USL PRO: Dom Dwyer’s dominance caps controversial title week for Orlando City

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It’s only appropriate that Dom Dwyer defined USL PRO’s Saturday title game. It was the Sporting KC player’s one-game loan to Orlando that had made the biggest headlines in the lead up. After starting the season with the third division team, the MLS forward was loaned back to the club three days before their title game against the visiting Charlotte. Come Saturday night, his four goals and an assist had let the Lions to a 7-4 over the Eagles, giving them the third division title.

In front of a stellar crowd of 20,886 at the Florida Citrus Bowl, the Lions claimed their second title in three years. Unfortunately, the overarching story is the controversial way they went about it. Had Dwyer faded into the background and failed to have an impact on the match, we could overlook the fact that adding a first-tier talent to a third-tier squad days before the season’s final game prima facie unfair. Rather than spend a season molding a team that could stand on its own at year’s end, Orlando added a game-defining player three days before the title game – a player who immediately went back to his principal club.

The wrinkle here is that Dwyer spent 13 games with Orlando at the start of the season. Unfortunately, he was not on their roster for the last half of the season, nor was he there for the playoffs. This wasn’t just akin to a player returning from injury at the right time. Dwyer was part of another organization on Tuesday, sent to Orlando on Wednesday, and defined the season’s most important game on Saturday.

To their credit, Charlotte seems to have taken the high road after the game, per these quotes from the Charlotte Observer:

“We didn’t play real well defensively and we know they’re very good in attack,” Charlotte coach Mark Steffens said. “I look more at the seven (goals allowed) than the four (goals scored.) You can’t win giving up seven …

“When we went up 3-2, we had to do a better job of holding the lead there,” Steffens said.

“We know they’re potent in attack. They’re unbelievable. I can’t even say we played poorly, they’re just good,” he said.

That’s very gracious of Steffens, and perhaps he’s part of the camp that feels that because Dwyer was a part of Orlando at the beginning of the season, the Sporting prospect had a place in the game. With four goals and an assist, he certainly made the most of his opportunity.

“Credit to Orlando, they’re a fantastic team,” [Charlotte’s Christian] Ramirez said. “They just have a will to not give up. We did everything we could.”

And Orlando’s entire team, Dwyer included, deserve credit for their performance on Saturday. But Dwyer with playing such a big role, it’s difficult to see USL PRO’s title game as anything but compromised.

The result marked an end to a newsworthy week for Orlando City SC, whose huge Saturday crowd flashed some of the MLS credentials owner Phil Rawlins hopes will give them a place in Major League Soccer. The Orlando City owner is confident securing a new stadium will win his team quick approval to be among the four teams MLS adds by 2022. Coming off a season where they averaged 8,197 people per game, many see Orlando as the most MLS-ready market out source:  there. Even the league’s website got in on the marketing (image right, quote below):

“If you were a skeptic about Orlando’s appetite for soccer in their quest to become the next MLS expansion team, the scenes will likely impress you.”

But this, from the Orlando Sentinel, cast some doubt on the Lions’ numbers, with the paper reporting massive inflation of attendance figures at the same time the organization is trying to secure public funding for a new stadium:

Orlando City Soccer Club recently celebrated a milestone: Average attendance at its games surpassed 8,000. But city turnstile records show average attendance was less than half that — at 3,987 …

But there are more than just bragging rights at stake for the Orlando City Lions. The team is lobbying Orlando and Orange County officials for a soccer-specific stadium that would cost $85 million, most of it from public money. It would seat about 18,000 people.

According to Sentinel reporting, on Aug. 11, a club record announced crowd of 10,697 only saw 4,004 pass through the gates. On Aug. 30, a playoff semifinal crowd announced as 8,912 saw 6,731 at the Citrus Bowl.

So did 20,886 really show up in Orlando on Saturday?

Inflation is not uncommon throughout sports, particularly in MLS, where it’s rare venues sell out. Inflation while lobbying for financing to help build an $85 million project? That’s something a lot more troublesome. If the Sentinel’s reporting’s true, the consequence of Orlando City’s exaggerated reporting could be to mislead the public, potentially asking people to believe the team’s a bigger draw than the turnstiles report.

These words from the club don’t help matters:

“We have tried to be as accurate and honest as we can,” team executive Brett Lashbrook said. “I think it’s in line with the industry practice, and in fact it’s more honest than other leagues …

“We are confident that our official attendance figures are an accurate and honest portrayal of the number of people attending our matches,” Lashbrook said.

How can that be? The turnstiles say one thing, but Lashbrook says another. Is he implying there’s massive fence jumping? Perhaps a secret entrance the city is unaware off? Is OCSC leaving a door open, and four thousand people are using it?

The city operates the Citrus Bowl and scans tickets as they come through the turnstiles. Their reporting reflects this. Perhaps Orlando City’s numbers reflect tickets sold (and, very likely, given away), but when you’re tying to fund an 18,000-seat venue, how many people actually come to games it pretty important, as is representing accurate numbers, when it comes to seeking public financing. Orlando is reportedly asking both their city and county to chip in $20 million each toward the cause, but the constituents of neither place may be getting the right information on how valued OCSC is as a community resource.

It’s all a campaign, once in which Saturday’s title may play a significant part. According to other reporting by the Sentinel, Orlando expects local funding to be approved with 30 days. Having a title-winning team generating goodwill in the community won’t hurt their case, even if their final victory came in large part because of curious Dwyer’s addition (see the headline on the linked piece to see how the two stories are already being connected).

The whole situation should also raise eyebrows at MLS. Whether it will or not, we’re unlikely to know.

Orlando’s argument for being one of Major League Soccer’s next four is that they’re ready. They have the fans. They’re going to get the stadium. They have the organization in place.

After the Sentinel’s reporting, however, OCSC’s claims don’t seem as well-founded as we’ve been led to believe. With markets like Miami, Atlanta, Tampa (among others) potential destinations for MLS clubs in the southeast, understanding the true Orlando picture will become all the more important.

Watford appoint Marco Silva as new manager

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Watford have appointed Portuguese coach Marco Silva as their new manager.

The 39-year-old has signed a two-year deal at Vicarage Road.

Walter Mazarri was fired by Watford before their final game of the season as a dramatic slump in the second half of the season saw them finish one place above the relegation zone.

Silva left Hull City earlier this week, exercising a clause in his 18-month contact that he could leave the Tigers if they were relegated from the Premier League.

After successful stints at Sporting Lisbon and Olympiacos, Silva arrived at Hull in January for his first job in England and made sweeping changes to their squad and almost kept the Tigers up against all the odds.

In a statement on Watford’s website Chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury revealed his excitement at Silva’s arrival.

“Marco was one of the most sought after Head Coaches in the Premier League,” Duxbury said. “His pedigree and promise speaks for itself with his achievements in top divisions elsewhere across Europe, as well as his work at Hull City last season.”

The managerial merry-go-round at Watford continues.

Why Southampton should consider keeping Claude Puel

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It has all gone quiet at Southampton. But for how long?

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan ]

Media speculation has been rampant over the past few weeks that Claude Puel, Southampton’s first-year manager, would be shown the exit door at St Mary’s this summer amid fan unrest about the style of play and their regression from a team challenging for the top six.

But, even in these times where fans demand instant success and patience is severely lacking, is that really the right answer?

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Puel, 55, delivered an eighth place finish, the fourth-straight season Southampton have finished eighth or higher, which is the first time they’ve achieved that feat in club history.

Yet many supporters point to the fact that Southampton finished just five points above Swansea City who finished in 15th place, plus they complain about Puel’s dull demeanor in his press conference as he struggles to express himself in English. He is a figure which truly divides the fanbase between those wanting him fired and those wiling to give him another chance.

Saints are a club who finished in a higher league position in seven-straight seasons before this campaign, so perhaps the vast majority of the fanbase have become too accustomed to overachieving and this reality check was always on the horizon.

A top 10 finish and a cup run should always be a superb season for a club of Southampton’s size but fans want more. With talk of a potential Chinese takeover this summer, they want to dream that they can push for a top six finish and qualify for Europe each season and aren’t sure Puel is the right man to deliver it.

That’s fair enough, but when you dissect the entire season and the key stats which came from it, getting rid of Puel seems incredibly hasty. He had many unfortunate obstacles to overcome in his first season in England and it’s unlikely he’ll have so much to deal with next season, and possibly beyond.

Club captain Jose Fonte was sold midway through the season after a disagreement with directors, while leading scorer Charlie Austin (yes, he was out since December but still finished top scorer, with nine) was injured for five months in early December and star center back Virgil Van Dijk was also injured in January as it ended his season. Along with all of this Puel had to deal with Saints’ first-ever Europa League group stage campaign and the agony of missing out on the knockout stages by one goal.

The constant chopping and changing of the team dominated Puel’s reign in the early months as he made 97 lineup changes throughout the season. Only Manchester City and Manchester United made more in the PL in 2016-17. Perhaps one of the major criticisms was that he tinkered too much to try and keep his squad fresh as they pushed to qualify for the Europa League knockout stage, with the previous high-tempo style of play impossible to replicate across a 53 game season.

Hence the slower pace of play which frustrated many fans and perhaps failed to get the best out of a team built by Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman to play a fast, high-pressing style, which in turn led to reports of many senior players unhappy at the tactics deployed by the Frenchman.

Another big factor of the rotation was reaching the EFL Cup final where Saints, again, agonizingly came up short as they lost 3-2 to Manchester United at Wembley in a game which they should have won.

In the Premier League his team scored just 17 goals in 19 home games with no goals in any of their final five home games of the season which led to fans booing and plenty calling for Puel to be fired. But if you look a little deeper, the chances are being created but with Austin out, Manolo Gabbiadini‘s hot streak over after his initial burst and the duo of Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez failing to step up, Saints’ shot conversion rate was the lowest in the PL.

That’s right, Southampton converted just 7.47 percent of the 549 shots that had at goal, which was the seventh-highest number of shot attempts in the PL. Saints created chances but could Puel really do much about his players not converting them? It sounds simplistic, but think about it. With Austin back fit next season, plus Gabbiadini and Sofiane Boufal acclimatized to life in England, will this shot conversion rate really be this low again?

Saints also had two players in the PL’s top 18 in terms of chances created, Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond, and away from home they had the seventh best record but had the 17th best record at home, suggesting their prowess as a counter-attacking team. Had Saints scored penalty kicks against Hull City and Manchester United in two of their final three home games then they would have finished more comfortably in eighth place and had a much better home record.

Small margins.

Southampton also had the second youngest starting XI in the PL at 26 years and 169 days, with Redmond and James Ward-Prowse making their full England debuts, plus no PL club had more than Saints’ seven players in the full and U-21 England teams when they were announced at the end of the season.

As well as English talent like Sam McQueen, Ward-Prowse, Redmond and Jack Stephena improving drastically, Puel helped the likes of Oriol Romeu, Maya Yoshida and Cedric Soares reach new heights too. It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom and Puel is a man who can deliver steady progression at a club which lost its past two managers, Pochettino and Koeman, to bigger teams in the PL just when it appeared they were on the verge of great things at St Mary’s.

Another reason to keep the faith, for at least another season, is the fact that wherever Puel has been he has delivered improved results beyond his first season. There’s a hope he can do that at Southampton, especially without the extra rigors of European action next season.

He took charge of AS Monaco in January 1999 and they won the French title in May 2000. He took charge of Lille in 2002 and improved them from 14th to 10th to 2nd place finishes in his first three seasons at the club. Puel spent six seasons at Lille and helped the likes of Eden Hazard and Yohan Cabaye break into the team.

In 2008 he took charge of Lyon and in his second full season he took the French outfit to the UEFA Champions League semifinal for just the first time in club history, plus Hugo Lloris and others broke through under his guidance. In 2012 he took charge of Nice and in his first season he led them to fourth in Ligue 1 (their highest Ligue 1 finish since 1976), then did it once again in 2015-16 with 17th and 11th place finishes in-between. The Nice team he left behind last season just finished third in Ligue 1.

All of this proves that Puel can improve teams given time.

What is Saints’ alternative to Puel? Some reports suggest Marco Silva would be the main man but he appears to be joining Watford after impressing at Hull City, while the names of Slavisa Jokanovic and Alan Pardew have also been mentioned as potential replacements.

Do Southampton really want to become a club know for hiring and firing managers after a season which presented plenty of challenges but still ended up with a top half finish, a decent run in Europe and a EFL Cup final appearance?

If Saints put faith in Puel, he may just surprise everyone. Of course, like every manager, he needs a bit of luck to drop his way but fans calling for his head should think closely about what the alternative would be.

Antoine Griezmann dismisses Man United reports

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Antoine Griezmann isn’t saying he is close to signing for Manchester United, but he isn’t saying he isn’t close either…

[ MORE: United win Europa League

The French forward, 26, has been at the center of intense media speculation over the past few weeks that he will sign for United this summer as the Red Devils will likely meet his $110 million release clause.

Sending out a message via his Twitter account, Griezmann said the following regarding the rumors he has agreed a contract and reaffirmed his connection to Atleti.

“All the rumors are unfounded, I’m always Colchonero,” Griezmann said. “My direction will be established after discussion with my sports consultants.”

The man who scored 26 goals in 53 appearances for Atleti in 2016-17 is said to be at the top of United’s summer wishlist and it is not like the the PL giants can’t afford to sign any player they want. They proved that last summer by paying Juventus a world-record fee of $114 million for Paul Pogba, who just happens to be Griezmann’s good friend…

Jose Mourinho said after United’s Europa League final win on Wednesday, which secured them a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage for next season, that “Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners.”

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic recovering from a serious knee injury and out of contract at United this summer, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have chipped in with important goals in the past few months but United are lacking a talismanic striker. That’s where Griezmann comes in.

Alongside a star center back and a new left back, United’s main target is Griezmann.

Whether or not the Frenchman admits it now, United are chasing him hard and there only seems to be one outcome: Griezmann wearing the No.7 jersey at Old Trafford next season.

Toronto FC beats Crew 5-0 to extend unbeaten streak to 8

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TORONTO (AP) Victor Vazquez scored twice and Toronto FC routed the Columbus Crew 5-0 on Friday night to extend its unbeaten streak to a franchise record-matching eight games.

[ MORE: Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape ]

Toronto (8-1-5) is 7-0-1 since its lone league loss of the season, a 2-1 decision in Columbus on April 15. Columbus (6-7-1) has lost five of seven since topping Toronto.

Justin Morrow and substitutes Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton also scored for MLS-leading Toronto. The Canadian team also was unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) from May 8 to July 10, 2010.

Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 81st minute when midfielder Marky Delgado was red-carded for a studs-up tackle on Columbus captain Wil Trapp. Osorio and Hamilton then scored to pad the lead for Toronto in its sixth shutout of the season.

Toronto played without the starting forward tandem of Sebastian Giovinco (injured) and Jozy Altidore (suspended for yellow card accumulation). Defender Nick Hagglund also is injured.