Mariappa pulled one back, but it wasn’t enough for Marco Silva‘s men.

Crystal Palace 2-1 Ipswich Town

The unbeaten Tractor Boys were as much of a problem as advertised, but James McArthur scored in the 76th and 84th minutes to give the Eagles a spot in the next round. Man City loanee Bersant Celina nabbed Ipswich Town’s lone goal.

MK Dons 1-4 Swansea City

Leroy Fer gave Swans a pair of leads at 1-0 and 2-1 before Tammy Abraham and Jordan Ayew scored late to salt away the win at Stadium MK.

Sheffield United 1-4 Leicester City

The popular score line saw Islam Slimani bag a brace in between goals from Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa.

Carlisle United 1-2 Sunderland

USMNT youngster Lynden Gooch scored an 80th minute winner after assisting on Donald Love‘s opener, as the Black Cats scored a road win.

It’s the 21-year-old Gooch’s first senior goal for the Black Cats in his 19th appearance. It’s also his first assist and should give food for thought to boss Simon Grayson, who has been using him off the bench. Gooch played 362 Premier League minutes last season.

Tuesday’s other results
Aston Villa 4-1 Wigan Athletic
Leeds United 5-1 Newport County
Middlesbrough 3-0 Scunthorpe United
Norwich City 4-1 Charlton Athletic
QPR 1-4 Brentford
Fulham 0-1 Bristol Rovers
Cardiff City 1-2 Burton Albion
Doncaster 2-0 Hull City
Brighton and Hove Albion 1-0 Barnet
Accrington Stanley 1-3 West Brom
Birmingham City 1-2 Bournemouth
Reading 3-1 (aet) Millwall
Bolton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday
Grimsby Town 0-1 Derby County (1st round match*)

*Derby will face Barnsley in a 2nd round match

Champions League: Napoli, Sevilla move on

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Celtic’s 8-4 aggregate win over Astana earlier Tuesday was just the tip of the iceberg.

[ MORE: 426 world clubs, ranked weekly ]

Eight more goals came calling in a quartet of UEFA Champions League playoff round second legs on Tuesday, as Sevilla, Napoli, Maribor, and Olympiacos joined the Bhoys in the group stage.

Sevilla 2-2 (4-3 agg.) Basaksehir

When Sevilla brought two away goals back to Spain, this leg threatened absolute boredom. That couldn’t have been more off base, as the Turkish visitors took a 1-0 through Eljero Elia to put the match back in the balance and didn’t quit once the Istanbul side made it 4-2. But Edin Visca’s 83rd minute goal was all they’d muster, and Sevilla avoided a massive upset to reach the UCL group stage.

Nice 0-2 (0-4 agg.) Napoli

There will be no Mario Balotelli reunion with Anfield in the UEFA Champions League, as Napoli got an early second half goal from Jose Callejon to bury any hopes of the Ligue 1 side coming back from a 2-0 first leg hole. Lorenzo Insigne scored in the 89th minute to make the final moments even less dramatic. He hit the ball really well.

Maribor 1-0 (2-2 agg.) Hapoel Be’er Sheva

It’s cliche to say there were “scenes” in any given big game, but the Ljudski vrt spent the final 15 minutes building to a crescendo. If there was a lid on the place, it would’ve blown at the final whistle as the Slovenian side knocked its Israeli visitors into the Europa League.

Rijeka 0-1 (1-3 agg.) Olympiacos

Not much drama here, as ex-Chelsea winger Marko Marin scored in the 25th minute to put Croatia’s Rijeka in a pretty deep hole.

Still to come Wednesday
All matches at 2:45 p.m. ET

Copenhagen vs. Qarabag (Qarabag leads 1-0)
CSKA Moscow vs. Young Boys (CSKA leads 1-0)
Slavia Prague vs. Apoel Nicosia (Apoel leads 2-0)
Liverpool vs. Hoffenheim (Liverpool leads 2-1)
Steaua Bucharest vs. Sporting CP (First leg 0-0)

Five Thirty Eight unveils Top 426 soccer clubs in the world

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Perspective achieved?

Advanced statistical site Five Thirty Eight has put together a weekly ranking of the top and bottom club teams in the world, and its algorithm gives us a theoretical answer into where Major League Soccer fits into the club soccer landscape.

[ MORE: Julian Green back on transfer market ]

At its very base level, the rankings will give reason to check back all season. Can Manchester United break into the Top Three? Will an MLS side leap into the Top 100? Can the worst American club avoid the bottom slot?

Here’s the list of clubs, and Five Thirty Eight has also gone through the trouble of giving its statistical analysis of who’s best set-up to win leagues and even games.

A note on the methodology:

We’re using recent matches played between teams from different leagues, supplemented with league market values (from Transfermarkt), to assign a strength rating to every league that we’re forecasting. Our new league ratings also give us the ability to a calculate a global Soccer Power Index (SPI) rating for each team — a number from 0 to 100 that represents the overall strength of each team.

The Premier League and La Liga combine for six of the Top Ten teams in the world, with Real Madrid No. 1 and Man City, Manchester United, and Chelsea running Nos. 7, 8, and 9.

Brighton and Hove Albion is the lowest ranked Premier League club, 188th in the world. The only PL sides outside the Top 125 are the three promoted clubs. Swansea is 113th, the lowest (or highest) ranked PL side aside from the new promotions.

Brighton is 17 spots below MLS’ top representative: Toronto FC. The same web site ranked MLS as the 28th best league in the world earlier this month, between Denmark and Croatia.

New York City FC shows up next, at 259, then rivals New York Red Bulls at 267. The bulk of MLS clubs fit between 320 and 422, where Minnesota United brings up the rear. The study ranks 426 teams, with three Scottish clubs running 424-426.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

As for some other odds, Five Thirty Eight gives Manchester United the best odds to win the league at 31 percent, with Man City, Chelsea, and Spurs joining them with the best odds to place in the Top Four.

The average simulated season has United besting rivals City by two points, with 80. Tottenham (72) tops Arsenal (68) for fourth by four points, while No. 6 Liverpool finishes 10 points clear of Merseyside rivals Everton (57 points).

It’s no surprise that the three promoted clubs — Huddersfield Town, Newcastle, and Brighton — are the top bets to be relegated, with Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and Swansea City the next best bets to find life in the Championship.

Other notes:

— Manchester United is the fourth-best defensive team in the Premier League, behind only Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Juventus.

— Spurs are also in the Top Ten amongst defensive teams, a 8.

— Man City is the best offensive team in the PL, seventh in the world.

— Watford is this week’s highest PL riser, up 22 spots.

— MLS side Chicago Fire suffered the fourth biggest drop in the world this week (40 spots).

Five Thirty Eight is one of the best predictive web sites in the world, and one of the only ones who gave more than an outside shot (though still ranking it a long shot) of the 2016 United States presidential election turning out for the winner of the electoral college. So this is certainly food for thought.