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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.

Chastain, McMillan, Garber make Hall of Fame

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Brandi Chastain attends the Annual Charity Day Hosted By Cantor Fitzgerald And BGC at the Cantor Fitzgerald Office on September 11, 2013 in New York, United States.  (Photo by Mike McGregor/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald)
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CHICAGO (AP) — World Cup champions Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Chastain, who scored the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup final shootout against China, was selected on the player ballot. MacMillan, her teammate on that squad, was voted in on the veteran ballot. Garber was chosen on the builder ballot.

Chastain played 12 seasons of international soccer, scoring 30 goals in 192 matches. She also won a World Cup in 1991, and earned Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004. She was the first U.S. player to score five goals in one match, in 1991 World Cup qualifying as a forward. She later became a mainstay on defense.

“To be inducted into the Hall of Fame and have my name read in the same sentence with our country’s best is truly humbling,” Chastain said Thursday. “The opportunity to play the game was given to me by my parents; my competitiveness and enthusiasm was fostered by every coach who I was blessed to be taught by; and my passion was shared and heightened by all of my teammates over my career. It is not enough to say how grateful I am with words, and therefore, I continue to share the game with anyone and everyone.”

MacMillan also was on the 1996 Olympic team. She scored 60 goals in 12 international seasons and was the 2002 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year.

“Playing for the USA was always an honor and privilege for me, and that could only be topped by being selected for the Hall of Fame,” MacMillan said. “I am incredibly humbled and honored by this selection. I will forever be grateful to the great game of soccer for all of the life lessons it has taught me along the way, and for all the friendships I built along the way. I want to thank U.S. Soccer and my teammates for all of the support throughout the years.”

Garber, in his 17th year as MLS commissioner, was cited for his work growing the sport in the United States.

“Thanks to the commitment and hard work of many people, our sport has grown significantly during the last few decades, and there is no doubt the United States is a true soccer nation,” Garber said. “It is an honor to be inducted alongside Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, two iconic figures in U.S. Soccer history who have impacted the sport at so many levels.”

MLS Preview: Can anyone separate from the pack? Western leaders get big tests

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - APRIL 02:  Shkelzen Gashi #11 of Colorado Rapids controls the ball against the Toronto FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Rapids defeated Toronto FC 1-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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With last week’s draw-fest in the past and both conferences still jumbled, all eyes are on the top of the Western Conference with this week’s list of matchups.

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Three teams – Colorado, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas – are all tied atop the standings on 17 points. The first two respectively play each other. The final one crosses sides to play the 3rd place team in the East. Should this week go differently than last – meaning, fewer than the eight draws we were handed across Week 8 – some teams could find themselves with some valuable separation atop the standings.

So, who has the opportunity to make moves?

Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake — 9:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Each with 17 points at the top of the West, there’s plenty at stake at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Colorado is four games unbeaten, although it dropped points for the first time in a month last time out. The Rapids feasted upon underachieving teams during its three-game winning streak, but when faced with the leaders of the Eastern Conference last weekend, they needed a pair of comebacks to earn a point. Nonetheless, the Rapids have put their early-season struggles firmly behind them.

The Rapids have struggled against RSL in the recent past, losing the last time out in Salt Lake City, and sporting a 1-4-2 record against RSL in the last seven meetings at DSG Park. Shkëlzen Gashi continues to be the key for Colorado’s attack, having pumped 25 shots on target this season so far. For RSL, last week’s win put the demolition at the hands of Los Angeles firmly in the past, changing the narrative to five wins in their last six, a significant rise in form.

Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas  7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FC Dallas also has a chance to go atop the West with a result on the road at BMO Field. Dallas’s grip on the West is gone thanks to a pair of flunks against two eighth-placed teams – a bad sign as the Jeckyll and Hyde season continues. They’re in a great place, but have also looked lost at times. All three heavy defeats have come on the road, and wouldn’t you know it, now they’re serving as Toronto’s May home opener.

The East has been a mire thus far, but for Toronto to sit third after three wins in an eight-game road trip, Sebastian Giovinco and company have put themselves in great position. Nonetheless, Greg Vanney said the club still needs to “prove itself” in front of its home fans, and those fans are sure to be up for it after the long wait.

D.C. United vs. New York City FC  7:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Two of the four teams stuck on 10 points in the middle of the Eastern Conference have a critical matchup at RFK Stadium Saturday. D.C. has gutted things out through the softer part of its schedule, but now a meeting with a team in the hunt will test D.C., who will be without the suspended Chris Rolfe after his dangerous challenge on Nick LaBrocca. If anything, the break could give Rolfe a chance to collect his thoughts after a slow start to the season.

They face a NYCFC team that picked up just its second win of the season last time out. Draw-happy early on, NY had lost three of four before the 3-2 win over Vancouver, a gritty win that took overcoming adversity after Vancouver went ahead, then came back to tie things up before Steven Mendoza tied things up with 17 minutes to go. This one’s a big one in the East mix, can anyone come out on top?

Elsewhere

Orlando City FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m. ET Friday
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET Saturday
Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Seattle Sounders vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 10 p.m. ET Saturday
L.A. Galaxy vs. New England Revolution — 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Men in Blazers podcast: Jurgen Klopp pod special

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog sits down with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to give you a taste of his new documentary on the eccentric German boss.

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Klopp hails “unbelievable” player performance to send Liverpool to Europa League final

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool gives instructions to captain James Milner of Liverpool during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp didn’t want any of the credit after Liverpool defeated Villarreal 3-0 at Anfield to send the Reds to Basel with a spot in the Europa League final.

“Wonderful night – a brilliant game from my side,” Klopp said to BT Sport after the game. “What power, what a performance, what attitude with the readiness, motivation, emotion in the game – everything.”

Liverpool held 60% of the possession and out-shot Villarreal 25-6, including 12-2 among shots on target.

“We go to Basel. We take 50,000, 60k, 70k Liverpudlians with us – maybe 100k – not in the stadium, but in the city,” Klopp said of the upcoming final. “Everybody is invited. It is a nice city by the way, close to my home! Let’s go there, create an atmosphere and do our best again. It is well deserved and I am really, really pleased for all the boys.”

Klopp, who hails from Stuttgart, Germany which is under a three hour drive from Basel, made the call to start Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can.

Sturridge was on the bench for the first leg against Villarreal when Liverpool was held scoreless and played the full 90 minutes in their loss to Swansea over the weekend. This time, he forced the opening own-goal and scored the second. Can, meanwhile, hasn’t played in a month due to an ankle injury, but he was a force in front of the Reds back line.

“The only thing we said at half time was that the first half an hour was a big emotion,” Klopp said after the game. “It was great but then the last 15 minutes of the first half we lost patience. We didn’t move them over the pitch as much and tried to go down the middle, but there was no space so we lost balls. We defended well though so nothing happened. The second half plan was to keep going with the emotional football plus using your brain little a bit more and in the end it was brilliant – wonderful goals. The whole night was unbelievable.”

“We have to create atmospheres like this in each Premier League game too.”