Is Arouna Kone the answer for Everton?

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The biggest transfer rumor out of Goodison Park these days is that the Toffees may soon sign Wigan striker Arouna Kone for a fee in the region of £5-6.5 million ($7.5-9.8m).

So the question has to be asked – Is Kone the answer for Everton up top?

My immediate reaction is one that I’ve held for many, many months: Yes.

I’ve been an admirer of Kone’s since he arrived at the DW Stadium last summer and, in his second match, stripped Southampton defender Jose Fonte in the 89th minute and proceeded to dribble the length of the pitch before slotting past Saints’ keeper Kelvin Davis.

The goal had been coming Kone’s way the entire match as the Ivorian repeatedly found space and ripped shots on the opposition’s cage.

Six weeks later Everton went to Wigan for what should have been an easy three points and Kone was absolutely suffocating. He opened the scoring ten minutes in, heading home a Shaun Maloney cross.

Thirteen minutes later and Kone was at it again, skunking Leighton Baines on the Everton by-line and crossing to Franco di Santo, who fired into the roof of the net.

The onslaught lasted the entire 90 minutes with Kone shredding the Toffees defense and springing his counter-parts left and right. Man on fire.

The two sides met again on Boxing Day and, once again, Kone was relentless.

Speed. Skill. Vision. Desire. He had it all going. And while, this time around, the Latics were outplayed by Everton, Kone still got on the score-sheet.

But I didn’t hate. I just admired.

I simply wanted that kind of zest leading the line at Everton. Nikica Jelavic was not getting it done and Victor Anichebe, despite drastic improvement, did not seem like ‘The Answer’ up top. So when Kone went on to finish his debut season with 11 league goals and five assists (13 and 7 in all comps), I was sold.

‘Everton need to buy that man,’ I told myself.

A few weeks later Roberto Martinez was crowned successor of David Moyes and, at that point, I was damn well sure the Toffees were in great shape to make that dream a reality.

But, time has a funny way of changing things and now, I’m not so sure.

As always is the case with Everton, it all starts with finances. While £5-6.5 million is a drop in the bucket for most English clubs, it is significant investment for Everton. As such, a transfer for that amount means that the player who is acquired must play a position where the club is truly hurting.

While striker is a position where Everton currently lacks top talent and could definitely improve, the Toffees are in much greater need of a creative central midfielder, a center-back (to provide cover for an aging Sylvain Distin), and a winger (preferably a right sided player so Kevin Mirallas can take up a more central role). Of course, if Marouane Fellaini and/or Leighton Baines is sold, additional cover will be required in the center of the park and at left-back.

Those are the needs that take precedence so spending £5-6.5 million – which could easily be half of Roberto Martinez’ transfer budget this summer – seems misguided.

Is Kone worth that kind of fee? Probably. But keep in mind that at the age of 29, the Ivorian is no spring chicken.

Plus, just because Kone did well in his debut season in the Premier League does not mean he will excel this year. Sophomore seasons are notoriously difficult in England as the bloom is off the pumpkin and defenders are now wise to a striker’s previously mysterious ways.

Just ask Nikica Jelavic. After scoring 9 league goals in 13 matches after his arrival in January 2012, he managed only 7 goals in 37 contests this past season.

After that kind of performance, many Evertonians are ready to close the book on Jelavic. This would be a mistake.

The Croatian may have struggled last season but a lot of his woes came down to being unlucky. He worked hard and got himself into good positions but the ball simply did not go into the net. Expect Jelavic to come into this season with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove, which is exactly the kind of hunger Everton want up top.

If Jelavic continues to under-perform, Victor Anichebe can get the job done. The Nigerian avoided major injury for the first time last season and was a force to be reckoned with up top. Perhaps he lacks the finesse of the league’s top strikers but Big Vic gets the job done. And he’s a nightmare to mark in the box.

That being said, if Martinez is hell-bent on bringing a new striker into Goodison Park then he needs to dig deep into Bill Kenwright’s pockets and get the chairman to pony up for a top striker who is undoubtedly better than Jelavic and Anichebe.

So is Kone is the answer for Everton. It’s debatable. But for me, that kind of money would be better used on another Wigan player, like Callum McManaman, Shaun Maloney or James McCarthy.

Tottenham’s strong American connection continues

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LONDON — The American connection at Spurs remains strong.

Each year a small group of young American soccer players get the chance of a lifetime: to train and play games at Tottenham Hotspur for a week.

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Pro Soccer Talk was given exclusive access on the most recent trip to England for a group of 30 young American players handpicked by Tottenham’s academy coaches after impressing at the latest Tottenham Hotspur America Trophy held in December 2016.

For the past five years the tournament has been a huge success with the competition, run in conjunction with Elite Tournaments who are based in the USA, producing incredible experiences for young players from the U.S. from the age of 12-15 which has even resulted in national team recognition for some.

[ MORE: Spurs excited for 2017 US tour

Over the Easter break at Spurs’ impressive training ground near Enfield in north London you could hear American accents taking over with “dang” and “shoot the ball” yelled out by young hopefuls who trained for a week with Tottenham’s coaches and played games against academy teams from Spurs and Queens Park Rangers.

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How does this all work?

Two of Spurs academy coaches go over to watch the tournament in December and then handpick individuals to come over to England for the training camp.

Matt Libber, the Vice President of Elite Tournaments, was stood on the sideline keeping a watchful eye over training as he and his staff have now helped organize this tournament, among many others, for the past five years.

Elite tournaments have been around since March 2000 and now have 60 events across the USA, mostly focusing on soccer, and new events are popping up across the nation. “It’s widespread. People want to play soccer,” Libber explained.

Such has been the popularity of this event (93 teams from multiple states competed in the tournament back in December) it is being expanded to new parts of the USA in 2017 and beyond.

“We are expanding the tournament this year,” Libber said. “Previously it was just one event in Baltimore but we are moving it to two events for the next edition. We are going to be down in the College Station, Texas area and then in Orlando, Florida this coming December and we are hoping to expand the event further, to bring more kids over here and to increase the exposure of the event and for Spurs in the States.”

The connection with Spurs and the U.S. runs truer than perhaps any other Premier League club.

Of course, Fulham’s days of “Fulhamerica” are still fond in the memory of many American soccer fans but after boasting Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, DeAndre Yedlin and now Cameron Carter-Vickers, Tottenham continue be one the first teams that American soccer fans think about supporting when they get into watching the Premier League.

Eric Dier, a star midfielder for Tottenham and England, told us of his amazement at the huge number of Spurs fans in the States as he often visits his sister who lives in New York City and he and his family are blown away by the level of support across the country.

“Every time I go over to America I can’t believe how many Tottenham fans there are over there,” Dier said. “It is amazing that our reach is so far. Obviously there’s a connection because Tottenham have always had great American players and I think there is a real connection with the American fans.”

Spurs are heading to the USA this summer with games against AS Roma in New York City, Manchester City in Nashville and Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando lined up for July. Dier and his teammates are looking forward to their first trip Stateside for two years.

“Everyone is really excited to go over there and we last went there two preseasons ago with the All-Star Game in Colorado which was a great experience. We are looking forward to working hard, playing some big games and enjoying the chance to see our fanbase in America,” Dier added.

What do the kids who go on these trips get out of it? So much.

Speaking to Danny Mitchell, a member of Tottenham’s global coaching program who spent the week with the youngsters from the U.S., he revealed that on the pitch there’s a real challenge for the young Americans.

“The one thing a lot of these kids have always said is that it is a challenge physically, in the nature of the way the game is played,” Mitchell said. “This week there has been a lot of technical stuff which I’m not sure they’ve necessarily done a lot of before but they’ve all engaged well and have responded well to what we have done.”

Engaged in some foreign relations with the Elite Tournaments America Trophy Select Team and the @spursofficial Academy

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Split into two age groups and playing on Spurs’ main indoor facility as the club logo loomed large in the background, one group played head tennis and another a possession game designed to trigger a high-press. As well as on the pitch the group went on stadium tours of White Hart Lane, Wembley, had a Q&A with Dier and watched other games live as part of the full experience.

With some kids picking up the lingo in England rather quickly with choice phrases (think, Ted Lasso’s nickname…) commonplace, it was obvious that even though they didn’t play on the same teams back home and hailed from several U.S. states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Connecticut, the young American players were having the team of their lives.

Over the past five years the main takeaway for young Americans getting the chance to play and train at Spurs is the level of coaching and competition during the scrimmages in England.

“It is eye-opening for the kids, seeing the training style in the U.S. is so different to what it is here,” Libber explained. “For them it opens their eyes to see there is a bigger option out there and also the competition they’re playing against over here. Some years we’ve done really well and other years not so great. It gives them an opportunity to see what other teams are like when they’re not playing against the same teams they play every game in the States.”

Libber (he and his staff racked up 1900 miles in their rental car while in England as they traveled to games at Lincoln, Sunderland and beyond) also explained that players who caught the eye on previous trips have now gone on to big things.

“Most definitely. A couple of years ago when we were over here, we had a couple of kids who Brad Friedel recognized the talent they had and they ended up in the national team pool after that when they got back to the States,” Libber said. “One is now the goalkeeper for the U-17 national team (Quantrell Jones) and another is in college right now (Keegan Kelly at the University of Maryland) after being in the national pool. They got noticed when they were over here.”

Liam Nesbitt, a 14-year-old central midfielder from Baltimore, Maryland, is hoping to be the next in line to benefit from this tournament.

Reflecting on his trip to Tottenham, Nesbitt revealed what he’s learned from the experience.

“It’s been great. I was told this is the best academy in terms of learning the game in England and I don’t doubt it now because it is so nice,” Nesbitt said. “It has been a lot of fun and the coaching has been great. I support Tottenham and this has been like a dream come true. My favorite player is N'Golo Kante though and that’s who I try to base my game off of. I’ve picked up a few new turns to do and these coaches have taught me what drills to do in order to master those moves.”

Patrick Aponowicz was the youngest player on the trip from the U.S. and the 10-year-old was also a Spurs fan who idolized Kyle Walker.

With his flowing locks of blonde hair Aponowicz had been quickly handed the nickname of “Nedved” after the famous Czech Republic winger who shone for Juventus and his country.

“I learned new touches and passing,” Aponowicz said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Come On You Spurs

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Like a lot of 10 year olds Aponowicz has a busy schedule and says he wishes he could watch even more soccer as he dreams of one day playing in the Premier League for Tottenham.

“I have school, playing for my soccer team four days a week and homework,” Aponowicz said. “My dream is to play for Tottenham and I want to come back here and train.”

Aponowicz isn’t the only young American dreaming of one day returning to England to play for Spurs after a taste of life at Tottenham.

“Definitely… definitely. That’s the dream,” Nesbitt said, nodding his head as his eyes gazed around in wonderment at the vast indoor facility at Tottenham.

The American connection continues to be stronger at Tottenham than perhaps any other Premier League club.

Conte reveals how Kante can improve; hits out at rivals

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Now, after winning the PFA Player of the Year for the 2016-17 Premier League season you have to think N'Golo Kante is on top of the world right now.

[ MORE: Herrera on Manchester derby ]

Maybe this is why Antonio Conte has revealed that he thinks Kante can improve despite the tireless central midfielder driving Chelsea towards the Premier League title.

Speaking ahead of the Blues’ clash with Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Conte praised Kante’s incredible season but when talking about the 26-year-old Frenchman could go on to captain Chelsea one day, here’s what he had to say.

“He’s a silent leader! N’Golo is young. He can improve in that aspect. When you arrive at a great team like Chelsea and it’s your first season, it’s very difficult to try to speak and lead, but I think he is a silent leader, a leader on the pitch with good example,” Conte said. “He’s not the type of player who likes to speak. He’s not like John [Terry] for personality! With years he can improve in this aspect, and this award this season brings him a lot of confidence in himself.”

So, Conte wants Kante to come out of his shell a little more. That may be tougher than you think. Despite dominating the Premier League in each of the last two seasons with Leicester and now Chelsea, Kante is described as an introvert and a quiet player off the pitch who goes about his job each and every day with minimal fuss.

Still, when you think that Chelsea spent just over $40 million to snatch him away from Leicester last summer that’s an incredible piece of business.

Speaking of transfers and spending money on new players, Conte has also had plenty to say about that with his team sitting four point clear at the Premier League’s summit and both Manchester clubs scrambling for fourth place.

Conte was joined by Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in taking over new clubs last summer and he’s overachieved while the latter two have underachieved despite spending huge sums of cash. What does Conte make of that?

“It’s important to understand it’s not always who spends more wins,” Conte said. “This season isn’t the only season both Manchester clubs have spent a lot of money. Look at the past. [We want] to build, also, slowly slowly to become a real power.”

If Conte does want to look at the past then he will see Chelsea has spent more money on new players than any other in the PL era, with about $1.6 billion on transfers while Man City are next on the list ($1.55 billion) and Man United are in third ($1.29 billion).

Hmmm.

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

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The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.