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.

Sporting KC claims its fourth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (video)

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Latif Blessing and Daniel Salloi scored as Sporting KC held on to beat New York Red Bulls 2-1 in the 104th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final on Wednesday at Children’s Mercy Park in Missouri.

Bradley Wright-Phillips blasted a Gonzalo Veron rebound beyond Tim Melia in the first minute of stoppage time to set up a nervy final five minutes. It was the Red Bulls’ second final, and second loss.

The win marks KC’s fourth title, tied for the most amongst active clubs, and its third in six tournaments.

KC now qualifies for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.

[ MORE: Pulisic scores 10th BVB goal ]

Sporting KC could’ve been down a man within five minutes, as referee Hilario Grajeda was handing out a yellow card to Seth Sinovic when Diego Rubio inexplicably kicked Felipe Martins in the ankle. It went unseen, and VAR is not a part of the final.

Gerson arrived on the doorstep with the ball and instead side-footed a pass that never got to Benny Feilhaber, a huge let-off for the Red Bulls.

Sacha Kljestan ripped a shot through traffic that forced a save out of Tim Melia in the 14th minute.

KC went ahead when Graham Zusi’s cross was somehow missed by a trio of Red Bulls defenders, allowing Blessing to pound a header home.

Benny Feilhaber committed a pair of fouls to allow a Red Bulls free kick from just outside the 18 and the end line, but the chance was blocked. A counter attack pass from Blessing sprung Gerso on a breakaway, but Ryan Meara blocked the shot.

Meara made another save after the first ball off the ensuing corner cranked off the cross bar.

Feilhaber then cued up Salloi for the insurance marker, before tournament leading scorer Wright-Phillips pulled one back for New York.

Ike Opara ripped down Wright-Phillips in the sixth of six stoppage time minutes, earning a yellow card and giving RBNY a free kick from 23 yards. Felipe skied his effort over the bar.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 3-5 Montreal Impact (video)

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The match in about 100 words: Well, here’s a formula for ending Toronto FC’s 11-match unbeaten run –

  1. Hope they don’t use Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, and Victor Vazquez.
  2. Have your best player ball out of control.

Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti did just that, scoring twice and adding an assist in the first half alone. A 42nd minute own goal from Montreal opened the door to home hope, but Anthony Jackson-Hamel continued his breakout campaign with two goals in four minutes. Tosaint Ricketts scored a pair of late headers to complete the score line.

Toronto FC’s home crowd didn’t see arguably its three top performers of the season, and did see something it hadn’t this year: a home loss. That it was a derby loss won’t feel good for the Reds, who also gave oxygen to their rivals’ flickering playoff hopes.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap | La Liga | Serie A ]


Three moments that mattered

12′ — Michael Bradley clears TFC’s runway — Not the finest moment for Captain America, as Marco Donadel opens up his laser and fires.

24′ — “When defenders fall down” — …And when they do it in front of Nacho, inside the 18.

47′ — AJH puts it to bed — It wasn’t Toronto’s night, and a bad back pass met tepid decision-making and one of the sleepy breakout players of MLS in Anthony Jackson-Hamel.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Piatti

Goal scorers: Piatti (10′, 24′), Donadel (12′), Boldor (o.g. 42′), Jackson-Hamel (47′, 51′), Ricketts (77′, 79′).

MLS Snapshot: Atlanta United 4-0 LA Galaxy (video)

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The match in 100 words (or less): Somewhere, Atlanta United is still scoring now with 19 goals in its last five outings. The “Five Stripes” fired at will for the second-straight game, leading 3-0 before Jermaine Jones made it academic with a silly red card. Yamil Asad had two goals and two assists in the first half, while Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez also scored. For Martinez, it’s seven goals in seven days. LA has quit, and Tata Martino’s Atlanta may just pose a threat to Toronto FC’s presumed MLS Cup Final spot.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap | La Liga | Serie A ]


Three moments that mattered

13′ — Maaaaayyyybe defend, LA? — It’s one thing for Rafael Garcia to back off and back off and back off and back off Yamil Asad. It’s another thing to fail in any attempt to mark the hottest scorer in MLS: Josef Martinez.

20′ — Three goals in seven minutes — About that “defending”… woof. This is a straight-up passing drill for ATL.

39′ — Jermaine Jones rolls back the years (not in a good way) — The combustible midfielder showed that vibes haven’t settled in LA despite Sigi Schmid’s presence, taking an easy red considering VAR’s abilities for dragging his cleat in the direction of a fellow human’s spine.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Asad

Goal scorers: Martinez (13′), Asad (16′, 20′), Almiron (43′)

Atletico Madrid to host 2018-19 UEFA Champions League final

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The 2018-19 UEFA Champions League Final is headed to Madrid.

Atletico Madrid announced that next season’s final will be played at the recently-opened Wanda Metropolitano, making Atleti the fourth Spanish club to host a UCL final (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla).

[ WATCH: Rashford’s sensational goal ]

Atleti raves of its new home, “The Wanda Metropolitano can seat 68,000 spectators and is at the technological forefront due to agreements with top companies in their sector.”

This season’s final will be played at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev, the home of the Ukraine national team and Dynamo Kiev.

The UCL Final was last in Madrid at the home of Real Madrid, the Santiago Bernabeu, for Inter Milan’s triumph over Bayern Munich in 2010.