Italy: One-two battle the latest chance for Roma to show title-contending form

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Roma answered lingering questions with their win at Inter, the 3-0 result before the international break running the Giallorossi’s record to 7-0-0. It was the first major test of the Rudi Garcia era, one Serie A’s leaders passed with with unexpected ease. With a +20 goal difference through seven rounds (having conceded only once), there’s little doubt Roma’s image has now transcended its early, upstart status. They’re full-fledged contenders now.

Whether they’re favorites is a different discussion entirely, though that debate may come to a quick a resolution tomorrow. That’s when Napoli, sitting second in Italy, visit the Stadio Olimpico for the premier match of the European weekend – one that’s been moved up a day to avoid weekend protests in Italy. Combined, the two teams have taken 40 of a possible 42 points this season.

In the buildup to the match, much has been made of the relationship between the club’s two new coaches, with Garcia’s acquaintance with Rafa Benítez dating back to the latter’s time at Valencia. The stylistic differences between the two, however, could prove decisive on Friday. Benítez has become known for a type of conservative pragmatism that leads detractors to bemoan the sometimes dull results. Garcia, on the other hand, maintains the same entertaining, often open style he used with great success at Lille. Whereas Benítez is practical, Garcia remains a dreamer.

At least, you have to be a dreamer to envision Roma, a team that failed to qualify for Europe last season, could play as this level, but thanks to Garcia’s approach and the club’s typical slew of offseason changes, the Giallorossi are one of Europe’s pleasant surprises. They’re experiencing the type of success they’ve lacked since parting with Luciano Spalletti, and even under the current Zenit boss, Roma never experienced runs quite like this. Destroyer Daniele De Rossi’s been commanding in front of the defense, midfielders Miralem Pjanic and Kevin Strootman have set up seven goals between them, while Gervinho and Alexandro Florenzi have used Francisco Totti’s creativity to score seven between them.

The combination will stress Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami, the Swiss midfielders tasked with protecting Napoli’s defensive in Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Given how Roma play, the tandem could be overwhelmed in the space above the line, not only dealing with Totti’s trequarista tendencies but also contending with Gervinho, Florenzi, Pjanic and Strootman, all of whom frequently threaten that space. They’ll need help from Miguel Britos and Raul Albiol, Napoli’s likely starters in central defense, through the desire to follow Totti into midfield and help the holders could leave vital space Roma’s captain can exploit – space where Gervinho and Florenzi have thrived.

source: Getty Images
Slovakian international Marek Hamsik has been one of Italy’s best players this season, scoring five times in as many games during Napoli’s 6-0-1 start. (Photo: Getty Images.)

The numbers dictate Benítez come up with some way to counter Roma’s threats, though if that happens, Napoli have their own advantages at the other end. The work of striker Gonzalo Higuain will ensure Leandro Castan and Mehdi Benatia are occupied in central defense, leaving De Rossi one-on-one with Marek Hamsik (five goals already this season) and a replacement left back to contain José Callejon. Federico Balzaretti, Garcia’s first choice on that side, picked up a red card against Inter Milan, leaving him suspended for tomorrow’s match. If Roma’s sterling defensive record’s about to be compromised, it may be through Balzaretti’s spot.

But this game could come down to the dreamer versus the pragmatist. Benítez may see an early season match on the road as a reason to contain, not impose. It’s an approach that may have hurt Napoli in London, where a seemingly tentative side saw Arsenal run past them in Champions League. Roma carries the same potential to overwhelm the partenopei.

If, however, Benítez can come up with a plan that can show Garcia’s dreams to be naiveté, Napoli may issue a wake-up call. Regardless, we’ll find out whether Roma are favorites or mere contenders. An 8-0-0 mark would force us to consider whether they and not Juventus are most likely to claim this year’s scudetto.

Other notes on tomorrow’s match:

  • Kevin Strootman picked up an ankle injury on international duty, creating the slight chance recovering U.S. international Michael Bradley could be thrown into the fray after his own battle with an ankle problem. Strootman, however, looks set to start, as does Miralem Pjanic, who is said to be dealing with a slight knee problem.
  • Rudi Garcia said Gervinho was also a small fitness concerned but hinted the Ivorian will play on Friday.
  • Garcia, on his fullback selection issues: “I have options on the left and on the right of defence: (Greece international Vasilis) Torosidis has done very well. I can drop Marquinho back into a deeper role or even start (Alessio) Romagnoli. Dodò? He’s getting back from serious injury, but is better now … But I’ll make my decisions tomorrow. I prefer to have to make tough selection decisions rather than have no selection decisions to make at all.”
  • Napoli have their own injury concerns, though many of which have cleared up. Gonzalo Higuaín and Raul Albiol earlier this week, but having come through recent training sessions with no setbacks, each are expected to feature in Benítez’s starting XI.
  • Fullback Juan Camilo Zuñiga, however, is out for Napoli. Look for Pablo Amero to get the start at left back.
  • With Lorenzo Insigne having played Tuesday for Italy, Benítez will likely choose Belgian Dries Mertens to start on the left side of his attack. The 26-year-old recorded two assists in Napoli’s 4-0, pre-break win over Livorno.

Report: RBNY midfielder Felipe, NYCFC’s Harrison could play for USMNT

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The U.S. Men’s National Team has seen a rise in duel-nationals representing the Stars and Stripes in recent years, and that trend could continue with two of MLS’ most promising midfielders interested in enhancing their international careers.

[ MORE: PST names Best XI for the 2017 MLS season ]

According to MSG Network’s Kristian Dyer, New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe Martins is in the midst of a finalizing his American citizenship, while New York City FC attacker Jack Harrison has spoken with U.S. Soccer about potentially representing the U.S..

Martins already has his green card — which opened up an international slot for the Red Bulls this season –but obtaining citizenship in the near future would make him eligible for selection for the USMNT ahead of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle.

The 27-year-old had also previously applied for permanent residency in Canada back in 2013 while Martins was with the Montreal Impact, however, his aspirations to represent the nation never transpired.

Meanwhile, Harrison recently represented the England Under-21s in October, but he too could be on track for U.S. citizenship over the next few years if he remains in MLS.

[ MORE: Justin Meram talks Crew’s good form, facing Atlanta and more ]

In Dyer’s report, he notes the rising interest in Harrison from English clubs, though, and a potential move back to the United Kingdom would hurt the former Manchester United academy member’s chances of joining the USMNT.

Harrison is only in his sophomore season with NYCFC, but the young Englishman has garnered plenty of attention after scoring 14 goals and adding 13 assists thus far for the Bronx side.

Pro Soccer Talk’s 2017 MLS awards: Who earned the hardware?

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Decision Day tipped the scales for several players and clubs as Major League Soccer transitions towards the MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Now, it’s time to take a look back at the best players/coaches from the 2017 season, including the league’s Most Valuable Player.

Below, PST hands out its awards for the 2017 MLS regular season and gives some insight into the selections.

MLS MVP

Matt Reed Joe Prince-Wright Nick Mendola Andy Edwards Kyle Bonn Dan Karrell
1st place David Villa  Sebastian Giovinco Sebastian Giovinco Diego Valeri Diego Valeri  Sebastian Giovinco
2nd Diego Valeri  Miguel Almiron Diego Valeri David Villa David Villa Nemanja Nikolic
3rd Nemanja Nikolic  Diego Valeri Nemanja Nikolic Nemanja Nikolic Nemanja Nikolic  David Villa

PST thoughts — Reed: “This may be one of the most difficult MVP races to assess in recent seasons simply because of the way that things shaped up towards the end. Nikolic was brilliant, and deservedly won the Golden Boot, but Valeri and Villa each carried their teams to first-round byes with strong efforts throughout the course of 2017. I think Sunday’s effort against the Crew showed just how important Villa is to NYCFC, though, as he nearly picked up his second hat-trick of the season. Without his goals, NYCFC drops to fifth place.”


Manager of the Year

Reed JPW Mendola Edwards Bonn Karell
1st place Tata Martino  Greg Vanney Tata Martino Tata Martino Caleb Porter  Greg Vanney
2nd Greg Vanney  Carl Robinson Chris Leitch Greg Vanney  Greg Vanney Veljko Paunovic
3rd Chris Leitch  Wilmer Cabrera Greg Vanney Patrick Vieira Patrick Vieira  Caleb Porter

PST thoughts — Edwards: “It’s crazy to not put the coach of the all-time points record holders first here, but what Tata did this year — quickly melding together 20 guys over the course of seven months and turning them into legitimate contenders — is a slightly tougher task. TFC rolled over 10 of 11 players from last year’s MLS Cup side (adding only Victor Vazquez, the unquestioned missing piece), which significantly lowers the degree of difficulty of the task as hand.”


Rookie of the Year

Reed JPW Mendola Edwards Bonn Karell
1st place Julian Gressel  Julian Gressel Julian Gressel Julian Gressel Julian Gressel  Julian Gressel
2nd Abu Danladi  Abu Danladi Jack Elliott Jackson Yueill Abu Danladi  Ian Harkes
3rd Jack Elliott  Ian Harkes Jonathan Lewis Alex Crognale Jack Elliott  Abu Danladi

PST thoughts — JPW: “A rising star for Atlanta, his ability to create goals in a dynamic attack has not been overlooked. Just edges the award ahead of Danladi, Harkes and Jack Elliott.


Newcomer of the Year

Reed JPW Mendola Edwards Bonn Karell
1st place Nemanja Nikolic  Nemanja Nikolic Nemanja Nikolic Josef Martinez Miguel Almiron  Nemanja Nikolic
2nd Miguel Almiron  Josef Martinez Romain Alessandrini Nemanja Nikolic Nemanja Nikolic  Miguel Almiron
3rd Victor Vasquez Bastian Schweinsteiger Miguel Almiron Romain Alessandrini Victor Vasquez  Victor Vasquez

PST thoughts — Mendola: “Was this the best year of imports in MLS history? It’s hard to say otherwise, with Romain Alessandrini, Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, even half-season talents like Vako Qazaishvili and Paul Arriola. Well, wow. Nikolic’s 24 goals give him the distinction of leading three different leagues in scoring across four seasons.”

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium will host 2018 MLS All-Star Game

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Atlanta United has done just about everything right in its first season in MLS, and the club is already being rewarded.

[ MORE: Justin Meram talks Crew’s good form, facing Atlanta and more ]

On Monday, Major League Soccer announced that Atlanta will host the 2018 MLS All-Star Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The new venue has already been a part of MLS history when Atlanta hosted over 71,000 supporters on Sunday in the club’s regular season finale against Toronto FC.

“We’re proud to bring our 2018 All-Star Game to Atlanta, a city and Club that have taken Major League Soccer by storm,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a league statement. “Atlanta United’s success is one of the most compelling and impressive expansion team launches in the history of pro sports, and a testament to Arthur Blank’s vision and leadership, and the tremendous team that he has built both on and off the field.

“Atlanta and its supporters have earned the opportunity to host MLS All-Star week and showcase their passion for the beautiful game.”

The expansion side has taken MLS by storm in its first season in the league, with its supporters purchasing more than 36,000 season tickets and the club averaging roughly 48,200 fans per home match.

[ MORE: PST names its Best XI for the 2017 MLS season ]

To this point, the date and opponent for next year’s All-Star Game are yet to be determined.

Cristiano Ronaldo captures Best Male Player at FIFA awards

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The yearly debate as to whom the best player in the world is won’t be settled in the minds of fans across the globe, but on Monday, FIFA gave its two cents.

Real Madrid attacker Cristiano Ronaldo took home Best Male Player honors at the FIFA Best awards, beating out Lionel Messi and Neymar for the title.

[ MORE: Mbappe wins Golden Boy award, beats out Pulisic, others ]

Meanwhile, all three superstars were named in the FIFA Best XI for the year, alongside the likes of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Andres Iniesta.

Here’s a look at some of the other winners from Monday’s FIFA awards.

Best Male Player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

FIFA World XI: Gianluigi Buffon; Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Leonardo Bonucci, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar.

FIFA Men’s Coach of 2017: Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid)

Puskas Award for Best Goal: Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)

Best Female Player: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)