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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.

Report: Stoke City bids massive $23 million for Christian Pulisic

ALTACH, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 05: Christian Pulisic of Dortmund (c) challenges Patrick Van Aanmolt of Sunderland (l) and Lee Cattermole of Sunderland (r) during the friendly match between AFC Sunderland v Borussia Dortmund at Cashpoint Arena on August 5, 2016 in Altach, Austria.  (Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images)
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Christian Pulisic’s meteoric rise to the Borussia Dortmund first team has attracted interest. Big money interest.

The first real transfer noise of the 17-year-old’s career is a bang, with German publication Bild reporting that Stoke City has bid a whopping $22.5 million for the American.

There isn’t much more information at this point, but clearly the influx of cash to the Premier League has even the mid-table sides spending huge amounts of money for young talent. Stoke apparently isn’t the only team interested in Pulisic, with Red Bull Leipzig and CSKA Moscow also interested according to Bild. Leipzig would likely have more interest in the young attacker on loan, seeing as they have just been promoted to the Bundesliga and likely wouldn’t be able to compete with the likes of a Premier League team.

It’s hard to imagine Pulisic could be lured away from Dortmund at this early stage in his career with things going so well, but if the club wishes to cash in on him with value high, he might have little choice. A loan to another Bundesliga side like Leipzig would likely see him get more playing time at the same level while still being able to return to a big club, but other than a small loan fee, it’s unlikely the club would make any money in that sort of a deal.

Expect this one to go down to the wire, as both team and player weigh their options. Either way, this is a good sign for the USMNT’er with so much interest in his services and more possibly to enter the fray.

League Cup roundup: Middlesbrough and Burnley fall to lower league foes

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Adam Forshaw of Middlesbrough is challenged by Tim Ream of Fulham during the EFL Cup second round match between Fulham and Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage on August 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Sunderland and Bournemouth advanced to the League Cup third round, while Middlesbrough and Burnley dropped out after both finding themselves bested in extra-time.

A strong Boro lineup still saw its goal pummeled all evening by Fulham’s young squad, and Lasse Vigen Christensen won it in extra time with an assist from American youngster Luca de la Torre to complete the 2-1 scoreline. Middlesbrough went ahead early on an 8th minute header by David Nugent, but they were on the back foot the rest of the match. Scott Malone forced a Boro own-goal for the equalizer shortly after halftime, and Christensen won it seven minutes before penalties.

The win for Fulham means they are unbeaten through five matches this season across Championship and League Cup play. The Whites then drew a home meeting with Bristol City for the third round of the Cup.

Burnley also went to extra-time after a scoreless full 90 minutes, and they were stunned by a goal from Accrington Stanley’s Matt Pearson in the 122nd minute, just ticks before penalties to down the Clarets 1-0. It was a dull match up to that point, and the League Two side earned its first-ever victory over a Premier League side in cup play with the late winner. The winners will have another shot at a Premier League side in the next round, drawing West Ham.

Bournemouth nudged past League Two side Morecambe 2-1 thanks to goals from Max Gradel and Marc Wilson, although Morecambe had leveled things for a bit between the two Cherries’ goals. Bournemouth saw themselves drawn against Preston North End in the upcoming round.

Sunderland also saw themselves through thanks to Adnan Januzaj‘s first goal for the Black Cats, an 83rd minute strike to down League One side Shrewsbury Town 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. The match was a relatively even affair until Januzaj’s late goal, but Sunderland likely deserved to win on number of chances, with Patrick van Anholt having the best prior opportunity just before halftime with a rocket saved by Jason Leutwiler. The Black Cats will travel to QPR following the third round draw.

Champions League playoff roundup: Man City eases through, Ajax bounced

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Joe Hart of Manchester City looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League Play-off Second Leg match between Manchester City and Steaua Bucharest at Etihad Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The result was never in doubt for Manchester City after a 6-0 demolition of Steaua Bucharest in the first leg, but the Premier League side made it official as they eased into the group stage with a 0-0 second leg result at the Etihad.

Joe Hart started and played what could be his final match in a City shirt, with Pep Guardiola handing him potentially one last showing in front of the home fans. The fan favorite received a thunderous welcome from the home fans who understood the situation.

Guardiola rested Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, and David Silva but still put forth a strong side, and Fabian Delph‘s 58th minute goal sent Man City home with an easy victory and clean sheet. There was a scary moment when Kelechi Iheanacho appeared to pull up lame with a hamstring injury, and then suddenly passed out on the field, but he came to just before a Bucharest player was about to attempt to resuscitate him. The young striker was brought off in favor of Fernandinho in the 75th minute.

Also through easily is Borussia Monchengladbach, with a 6-1 home win over Young Boys to complete a 9-2 aggregate victory. Thorgan Hazard opened the scoring just nine minutes in with a solid bit of skill, and Raffael continued his solid run of form with a hat-trick to easy the Germans through. Hazard would eventually cap off a hat-trick in the 84th minute as well.

In the surprise of the round, Dutch giants Ajax saw themselves bow out of the Champions League following a 4-1 aggregate defeat to last year’s Russian Premier League runners up FC Rostov. The spot in the group stage was there for the taking after a 1-1 first leg in the Netherlands, but Ajax was hammered on Wednesday 4-1 in Russia. Rostov managed four goals with four different goalscorers, including Ecudorian international Christian Noboa. The visitors, meanwhile, didn’t even manage a shot on target until the 73rd minute.

FC Koln needed a late equalizer to send them through over APOEL Nicosia, as Paraguayan international Federico Santander scored in the 86th minute to level the match at 1-1 and give the visitors a 2-1 aggregate win. Finally, Dinamo Zagreb completed a stunning comeback, scoring twice after the 87th minute to beat Red Bull Salzburg 2-1 on the day in Austria and 3-2 on aggregate. Junior Fernandes scored in the 87th to level things at 1-1 and requiring extra time. Then Algerian international El Arabi Hilal Soudani bagged the winner in the 97th minute, sending the Croatians through to the group stage.

Coleman explains why he stayed as Wales coach, rejected Hull

ZENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Chris Coleman of Wales celebrates after the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales at the Stadium Bilino Polje in Elbasan on October 10, 2015. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Chris Coleman says he chose to remain as Wales manager despite interest from Premier League side Hull because he’s in a job that is “close to his heart.”

The Football Association of Wales rejected an approach for Coleman from Hull this month, with the Welshman deciding to stay on rather than resigning.

Coleman, who guided Wales to the European Championship semifinals against the odds, said on Wednesday that “if someone comes and it’s the Premier League, anybody, you kind of look at it sideways. Of course.”

But, Coleman added, managing your country “comes around once, if you’re lucky.”

Coleman has made no secret of his desire to manage in club football in the future, but says “what I’ve got here is something very special and close to my heart.”