SANDY, Utah – Heard often on the night before Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. team met Honduras: “Hey, I didn’t know Eddie Pope was here!”
Everyone seemed so genuinely excited to see the man who stands as one of the truly respected figures around U.S. Soccer and at Real Salt Lake, the club where the former United States center back spent the final two seasons of his decorated career.
He is here officially as part of U.S. Soccer’s ongoing centennial celebration.
Pope, now the director of player relations for the MLS Players Union, made an appearance last night at the U.S. rally, held inside a local music venue and attended by more than 600 fans.
Fans here seemed as excited to see Pope as they were to see the U.S. players who followed. (By the way, how many high level athletes will have this kind of close interaction with fans on the night before such a big match? Truly, another reason U.S. Soccer players have a special relationship with their supporters … and here’s hoping it stays that way as the game develops here.)
Pope answered a few questions, talking about playing alongside Alexi Lalas, about the toughest strikers he ever faced (Oliver Bierhoff, Francesco Totti and Roy Lassiter) and about why he never played in Europe. Mostly, he said, he simply found a place in the game here that suited him.
“Some of it was about timing,” Pope told the crowd. “Some of it was really being proud to help form the game here.”
Pope was a rookie in 1996, Major League Soccer’s inaugural season. He played until 2007.
Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season
Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.
So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.
Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).
Most saves in a starring role
You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.
Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman(above).
Top thief, too
Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.
The most under-appreciated of the underdogs
Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.
But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.
An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…
Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.
He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).
Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.
It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).
As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.
His new buyout clause is said to be as high as $53 million, and Carvalho hopes his commitment calms his supporters.
“Sportinguistas, I say to you that I am very happy with the deal which I signed up to 2020 and that you will have total effort on my part to be champions.”
Sporting is tied with Benfica atop the Portuguese table, second on goal differential. The club leads third-place Porto by six points, and is still alive in the Europa League. Bayer Leverkusen is up next.
Perhaps it’ll be different for the players who were a part of January camp — stars Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum chief among them — but Klinsmann says the late start of the MLS season can affect fitness for the critical qualifiers home and away to Guatemala.
That means there’s a better chance to see in-form Championship midfielder Danny Williams (above) or Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez then, say, Orlando City’s Brek Shea or Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman.
“We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements.
“Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”
We’ve already covered the obstacle that is the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying playoff occurring at the same time as the Guatemala matches, but this is still good news for players in England, Germany and other European locales seeking caps in March.
In one case, Benteke put himself in a prime spot only to lash his shot wide of the post. Instead, he’s now at 11 appearances without a goal (despite ripping nine shots against the Irons).
From the BBC:
“I don’t believe in the easy goal. He has to carry on like this. It’s not the nicest moment in his career but he has to work hard. He wants to score and we need him to score. We will work on it in the days, weeks and months.”