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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.

Bayern defends Ancelotti for middle-finger gesture to fans

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich has defended coach Carlo Ancelotti for raising his middle finger to Hertha Berlin fans after supposedly being spit at following a dramatic 1-1 draw in the Bundesliga.

[ MORE: Shaw in betting investigation ]

Bayern says “basically we find the human reaction of Carlo Ancelotti with the gesture to be emotionally understandable after the nasty spitting attack.”

Robert Lewandowski’s injury-time equalizer for Bayern on Saturday prompted altercations between Bayern and Hertha players in a heated atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium.

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The German soccer federation ended its investigation into the matter after Ancelotti agreed to pay 5,000 euros ($5,300) to its foundation for social work.

In 2014, Norbert Duewel, then-coach of second-division club Union Berlin, was fined 3,500 euros for raising his middle finger in a 4-1 loss at home against 1860 Munich.

Sacha Kljestan ready to take reigns as Red Bulls captain

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC  during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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When news began to spread of a trade regarding one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable faces, Sacha Kljestan was with his New York Red Bulls teammate at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp.

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The clarity over Dax McCarty’s move to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire is very much uncertain — even a month after the fact — but the veteran midfielder’s absence left an opening for the Red Bulls captaincy.

[ MORE: PST talks with Atlanta president Darren Eales ahead of 2017 ]

And that was an opportunity that Kljestan was honored to be named.

“I was just proud. My first feeling was that I’m thankful for Jesse [Marsch] having that trust in me and my teammates having that trust in me as well, which is very important,” Kljestan said. “But I just feel very proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and represent every member of the club that works with the New York Red Bulls. Most importantly I want to represent the fans in a way that they are proud of.”

Fortunately for the Red Bulls, what they have had over the past two seasons in Kljestan is a player that not only provides flash and brilliance on the pitch but also stability off the field and in the locker room.

Since making his return to MLS in 2015, Kljestan has notched an astounding 34 assists — the most of any player during that span — to go along with his 14 goals.

Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been impressed with Kljestan’s work ethic since bringing in the Designated Player, and he says little thought needed to be put into naming the U.S. international his squad’s next captain.

“It almost wasn’t even a choice at all,” Marsch said in regards to naming Kljestan his primary captain. “He had served as basically a vice-captain for two years and it was an natural fit. There were discussions with the staff but I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy that is a top leader. That being said, we’ve said all along that the captain isn’t a one man job.

“It’s about a community of people and certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis [Robles] and Brad [Wright-Phillips]. I think the three of them will take on big leadership roles and there’s room for young guys to blossom into bigger leadership positions as well.”

The Red Bulls have undoubtedly proven their success in the regular season since rebranding to the aforementioned name in 2006 when the Global giant, Red Bull, acquired the franchise.

The last 11 seasons have provided the club with plenty to cheer about, including two Supporters’ Shield crowns and only missing out on the postseason once, but the Red Bulls have struggled to get past one major hurdle.

Winning an MLS Cup is challenging.

It’s only something that 11 teams have accomplished in the league’s history. Of those 11 teams, only five of them have won two or more titles since MLS’ inception in 1996.

Marsch’s approach since day one has been very clear to both his team and the opponents that the Red Bulls face. The goal has been to play an attacking-minded press, similar to that of Barcelona in the club’s hay day.

While that pressing style likely won’t change, the team is prepared to add another dimension to its attack by switching to a two-forward setup starting in 2017.

“With our little tweak in formation that we’re doing now, we’re trying to be less susceptible to opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines,” Kljestan said. “We’re working on ways now to become more connected and become harder to break down and really make teams earn their chances against us. We might go through some growing pains with the formation but I think it’ll make us stronger in the long run.”

The Red Bulls begin their 2017 journey on Wednesday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The two sides will meet a second time on March 2 in Vancouver.

“Wenger Out” banner appears at anti-Trump protest

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal reacts on the touchline during the Premier League match between Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion at Emirates Stadium on December 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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At an anti-Donald Trump protest in London, England on Monday, somebody else was having his status questioned.

You may guess who it was given the way things have been heading recently…

[ MORE: Shaw resigns after pie stunt

The anti-Arsene Wenger brigade were out in force (one placard is enough, right?) around Parliament Square in London as thousands gathered to protest against the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, being awarded a state visit to the UK.

All of that aside, let’s focus on the important things here: the future of Arsenal’s manager continues to be called into question.

Among all of the banners, chanting and furor there was a “Wenger Out” placard being held proudly. Does this mean we will now see “Trump Out” banners at the Emirates Stadium?

See below.

Wayne Shaw resigns amid pie-eating scandal

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The legend of Wayne Shaw is no more.

[ MORE: Shaw investigated for stunt

On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after non-league club Sutton United met Arsenal in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Shaw resigned as their goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach.

Shaw, 46, caused headlines around the world when the 280-pound goalkeeper was shown on TV eating a pie during the second half of Sutton’s 2-0 defeat to the Premier League side.

Now, it appears that the incident was something more sinister.

Both the FA and the UK Gambling Commission are investigating the stunt as bookmakers Sun Bets had offered 8-1 odds for Shaw to eat a pie during the game. Shaw had admitted he knew about the bet and thought he would do it for “a bit of banter” adding that “a few of the lads said to me earlier on, ‘What is going on with the 8-1 about eating a pie?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve eaten nothing all day, so I might give it a go later on.'”

Speaking to Sky Sports on Tuesday a sad and disappointed Sutton manager, Paul Doswell, explained that Shaw offered his resignation and has left the club.

“It’s been very disappointing,” Doswell said. “I woke up this morning to this storm of criticism. It’s something we’ve dealt with quickly at the club. Wayne himself has offered his resignation to the chairman this afternoon and that’s been accepted. It’s a very sad end to what was a good story.”

Doswell and Shaw know each other from their time throughout the non-league scene as they also worked together at Eastleigh in the past and are great friends.

Sutton’s manager continued to explain the situation about Shaw and revealed the man dubbed as “The Roly Poly Goalie” around the world has been inconsolable.

“I’m devastated,” Doswell said. “The chairman is devastated. I’m not going to try and hide the fact that we are all very emotional about it. I’ve spoken to Wayne on the phone this afternoon and the guy is in tears, crying down the phone. It is a very very sad situation. It is hard to talk about the positives today on the back of what has happened because someone has lost their job because of this. The club cannot be seen to accept that situation.

“Ian Baird [team manager] and myself try and run the most professional non-league club we can be, we’ve always said that. To then find out someone has been eating a pie, it may be funny to some people but it shows me in a bad light, Ian in a bad light and the club in bad light. Then to find out it was done with regards to some 8-1 bet, obviously that exacerbated the problem, really. The chairman was very clear with me this morning on how he felt and I back the chairman 100 percent.”

In Sutton’s finest moment which saw the club mentioned around the world as the fifth-tier team knocked out AFC Wimbledon and Leeds United on their way to their last 16, Shaw’s resignation has marked a sad end to their fairytale FA Cup run.