Beyond the pomp, Europa League’s problems on display in Amsterdam

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Many of Europa League’s problems were laid bare on Wednesday, and while moments after the tournament’s high point seem an ill-opportune time to address those concerns, there aren’t many other points on the calendar when we’re willing to consider Europa. For many teams in the competition – small clubs in top-heavy leagues that have little chance of ever making Champions League — it’s a great tournament, one that gives them opportunities, opponents, and exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have. And UEFA tosses in some money, too. For other teams, however, the tournament is a conciliatory obligation, one in which they’re used as a pawn to enhance the competition’s spurious legitimacy.

Thus was have today’s final. Chelsea was only in it because they flamed out of Champions League. Same with Benfica, who didn’t have Chelsea’s excuse of having played in a difficult group. They failed to beat out Celtic for the knockout round spot from their Champions League group. Why would anybody create a competition where two of fall’s underachievers are competing for honors in the spring?

If you’re reading this site, that’s probably not news to you, but as you see the likes of John Terry and Rafa Benítez celebrate today’s win, keep their accomplishment in perspective. Today was a battle between two teams for whom Europa League will never be a preseason goal. This, as the abused yet accurate metaphor explains, is to European soccer what the National Invitational Tournament is to NCAA basketball. Since everybody – from the fans, to the coaches, to the players – knows it’s “the other tournament,” the stakes are never going to justify the pomp.

That attitude was apparent through most of today’s match. Yes, it was very entertaining at the end – 10 minutes of back-and-forth action that almost talked you into an extra 30 – but for most of the day, the match was drab. Benfica’s midfield controlled much of it. Chelsea didn’t care. A goal off a long ball; a penalty kick – it wasn’t exactly captivating stuff. Though the tactical battle in the midfield added a somewhat cerebral (or, philosophical) element to the game, that intrigue was undermined by a lack of intensity. Call it cagey, if you want, but it was still a problem, one that was only corrected in the final moments.

All of which goes back to the competition’s main problems. Not enough teams that care about it, especially those which are relegated to it from Champions League. And when those teams enter the competition in the Round of 32, they are often superior to those competing in group stage, creating a continuity issue that begs potential viewers to discard the tournament’s initial rounds and only invest once the apathy.

Those favorites aren’t apathetic forever. Eventually, they convince themselves there’s something in winning a trophy. They delude themselves into believing an honor they didn’t care about six months earlier is worth the champagne and theatrics. I still don’t understand the psychosis behind this.

If Chelsea and Benfica weren’t today’s finalists, we might have seen a more spirited game – a contest between two sides that didn’t have to come to terms with their newly deflated status. If Europa League were left to those teams who could really use the competition – those who aren’t in Champions League and aren’t likely to get their any time soon – we could see sides that treat this match like an honor.

So give this tournament to the teams that want it. No more Champions League back doors, and no more looking toward the occasional big name entrant as a way to raise the competition’s profile. It’s more important to have compelling matches in a tournament with competitive integrity. While that means we might not have a club of Chelsea’s profile in the final, we may, in the long run, end up with a competition capable of earning a profile of its own.

Serie A roundup: Roma pips Napoli for 2nd, Lazio falls

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Francesco Totti’s legendary career came to a close in fitting fashion as Roma scored a last-minute winner to secure 2nd place in the Serie A table.

On the final day of the season, Napoli’s win at Sampdoria moved them momentarily into second, but Roma snatched the spot back as Diego Perotti scored in the 90th minute to beat Genoa 3-2. Totti had come on as a 54th minute substitute.

[ MORE: Francesco Totti’s career achievements make him an all-time great ]

The win saw Roma end the season on 87 points, one above Napoli’s 86. That puts Roma into the Champions League group stage, while the third-place finish for Napoli places them in next season’s Champions League playoff round. They finish the season with a dominating 4-2 win over Sampdoria that saw four different Napoli goalscorers find the back of the net.

Below the Champions League battle, Atalanta held onto its fabulous fourth-place finish as Lazio fell 3-1 at Crotone. With Lazio already down 2-1 midway through the first half, Angolan defender Bastos received a second yellow card. Down to 10 men, Lazio still controlled the majority of possession but saw themselves outshot, only able to pop off three shots on target. The loss has no significant bearing, as both Atalanta and Lazio qualify for the Europa League group stage, while AC Milan seven points adrift in sixth makes the Europa League third qualifying round.

AC Milan finishes the season a point above rivals Inter despite a 2-1 final-day loss to Cagliari. The game was tied 1-1 down the stretch, but Gabriel Paletta was sent off with 15 minutes remaining, and Fabio Pisacane scored three minutes deep into stoppage time to give Cagliari the win.

Inter, meanwhile, finished the year on a high note as they hammered Udinese 5-2, most notably on a brace from Eder. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic also scored in the win, while the fifth came on a late own goal. Inter finished the year on 62 points, five less than last season’s 67 which was good enough for fourth place.

Elsewhere, Fiorentina finished a disappointing season with a disappointing 2-2 home draw with last-placed Pescara, while Palermo beat Empoli 2-1 and five goalscorers helped Torino pound Sassuolo 5-2.

USMNT roster announced for pair of World Cup qualifiers

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The regulars are all aboard as Bruce Arena has announced a mostly full-strength roster for the World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago.

The only true regular missing from the 27-man list is midfielder Jermaine Jones, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered back in early May.

Leading the line are Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey up front, with Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood alongside. Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, and Christian Pulisic headline the midfield, along with Alejandro Bedoya and Darlington Nagbe. Kellyn Acosta is called up as a like-for-like replacement for Jermaine Jones.

Along the back, Geoff Cameron is available for selection after navigating a few injuries this past season. John Brooks is back as well after his muscle tear suffered in late April. DeAndre Yedlin is back as well after missing the last pair of qualifiers with an injury and winning the Championship with Newcastle. Fulham’s Tim Ream is called in after showing improvement all season at the club level. Jorge Villafana returns at the thin left-back position, as is DaMarcus Beasley, who is listed as a midfielder.

In goal, Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, and Nick Rimando present an experienced trio, also supported by 21-year-old Ethan Horvath.

The US takes on Venezuela in a friendly on June 3rd in a warm-up to the pair of qualifiers. First, they’ll host Trinidad & Tobago in Denver on June 8th. Then, on just a three day turnaround, they head to the Azteca to play Mexico.

After earning four points in the last international break, the United States sits in 4th position in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The top three teams advance automatically to the 2018 World Cup, while the 4th placed team can qualify via a two-legged playoff against a team from the Asian confederation.


GKs: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

DEFs: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).

MIDs: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

FWDs: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Bobby Wood (Hamburg).

Totti’s loyalty one of the great soccer accomplishments ever

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During the prematch ceremony to celebrate the retirement of Roma legend Francesco Totti, there were fans crying. There were mascots crying. There were family members crying. There were players crying. The man himself was crying.

When 25 years with one club, no celebration can keep back the tears that naturally follow such a glorious career. Instead, an entire stadium paid tribute in one massive outpouring of emotion.

He was never flashy, he was never self-concerned, he never attracted the spotlight. All Francesco Totti did was give and give and give to his club. As the Italian’s career progressed, the game changed around him, with more and more money flowing through a landscape that gave players every reason to change teams as often as possible.

Through it all, Totti stayed put.

Roma’s Francesco Totti enters the field for his final salute to his fans after an Italian Serie A soccer match between Roma and Genoa at the Olympic stadium in Rome (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino).

At the end of it all, 25 years produced 618 league appearances, and 782 appearances overall. He scored 250 Serie A goals on the nose, and another 66 amid all other competitions. Those are just numbers, and Totti gave Roma far more than a laundry list of big numbers.

But for now, we focus on the bookkeeping, because even those are staggering. 250 league goals leaves Totti 2nd all-time in Italy, behind just Silvio Piola, but even the great 1938 World Cup champion never scored more than 143 league goals for a single club. Only three active players have over 100 league goals.

Totti racked up 618 Serie A appearances, his final one a 3-2 win over Genoa that earned Roma a Champions League group stage spot. That total is good for third all-time, one (for now) behind the great Gianluigi Buffon and 29 back of all-time leader Paolo Maldini. Maldini, who retired in 2009, also spent his entire career with one club in AC Milan, an equally commendable accomplishment. But in the modern game, 8 years adrift of Maldini’s playing days, the overwhelming temptations to move clubs make what Totti has done even more remarkable. Plus, he out-lasted Maldini’s career by a year (24 vs. 25 years active).

A note: only two players in the top 30 list in Serie A appearances are still active: Buffon, and 34-year-old Alberto Gilardino, who has played for 11 clubs in his career and is still 104 appearances back of Totti.

Past all the numbers stands a humble man who served one fanbase as loyally as humanly possible. Totti’s accomplishments are not only among the greatest in the history of the game, but it also may never be surpassed by anyone as long as we live.

Mascherano out 6 weeks, will miss Argentina vs. Brazil

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano will be out of action for six weeks to recover from a right knee injury.

[ MORE: Luis Enrique leaves Barca with feeling of accomplishment ]

Barcelona’s season is over, but the injury will rule out Mascherano from Argentina’s friendly against Brazil on June 9.

Mascherano injured his leg early in Saturday’s final of the Copa del Rey, when Barcelona beat Alaves 3-1 to defend its title for a third straight season.

He also cut his head during the collision with an Alaves player that produced the leg injury. He returned on crutches to join the team celebration.

Argentina doesn’t play its next World Cup qualifier until it plays Uruguay on Aug. 28.