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MLS opportunity lost: Once again, no simultaneous kickoffs for final match day

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Yet another MLS final weekend is about come and go and, again, we can pick up an infuriated pen and mark this one down under “Opportunity Lost.”

The league misses so, so much by not having simultaneous kickoffs on the final weekend of play.

In fact, since Major League Soccer is divided into conferences, the league would stand to register a double-word score on this one. Eastern Conference on Saturday, all games kicking off at the same time. And then Western Conference on Sunday, same deal, all games kicking off at once.

The drama is potentially brilliant. Potentially even game-changing for the league, if managed properly, with exposure maximized.

Soccer fans in this country were just treated to tense and dramatic theater that can unfold thanks to simultaneous kickoffs. The final night of CONCACAF qualifying, with something on all three matches, was sensationally memorable stuff. And that’s with the United States only being peripherally involved!

Look at the games this weekend:

Five games in Round 35 are clashing of Eastern Conference clubs, and every single one will tell something about the playoffs. Foremost, between Montreal, Chicago, New England and Houston, one member of that nervous foursome is not going to make it. Plus, there’s New York and Sporting Kansas City still angling for Supporters Shield and the Eastern regular season championship (not to mention the best shot at hosting MLS Cup.)

That’s drama – and that’s potential exposure Major League Soccer cannot buy!

Things are decided in the West as for who is going to the 2013 playoffs – but potential positioning is all over the place.

And yet, like every year, game times are all over the place, spread over several hours. Sigh.

Why? It mostly comes down to this: small thinking. It’s small thinking for a league whose “Think Big!” time has arrived.

It’s about built-in TV slots. And about concerns of individual clubs that might prefer this start time over that one. There are some other minor concerns, but … yeah, thinking small.

(By the way, flexible TV scheduling would also help, rather than locking in the games 10 months earlier. One of the nationally televised games this weekend is San Jose-Dallas, which is the only match of 10 in Round 35 that will not help decide playoff spots or post-season seeding. Sigh.)

Thinking big would be imagining something like the Premier League finish of two years back, when Manchester City claimed the crown on Sergio Aguero’s historic strike. I mean, watch this thing!

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What about the big drama that we sometimes get with final group play days at a World Cup? Anyone remember 2002 in Asia, when the Americans fell behind to Poland and became so dependent on a result from match playing out simultaneously – there’s that word again – 115 miles away between South Korea and Portugal? (Thanks again, Park Ji-Sung!) That’s the dramatic, unforgettable stuff!

There’s something else quite important to consider here: fairness.

Teams that kick off later than others may benefit from an unfair advantage. With playoffs beginning so quickly after the final kick – the last MLS regular season games ends late Sunday, the first 4th vs. 5th eliminator match is Wednesday, about 68 hours in between – unfair advantages is quite possible.

Specifically, one team may get an extra day of rest (by playing Saturday rather than Sunday). Or, a club may benefit by resting players on that final day because they know something about their playoff fate or positioning based on an earlier Round 35 result. How is that fair?

At some point, marketing concerns need to be put aside and matter of simple fairness need to be paramount.

It was OK for MLS to be deficient in these ways in early years; scheduling was brutally tough as so few clubs had control of their facilities. We are way past the tipping point on that one. And we’re also past the point where teams were losing so much money, things like “simultaneous kickoffs” was just a pricey luxury.

I have been writing about this for almost five years now; it’s time MLS catches up – and time they stopped blowing this wonderful opportunity.

Chelsea confirm Diego Costa available for selection

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Diego Costa is once again available for Chelsea.

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In his press conference on Friday, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte revealed that Costa would be available for selection against Hull City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Costa, 28, is Chelsea’s leading scorer in the Premier League with 14 goals and five assists and he also leads the PL charts in scoring. However, he was not in the squad for their 3-0 win at Leicester City last weekend after news broke of a possible training ground bust up with Conte and his staff amid a back injury.

Since then reports have stated that clubs from the Chinese Super League were offering Costa over $368,000 per week which may have unsettled him, but after training on his own earlier this week and then rejoining the team in the past few days he is now ready to return and lead Chelsea’s title charge once more.

Speaking to the media, Conte revealed that Costa is no longer struggling with a back issue and is fully fit to participate for the Premier League leaders.

“I think the player wants to stay at Chelsea, he is happy to stay here and play for us,” Conte said. “I don’t see any problem with our team. I heard a lot of speculation about Diego, but now the most important thing is he trained with us this week, he does not have any pain in his back and can play.

This is a massive boost for Chelsea as they look to extend their seven point lead at the top of the table, but Conte wouldn’t confirm if Costa was fit enough to start against Hull.

“Diego is an important player for us. We all know this. When he stays in a good form he has always played for me,” Conte said. “I will see on Sunday [if he starts against Hull]. I don’t want to give an advantage to our opponents.”

With Costa’s mind seemingly back on matters at Chelsea despite a monster contract offer from China lingering in the background, news that he is back fit and ready to score goals will send a shudder of disappointment through Chelsea’s title rivals in the Premier League.

Mourinho reveals why Memphis had to move on

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03:  Memphis Depay of Manchester United in action during the Wayne Rooney Testimonial match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on August 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Memphis Depay spent 18 months at Manchester United but it just didn’t work out for the Dutch winger.

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Memphis, 22, will officially join Ligue 1 side Lyon on Friday as the clubs agreed a $18.4 million with a buy-back clause reportedly inserted. 

The Dutch international scored seven goals in 52 appearances in all competitions for United, yet he has appeared just eight times this season and has failed to score for the Red Devils.

Speaking to the media on Friday ahead of United’s clash at Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Mourinho revealed that Memphis’ attitude was always exemplary even though chances to play were at a premium.

“He was a fantastic professional. If somebody thinks it didn’t work because he was not a great professional it is totally wrong,” Mourinho said. “One thing is some picture that somebody takes with him in an amazing car or dressing in a very specific way but the image is totally wrong. The guy is a fantastic professional, he is a kid who respected everyone. A kid that worked hard to have more chances. A kid that was frustrated because he was not having that. I only have good things to say about him. I think this is much more important.”

But why did Memphis’ time at United run out?

“If I can find a little reason it is to say that he is a player form one position, the only position, where we have overbooking,” Mourinho explained. “He is a winger and wingers is what we have more. It is the position to have chances. Where it is more difficult to be the next choice. It is a position where we never have problems. We have Lingard. We have Mata. We have Mkhitaryan. We have Martial. We have Ashley Young. We have Marcus Rashford. It is a position where we have like six possibilities. Even Rooney played a few times from the left.

“It is a position where we even have difficulties when we want to do rotation. Even when I was doing rotation and trying to rest players and trying to play some in the Europa League and another one in the League Cup and another one in the FA Cup, even when I was doing rotation I had like seven guys for two positions. For me, I will stay with these two things: on one side he is a fantastic professional. By the other side we had too many players in his position.”

Okay, so Memphis was up against strong competition to get minutes at United but is there a potential he could return to Old Trafford with talk of a potential buy-back clause in the deal?

“Of course. Potentially he is a very good player. I think when Mr. Van Gaal decided to buy him he did well,” Mourinho said. “He knew him very well from the national team. He was very young when in the World Cup he had flashes of top quality. He was playing well in Holland. We know the Dutch league is not the same but he was showing very good things. I think Mr. Van Gaal and Manchester United did very well to buy him. He didn’t succeed in his 18 months, I would say, but he is very young but it is important for the club to keep control of this talent and we all wish he plays very, very well at Olympique Lyon. And why not to come back? Because everyone here still likes him.”

So, the door is well and truly still open for Memphis at United and if he rips it up at Lyon for the rest of this season and maybe the start of the 2017-18 campaign, perhaps he will be back at Old Trafford once and for all. Yet there will be a lingering feeling of “what if” for United’s fans and the Dutchman as he showed flashes of brilliance in his time in the Premier League but could never hold down a consistent spot or position in United’s lineup.

Memphis is set to make his debut for Lyon on Sunday against Marseille as they currently sit 11 points behind Ligue 1 leaders Monaco but have a game in hand.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

[ MORE: Jones labels Howard’s comments “dangerous” ]

The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 05: Sebastian Rudy of TSG Hoffenheim is challenged by Douglas Costa of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Allianz Arena on November 5, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25