Chelsea's manager Mourinho prepares to bring on substitute Mata during their Champions League soccer match against Basel at Stamford Bridge in London

Absent without leave: Where in the world are Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata?

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Four games into the Premier League season, there are many storylines, questions, concerns, surprises and talking points surrounding each team.

With new managers, we see them taking a squad they have been handed and mold it to the best of their ability into a squad that is theirs, something they can call their own.  Managers love to make their mark on a team, so that they can not only exploit their own strengths, but take as much credit for any subsequent success as possible.

However, some go too far in trying to make a squad their own.  Certain decisions go beyond the realm of “bettering the squad” and cross into the void of obvious squad tinkering for the sole purpose of making a statement.

To me, there are no managerial decisions more shocking thus far than David Moyes and Jose Mourinho banishing Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata to the depths of their respective squads.

What Moyes and Mourinho have done is take arguably their most creative players and break them.

Juan Mata:

“I think Jose is searching for his team. After their defeat to Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday, I questioned whether Mourinho knew his best starting XI; If you look at the players they’ve got and the opportunities he’s got to change it, I can’t understand – and neither can anyone in football – why Juan Mata isn’t starting.” -Jamie Redknapp, Sky Sports and Daily Mail pundit

Jose Mourinho has decisively – and publicly – excluded the Spaniard from his squad this entire season. He hasn’t been totally absent, starting two matches against Aston Villa and Everton.  However, a closer examination of those matches show he was clearly utilized incorrectly, thrown to the wolves so Mourinho could justify his decision to bench the 25-year-old.

Last season Mata was selected as Chelsea’s Player of the Season by both the fans and the players. He was nominated for Young Player of the Year. And he was selected to the PFA Team of the Season.

Now? Let’s revisit the Aston Villa match from back on August 21st.  With fellow attacking midfielder Oscar also in the lineup, Mata was shoved over onto the wing…at least, that’s what the teamsheets said. In actuality, Mata was a lost man on the pitch.  Have a peek at Oscar’s passing dashboard.  There is a clear, direct purpose to his play, and an attacking mindset.  25 of his 63 passes were in the attacking third, and 26 of his passes went forward.

Now look at Mata’s dashboard. Certainly doesn’t look like a right winger to me. Not only is he spread out all over the pitch, but there’s no purpose to his play. He went 47-of-49 passing, nice. But a closer look shows only 8 of his passes were in the attacking third (and both his misses), and just 9 went forward.  Where’s the creativity? Needless to say, he created no chances to Oscar’s 2. Mata was substituted off in the 65th minute.

Not only is Mata being used sparingly, but when he’s on the pitch he’s being completely misused. Mourinho said he wants Mata to “adapt” to the way “we (Mourinho) want to play.” Adapt? Yes, let’s remold a Team of the Season member to something he isn’t.  That seems logical.

But don’t worry everyone. Mourinho’s going to be playing Mata against Swindon Town midweek in the Capital One Cup, so that should make up for it. Clearly.

Shinji Kagawa:

“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United — on the left wing. My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes.” -Jurgen Klopp, manager of Borussia Dortmund back in May.

Someone call Harry Potter – Shinji Kagawa’s stolen his invisibility cloak.

A player who was not so long ago a prized possession of a Borussia Dortmund squad reaching new heights at a meteoric pace, Kagawa has since vanished.

source: ReutersIt has been a disappearance of much less publicity than in Mata’s case, making it all the more baffling.  We saw Sunday at the Etihad a Manchester United squad not only with an aging defense prone to speed, but a monstrous black hole in the middle of their attack.

United’s midfield of Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, and Wayne Rooney certainly have their strengths, but with Vincent Kompany latched onto the hip of Rooney the entire match – like white on rice, as they say – it was void of any creativity. Rooney was isolated, stranded on an island, and Kompany pounced on the opportunity to lock his man down.

Against Manchester City, do you know how many times Danny Welbeck received the ball in the penalty area? It happened three times. Do you know how many times Wayne Rooney received the ball in the penalty area? Twice.

Kagawa can pass just as well as Carrick. He can score goals – he bagged 28 in 65 matches with Broussia Dortmund. What Manchester United are missing is Kagawa’s dribbling abilities.

They couldn’t break down Manchester City’s defense partly because they didn’t have anybody on the pitch with the right key to the vault.  They couldn’t pass their way through that defense, with the central midfield trio going 63-of-84 (75%) in the attacking third.  They sure as heck could have used someone to slice the back four open with a good run or two on the ball.  Kagawa.

Here’s a suggestion: Ashley Young was an atrocity on the wing to finish last season, and has been more of the same this year.  Why not replace him on the left side with Danny Welbeck, pair Rooney and Kagawa in the middle, and keep Fellaini to hold behind them? Sure, it’s an attacking lineup, and you lose Carrick’s passing and defense, but the 32-year-old only made two tackles and one interception against City, is that really a major loss? Rooney and Kagawa feeding Robin van Persie is a salivating prospect.

At the very least rotate Kagawa and Rooney. With the mercurial English playmaker out due to injury, Moyes instead turned to the most overrated player in the Premier League in Tom Cleverley. United proceeded to lose 1-0 at Anfield.

If the 4-1 loss to their bitter rivals wasn’t enough of a wake-up call for Moyes, I’m not exactly sure what will change his mind.

Ultimately, it’s the manager’s decisions.  The sad part is, the longer this continues, the more broken Mata and Kagawa, and watching the talent these two possess rot on the bench is more than sad – it’s outrageous.

So whose absence do you think is the more egregious error by their manager? Or do you think Moyes and Mourinho are actually making the right decision?

Blatter says he will accept verdict as CAS appeal begins

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter arrived for his appeal hearing against a six-year ban from football on Thursday, pledging to accept the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport

“I do hope it will be positive for me,” Blatter, sporting a light gray beard, told reporters at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) ahead of a hearing expected to last several hours.

The court’s verdict is expected within several weeks, and could be challenged in a further appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

The 80-year-old Blatter denies wrongdoing in authorizing a $2 million payment to former FIFA vice president Michel Platini in 2011. They claimed it was for backdated and uncontracted salary for work Platini did in advising Blatter from 1999 to 2002.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The so-called “disloyal payment” led Blatter to be put under investigation for criminal mismanagement by Swiss federal prosecutors last September. That investigation is ongoing.

FIFA’s ethics committee judged the $2 million deal was a conflict of interest and initially banned Blatter and Platini for eight years last December. FIFA’s appeal committee cut both bans to six years.

Platini’s appeal to CAS was already judged in May, when Blatter appeared in person as a witness. Platini promised a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal after his ban was only cut from six to four years.

Platini arrived at the hearing around midday local time to be a witness. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter’s comments Thursday suggest he would not pursue a federal case. Federal judges can intervene only if legal process is abused.

“We are football players, we learned to win but also we learned to lose and it will not be the end of the world,” Blatter said outside CAS.

The three-member panel for Blatter’s case is expected to respect the verdict of a separate panel which judged Platini.

A failure to overturn the ban for Blatter would likely end his hope to one day be named FIFA honorary president by its 211 member federations.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The case already ended Platini’s chance to replace Blatter as FIFA president, and also forced him out of European governing body UEFA.

On Sept. 14, UEFA members will elect a successor to replace Platini who had a mandate through March 2019. By imposing a four-year ban, the CAS panel ensured UEFA had to replace Platini, rather than wait for him to return.

The “disloyal payment” emerged last year when Platini was strongly favored to win the election to replace Blatter, who had announced his departure plans after 17 years as president amid pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption implicating senior FIFA officials.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Both men were questioned at FIFA headquarters last September by Swiss investigators who were waiting for them outside an executive committee meeting.

During the turmoil in world football, Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, submitted an election candidacy on the entry deadline day and won the vote in February.

Arriving at the hearing with his Zurich-based lawyer Lorenz Erni, Blatter said he hoped the CAS panel “will understand that the payment made to Platini was really a debt that we had against him.”

“This is a principle, if you have debts you pay them,” Blatter said.

NASL weekend preview: Miami, Minnesota meet playoff fortunes head on

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There are still two full months of soccer to go in the NASL’s Fall Season, but this weekend could be a major day for the title fortunes of one squad in particular.

Miami FC and Minnesota United are level on points with 15 heading into Saturday’s match at FIU Stadium.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

If you’re unfamiliar, the NASL Playoffs involve four teams: the Spring champion (Indy Eleven), the Fall champion, and two other teams with the best combined record between seasons.

Miami’s played one fewer game, and both it and Minnesota — fresh off the news it’s headed to MLS in 2017 — are seven points shy of first-place FC Edmonton.

But Minnesota is on pace to make the playoffs through combined schedule, while Miami had a poor first half and would be better served to win the Fall Season if it wants a shot at the NASL Soccer Bowl Trophy.

Saturday
Carolina Railhawks at New York Cosmos
Rayo OKC at Tampa Bay Rowdies
Minnesota United at Miami FC

Sunday
Indy Eleven at Ottawa Fury
Puerto Rico at FC Edmonton

Arsenal reportedly set for $69 million double Friday buy

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14:  Lucas Perez of RC Deportivo la Coruna reacts during the La Liga match between Rayo Vallecano and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Teresa Rivero on September 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger‘s much-maligned transfer business is about to take the “much” off the verb.

Lucas Perez of Deportiva de la Coruna is reportedly going to be joining Arsenal on Friday, and the Gunners are also close to finally landing Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Perez, 27, broke out for a career-best 17 goals last season, and scored on debut last weekend. He’s set to cost $22.5 million, while Mustafi makes up the other $46.5 million.

The 12-times capped German center back stands 6-foot, and would bring stability to a Gunners unit which has (again) been beset by injuries.

From the BBC:

Spaniard Lucas, 27, scored 17 goals in 37 games last season and Arsenal will meet a 20m euro (£17.1m) buyout clause.

Germany international Mustafi, 24, is set to join for a fee in excess of £35m.

Is this, coupled with the Granit Xhaka buy, enough to help Wenger right the ship? Mustafi, especially, would be a key piece. Perez is a bit of a lesser-known quality.

MLS Weekend Preview: Desperation mounts as rivals meet in Oregon

Portland Timbers defender Vytas Andriuskevicius, second from right, trips up Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, right, in the second half of a MLS soccer match, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, in Seattle. Andriuskevicius was called for a foul on the play, and the Sounders' Clint Dempsey scored a goal on the resulting penalty kick. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Desperation is up-and-down the schedule this weekend in Major League Soccer, as the playoff race really heats up.

The calendar turns to September next week, and teams will end this weekend with a clear view of their runs into the season’s final Sunday: Oct. 23.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

The tumult that is an MLS season means only one team is more than two wins out of a playoff spot right now, and that’s Houston (7 points back of Western No. 6 Portland).

Here’s who is feeling the heat of their matches this weekend:

Portland and Seattle: The Cascadia Cup rivals tangle Sunday in Oregon, with the Timbers holding a one-point edge on the Sounders for the West’s final playoff spot. Seattle has played one fewer games than Portland, and a win on Sunday would be a double-whammy for PDX; The Timbers would be level on points with Seattle and Vancouver in the Cascadia Cup standings with just one match to go (compared to their opponents’ two).

Vancouver: The ‘Caps don’t have a Cup game this weekend, but will face an L.A. team which hasn’t lost at home. Vancouver is in real danger of moving more than one win behind in the fight for a playoff spot. If they lose to L.A. and both San Jose and Portland win, the Whitecaps will be five points back of a playoff spot. Of course, this being MLS, a win and help could see Vancouver in sixth when the smoke clears.

Columbus and New England: No one likes to comment on job status, but Revs’ boss Jay Heaps and his Columbus counterpart (Gregg Berhalter) have to be a bit concerned at this point. New England is a total mess, opening up a goalkeeping controversy, and is pinning its hopes on some Open Cup final karma. The Crew was supposed to contend for a title after last year’s final run, but is currently in the East’s cellar with just three home wins from 13 matches.

Schedule

Friday
Colorado at Real Salt Lake — 8 p.m. EDT

Saturday
Chicago at DC United — 7 p.m. EDT
Sporting KC at Philadelphia — 7 p.m. EDT
San Jose at Columbus — 7:30 p.m. EDT
Montreal at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. EDT
FC Dallas at Houston — 9 p.m. EDT
Vancouver at LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. EDT

Sunday
New England at New York Red Bulls — 2:30 p.m. EDT
Seattle at Portland — 5 p.m. EDT
New York City at Orlando City — 7 p.m. EDT