Radamal Falcao and the specter of AS Monaco

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A week ago, the possible move of Colombian international Radamel Falcao to AS Monaco seemed farcical. Monaco, currently in France’s Ligue 2 (but due to be promoted), may have a Russian oligarch’s backing while allowing their players to enjoy the income tax-free lifestyle, but it was difficult to believe a player of Falcao’s caliber – somebody who would be coveted by most clubs in the world – would move to a team that’s just rejoining first division soccer. The only thing giving credence to this rumor was the “reportedly” €60 million price Monaco’s willing to pay, but with the exception of Samuel Eto’o (who moved to Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala two years ago), nobody of Falcao’s caliber has taken themselves so far down the European pecking order.

Monaco does have a pedigree of sorts. They’ve won seven French titles, though their last came 13 years ago. They’ve won five French Cups, a League Cup, and perhaps most famously (outside of France), they’ve made two European titles: the 1992 Cup Winners’ Cup, and the 2004 Champions League final.

It’s a stretch to think that history explains his deal. Owner Dmitry Rybolovlev’s billions partially do, as does the fact that Monaco’s millionaire’s playground is in a France. Not Dagestan. Not the Middle East. Not China. Players can stay in Europe to collect their huge wages, which is why players like Joao Moutinho, James Rodríguez, Jackson Martínez, and Victor Valdes are also being linked with the club.

But the real drive behind these moves may be something even more controversial than Monaco’s billions. Falcao is represented and partially-owned by Jorge Mendes, whose third-party ownership of the Atletico star gives the agent undo influence over the deal. He can essentially, broker a deal to sell Falcao’s rights to Monaco, a deal which, according to rumors, could see more Mendes players land spots with Monaco.

That third-party specter (and the control that comes with it) is going to sour a lot of fans on this move, but like it or not, third-party ownership is a prevalent part of the modern game, particularly with players from South America. Rather than bemoan an arrangement that deserves more than a one sentence missive, I, perhaps perversely, want to focus on a silver lining.

With the recent, huge amounts of cash being infused into European soccer, there’s a danger of all the world’s best players being consolidated onto a handful of teams. Chelsea and the Manchesters in England, the big two in Spain, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain can compete for any players they want. If a player’s willing to go East, Zenit St. Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala come into play. Beyond that, Europe’s becoming a bit of a feeder system.

Like third-party ownership, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. What might change, however, is the number of players in the game. Just as Paris-Saint Germain has built quickly thanks to Qatari investment, Monaco can also help expand the ranks of Europe’s elite, stretching the top talent beyond the handful of teams to which they’re currently being funneled. Yes, that brings Super League discussion back into play, and news of this sort always brings fans only slightly older than myself coming out of their dens with dusty VHS cassettes, ready to show you soccer before it went corporate. At some point, however, we have to toss out the VCRs and accept it. The world changes.

For Monaco, Radamel Falcao would be a great start, and a star of his caliber could justify others’ decisions to go. It becomes much easier of a Moutinho or Valdes to take a chance on Monaco when they know a true, marquee start has already signed on, no matter the means by which he did so.

That, admittedly, is a very thin sliver lining. In a way, it’s a head in the sand approach, though with little to gain by continuing to harp on old tropes, it may be better to focus on whatever obscure positives you can grasp. In this case, that’s the building of a new contender, should Monaco actually pull of this Falcao coup.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday