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


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.

Brazil to play Austria in final warmup game for World Cup

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VIENNA (AP) The Austrian soccer federation says Brazil will play its final warmup game for the World Cup against Austria on June 10, a week before the five-time world champions take on Switzerland in their Group E opener.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Kekuta Manneh to roster ahead of friendly ]

The match will be played in Vienna at Ernst Happel Stadium, the same venue where both teams last met in a 2014 friendly, which Brazil won 2-1.

Brazil has further build-up games against World Cup host Russia (March 23), world champion Germany (March 27) and Croatia (June 3) ahead of the June 14-July 15 tournament, where it also meets Costa Rica and Serbia in the group stage.

Austria failed to qualify for the World Cup but will also play friendlies against Russia on May 30 and Germany on June 2.

Fiorentina renames training ground for Davide Astori

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Fiorentina’s training ground has been renamed “Centro Sportivo Davide Astori” in honor of the club’s deceased captain.

[ MORE: Manneh added to USMNT squad ]

Davide Astori died in his team hotel room on March 4, shocking the Italian soccer world and triggering tributes around the world of soccer.

The respected Italian national team center back has had number retired by both Fiorentina and former club Cagliari.

Thousands packed a Florence piazza to salute the player en route to his funeral, and the club won its first match after his passing following vivid pre- and in-match tributes.

Kekuta Manneh added to USMNT roster for Paraguay game

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CHICAGO (AP) Mexican league midfielder Kekuta Manneh was added to the U.S. roster Monday for a March 27 exhibition against Paraguay at Cary, North Carolina.

The 27-year-old was born in Ghana and became a U.S. citizen two years ago while playing with Vancouver. He was traded to Columbus in March 2017 and signed with Pachuca in December.

[ MORE: Southampton momentum? ]

He is among eight players on the 23-man roster who could make their national team debuts. The others are goalkeeper Alex Bono; defenders Shaq Moore, Erik Palmer-Brown and Antonee Robinson; midfielders Marky Delgado and Tim Weah; and forward Andrija Novakovich

Four others have played just once: goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defender Cameron Carter-Vickers and midfielders Weston McKennie and Kenny Saief.

After failing to qualify for the World Cup, the U.S. will not play a competitive match until this summer.

The revised roster:

Goalkeepers: Alex Bono (Toronto), Bill Hamid (Midtjylland, Denmark), Zack Steffen (Columbus).

Defenders: Cameron Carter-Vickers (Ipswich Town, England), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest, England), Matt Miazga (Vitesse, Netherlands), Shaq Moore (Levante, Spain), Erik Palmer-Brown (Kortrijk, Belgium), Antonee Robinson (Bolton, England), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna, Mexico), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle, England).

Midfielders: Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Marky Delgado (Toronto), Kekuta Manneh (Pachuca, Mexico), Weston McKennie (Schalke, Germany), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta), Cristian Roldan (Seattle), Kenny Saief (Anderlecht, Belgium), Wil Trapp (Columbus), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain, France).

Forwards: Andrija Novakovich (Telstar, Netherlands), Rubio Rubin (Tijuana, Mexico), Bobby Wood (Hamburg, Germany).

Further crowd trouble could see Lyon’s European ban made active

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Lyon has not enjoyed sportsmanship on and off the pitch this season.

You’ll remember an ugly incident between its players and Everton fans this season, but it’s been Lyon’s support which has had the Ligue 1 club under the microscope for some time.

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Lyon had a two-year ban suspended in April, and antics before Thursday’s Europa League match versus CSKA Moscow could see the French side’s suspension from European competition put into action. From the BBC:

Lyon have been charged with racist behaviour, crowd disturbances, throwing objects and setting off fireworks and blocking stairways.

Police say up to 150 ultras attacked officers outside Lyon’s stadium on Thursday.