MLS Preview: Sporting Kansas City vs. Philadelphia Union

Leave a comment

• Sporting Kansas City is three points behind the New York Red Bulls at the top of the East. The Philadelphia Union, meanwhile, has dropped out of playoff positioning but sits just six points underneath the third-placed Montreal Impact.

• Kansas City has won three of its last five matches, while Philadelphia has lost three of its last five and is winless in that time period.

• The Union has not scored a goal in a club record 310 minutes, and forward Jack McInerney has not scored since putting away his team-leading 10th of the season on June 1 against Toronto FC.

Although no teams in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference are safely in the playoffs yet, Sporting Kansas City has one of the most comfortable cushions, sitting nine points above sixth place. When it takes on the Philadelphia Union on Friday (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Kansas City will face a team on the opposite end of the spectrum, desperate for points.

Philadelphia climbed as high as second place on several occasions in 2013, but it currently finds itself in seventh out of the 10-team conference, outside the playoffs. Losing three of its last five and only scoring one goal, four games ago, in that time has seen the Union plummet from third place before that streak to its current position.

Talismanic striker Jack McInerney, who still holds the team lead in goals and the league lead in game-winning goals, has not scored in nearly three months. Strike partner Conor Casey has not scored in six games.

On the other end of the field, Kansas City seems to be clicking at the right time. It has three wins in its last three and four in its last six, despite losing Kei Kamara to Middlesbrough of the English Championship. The team has scored 10 goals in the last six games, coming from six different players.

C.J. Sapong (pictured) has taken up the torch with Kamara’s departure, scoring three goals in the last two games. He scored twice in a 2-1 win over Toronto FC in his team’s last game.

Including two games against Philadelphia, Sporting only takes on one team currently in a playoff position between now and the end of the season. With one game in hand on the first-placed New York Red Bulls, who have a tough test at Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, the top seed is still within Kansas City’s grasp.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, would likely be happy to play an extra one-off game, if it means the Union qualified for the playoffs.

What they’re saying

Union head coach John Hackworth on the team’s 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo last week: “It has been a really bad stretch for us, and this night is going to be a really difficult to accept. There is no question that effort of the group was fantastic, and their competitiveness showed right from the get-go. They put a lot into this game, and it is unfortunate that we are sitting here, talking about this result, but that’s sports, and as I said, it’s cruel sometimes.”

Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes on C.J. Sapong’s recent tear: “He’s physically dominating in the game, and that’s what we need from him because he is that player. And now he’s doing it in training. If he keeps on that, it’s going to make things very strong for us moving forward.”

Philadelphia captain Brian Carroll on what it takes to make the playoffs: “What I remember from the teams I was a part of that managed success is that we believed in ourselves; we didn’t get swept up in outside talk. We can’t afford to do that now. … I feel like a group that we have here can pull that together, can do that in the last five games of the season.”

Prediction

Brian Carroll might believe in his team’s ability to turn things around, but this will be a tough time to do so. Kansas City has been rolling, and Sporting Park is a difficult place to get a result even when the home team plays poorly. It’s hard to see Philadelphia getting any points out of this game.

While PSG has won the title, Areola’s playing for his future

Twitter/@OptaJean
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) Although Paris Saint-Germain has easily won the French title, Alphonse Areola still has plenty to play for.

The next four games could be crucial in deciding whether PSG keeps the goalkeeper or tries to sign a big name in the transfer window, possibly Thibaut Courtois. The 25-year-old Areola is the same age as Courtois, but has nowhere near the international standing of the Chelsea keeper.

[ MORE: Turkey hands bid plans to UEFA for EURO 2024 ]

It is hard for Areola to stand out, however, in a team noted almost singularly for its attacking prowess. While PSG has already scored more than 100 league goals, and remains on course to reach 100 points this season, Areola has rarely been talked about.

The common perception is that PSG will thrash teams in the French league, so letting in a goal or two is irrelevant.

However, Areola has been one of PSG’s most consistent players this season, and last Sunday he made a personal record of eight saves in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux.

He was also one of the few PSG players to come through the loss to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League with any credit. Without Areola’s shot-stopping, and particularly his bravery rushing off his line, the 5-2 aggregate loss would have been bigger.

With 104 goals, PSG’s attack is the best in the league by far and has netted 25 more than deposed champion Monaco.

But PSG’s defense is also the best and Areola has conceded only 21 goals in the 31 he has played. Although PSG has dominated most of those, losing only twice all season, he has still made on average four saves per game.

Having replaced Kevin Trapp as No. 1, Areola has missed only three league games all season. It represents a reversal for both.

When Trapp was signed by former coach Laurent Blanc in 2015-16, Areola went on loan to Spanish club Villarreal. He established himself as regular in Villarreal’s side and gained further experience in the Europa League. Spanish media were largely impressed by his consistency and his agility on the goal-line.

He returned to PSG and battled with Trapp for the starting position last season. But coach Unai Emery seemed unsure who he really preferred, with Trapp starting 24 games to Areola’s 14. PSG ended up losing the title to Monaco.

But the hierarchy is much clearer now and the error-prone Trapp, once hailed by Blanc for his passing out from goal, is the one expected to leave.

Areola has further incentive to do well with the World Cup coming up. He is challenging Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to be France’s No. 2 behind Hugo Lloris in Russia. For now, Areola is a squad member but has yet to make an international appearance under coach Didier Deschamps.

But he has done well at every level for France, starting with the under-16s a decade ago. He got his first taste of international success when he helped France win the Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

While Paul Pogba was one of the stars of the tournament, Areola’s crowning moment came in the final itself. France drew 0-0 with Uruguay and he saved two shots in the penalty shootout. Prior to the shootout he had a word with France’s designated penalty takers, confidently telling them “do your job and I’ll do mine.”

With Emery almost certain to be replaced next season, it promises to be a frenetic offseason of buying and selling at the club.

But whoever replaces Emery should perhaps think twice before letting Areola leave. The Parisian-born Areola came through the youth ranks at PSG, as did center half Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Star-studded sides like PSG often import their best players and fans are happy to see them arrive, because it shows ambition. But they nevertheless identify more closely with homegrown talents such as Areola.

More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

[ MORE: Turkey hands in bid plans to UEFA for 2024 EUROs ]

Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
Leave a comment

A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
3 Comments

When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

[ MORE: Go behind the scenes at NYCFC’s new training facility ]

Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.