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.

PL title & FA Cup in sight, Conte says Chelsea still rebuilding

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Antonio Conte might be just seven games away from guiding Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup double this season, but the Blues’ first-year Italian manager insists his squad is nowhere near being a finished product.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal triumph over Tottenham Hotspur, Conte insisted that the team he inherited last summer, after a disastrous 10th-place finish in the PL, is “in a period of transition” and that “[they] need time” as the club moves on from an accomplished, foundational generation — quotes from Sky Sports:

“I think that now at Chelsea we are in a period of transition. In this season, we have lost (Branislav) Ivanovic, (John Obi) Mikel and next season we lose John Terry.

“We are talking about players who wrote the history of this club. They won a lot. Now we have to find the right substitutes for these players and then work to put these players at the same level.

“I think that in the period with Carlo (Ancelotti) — and Carlo is the best Italian coach, I have great respect for him — he arrived at Chelsea when they had a really strong squad. Now we are building. We are building something important. We need time.”

[ MORE: Kante takes home PFA Player of the Year | Dele wins Young Player ]

Conte is doing two things with the above comments: 1) he’s tempering expectations for next season, when Chelsea will be back in the UEFA Champions League and automatically expected to repeat as PL champions — not to mention, taking a bit of pressure off in these final two months of the 2016-17 season; and, 2) pointing out just how impressive his work to date has been, the fact he’s potentially seven games away from lifting two trophies in seven days’ time next month.

Ligue 1: Mbappe, Falcao fire Monaco top again

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PARIS (AP) Strikers Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe continued their fine form with a goal each to help Monaco secure a 2-1 win at Lyon and reclaim top spot in the French league on Sunday.

Monaco moves above defending champion Paris Saint-Germain on goal difference, with Monaco having played a game less. PSG has four games left.

“It wasn’t easy and it was a big win for us tonight,” Monaco center half Andrea Raggi said. “We all play for each other and it’s now or never.”

It has been an astonishing season for Monaco, which has now scored 143 goals in all competitions and remains on course for the treble. Monaco faces PSG in the French Cup semifinals next Wednesday.

Falcao and Mbappe scored in midweek when Monaco beat German side Borussia Dortmund 3-1 in the return leg of their Champions League quarterfinal to reach the last four 6-3 on aggregate.

Lyon also did well in Europe, going through on penalty kicks away to Turkish club Besiktas to reach the last four in the Europa League.

Falcao and the 18-year-old Mbappe have combined for 51 goals.

Falcao put Monaco ahead in the 36th minute with a header from close range – his 28th goal of the season – and Mbappe made it 2-0 just before halftime with a trademark surging run and cool finish for his 23rd.

“I just try and give my best whenever I play,” said Mbappe, who has recently been called into the France team. “I wasn’t playing much at the start of the season, so I’m still quite fresh and I hope I can help us win the remaining games.”

PSG beat Montpellier 2-0 at home on Saturday with Edinson Cavani scoring his 31st league goal of the season and 44th overall.

Nice has already guaranteed third place and a spot in the qualifying round for next season’s Champions League.

But with four games remaining, it is six points behind Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Nice hosts PSG next Sunday.

Striker Corentin Jean gave mid-table Toulouse the lead in the 57th minute. Midfielder Valentin Eysseric continued his fine form with the equalizer three minutes later.

The game was briefly halted early in the first half after a group of Saint-Etienne supporters forced themselves into the stadium.

The match was supposed to be played behind closed doors as a punishment for unruly supporters during Saint-Etienne’s local derby against Lyon.

After a brief delay for police to remove the fans, Slovakia striker Robert Beric put the home side ahead in the 39th and center half Edson Mexer leveled just before the break.

Saint-Etienne is in seventh place, while Rennes is ninth.

Serie A: Napoli waste chance to go 2nd; Juve win big (again)

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MILAN (AP) Arkadiusz Milik scored his first goal since his lengthy injury layoff but it wasn’t enough to prevent Napoli from drawing 2-2 at Sassuolo on Sunday and missing the chance to move second in Serie A.

Milik scored two minutes after coming off the bench to rescue a point for Napoli and move it to within one point of second-placed Roma, which visits bottom club Pescara on Monday.

Second spot in Serie A secures automatic entry into the Champions League group stage, while the team that finishes third has to go through a playoff.

“The road to second spot has got more difficult, we have to hope our rivals slip up,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said. “We have a point more than last season, even though we played in the Champions League, even though we lost (Gonzalo) Higuain at the beginning of the season and Milik for four months, so I think the team has had an extraordinary season until now.”

After an even first half, Napoli broke the deadlock seven minutes after the break thanks to a rare header from Dries Mertens. It was the diminutive Belgian’s 22nd league goal of the season – as many as he had scored in total in his three previous seasons at Napoli.

However, Napoli gifted Sassuolo the equalizer seven minutes later as Marek Hamsik’s terrible headed backpass to Pepe Reina was intercepted by Domenico Berardi, who fired home from close range.

Mertens almost immediately restored his side’s lead but saw his free kick come off the crossbar, while Lorenzo Insigne’s effort also hit the inside of the post for Napoli.

Sassuolo took the lead 10 minutes from time following a superb save from Reina to deny former Napoli hero Paolo Cannavaro, but Antonino Ragusa hooked the ball back in from the byline for Luca Mazzitelli to drive into the bottom right corner.

Milik was brought on in the 82nd and immediately leveled. Jose Callejon’s corner was knocked down by Raul Albiol and the Poland international spun to fire in from close range for his first goal since he was injured on World Cup duty in October.

AC Milan missed a penalty as the new era at the famous Italian club continued without a win.

Milan drew 2-2 at city rival Inter Milan last weekend in the first match since the $800 million takeover of Milan by Chinese-led Rossoneri Sport Luxembourg ended Silvio Berlusconi’s 31-year reign.

Sunday’s defeat saw Milan remain in the last qualifying spot for the Europa League, two points above Inter.

“If we relate everything to the result, it didn’t go well but I shouldn’t do that,” Milan coach Vincenzo Montella said. “We created 15 chances, it’s difficult to create more in Serie A.”

Empoli took a surprise lead five minutes from halftime when Levan Mchedlidze headed in a corner.

Milan should have leveled shortly before the hour, after Lukasz Skorupski pushed over Mario Pasalic, but the Empoli goalkeeper made up for his error by keeping out Suso’s penalty and then parrying a follow-up effort from Gianluca Lapadula.

Empoli doubled its lead in the 67th when Massimo Maccarone nodded on the ball for Mame Thiam to score his first goal in Italian football.

Lapadula reduced the deficit five minutes later, curling into the bottom corner and Milan had a good chance to level when it was awarded an indirect free kick six yards out from goal after Skorupski got the ball, put it down and picked it back up again.

However, with all the Empoli players on the line, Milan couldn’t equalize.

Milan’s teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma kept his side in the match with a fantastic one-handed save to deny Maccarone and it almost proved decisive as Lucas Ocampos volleyed off the crossbar at the other end.

Keita Balde Diao notched a five-minute hat trick as Lazio crushed Palermo to move back into fourth in Serie A.

Ciro Immobile scored two in as many minutes to put Lazio 2-0 up inside 10 minutes, before Keita’s quickfire treble – including a penalty – ensured the match was all but over with less than half an hour played.

Lazio relaxed and Palermo threatened an unexpected comeback with two goals from Andrea Rispoli in five minutes at the start of the second half.

But Luca Crecco extended Lazio’s lead in the final minute with his first ever senior goal.

Juventus continued its march to an unprecedented sixth successive Serie A title by routing Genoa 4-0 to move 11 points clear of Roma.

Ezequiel Munoz scored an own-goal in the 17th and magnificent strikes from Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic put the hosts 3-0 up at the break. Leonardo Bonucci scored another stunning goal in the 64th after sprinting forward from inside his own half. Juventus also hit the woodwork three times.

Crotone kept its faint hopes of survival alive with a surprise 2-1 win at Sampdoria.

The result left it five points behind 17th-placed Empoli and safety with five matches remaining.

Elsewhere, Torino won 3-1 at Chievo Verona, while Udinese beat Cagliari 2-1.

MLS Snapshot: Sounders cruise, 3-0, as Galaxy struggles continue

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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy’s midfield remains… nonexistent, to put it very nicely. It was a problem in 2015; it was a major problem in 2016; and it remains a problem early in 2017. On Sunday, Curt Onalfo’s side (as a quick aside, no, his seat isn’t yet getting hot) sat by and watched — almost literally — as the Seattle Sounders found the back of the net three times in the first half at StubHub Center.

Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris scored the goals for Seattle, to go with an own goal from Ashley Cole. It’s LA’s fifth loss in seven games, while Seattle have their second win of the season and put to bed a three-game winless skid.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundup — FCD win battle of unbeatens ]

Three moments that mattered

29′ — Dempsey heads into an open net for 1-0 — Nicolas Lodeiro floated the cross toward the back post, and Dempsey made extremely easy work of it with Brian Rowe scrambling through no man’s land.

35′ — Cole applies the finish into his own net — If it happened at the other end of the field, we’d have said it was a cool, calm, composed finish. Alas…

44′ — Morris fires past Rowe for 3-0 — The counter-attack was quick, what with no one stepping to the ball as Seattle covered two-thirds of the field. The finish wasn’t so simple for Morris.

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Man of the match: Clint Dempsey

Goalscorers: Dempsey (29′), Cole (OG – 35′), Morris (44′)