Cruz Azul dips into MLS, signs Baca, Farfan, Villarreal

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Cruz Azul, with what the club itself called a surprise set of signings, has turned to Major League Soccer for three new players, a shock triple swoop la Machina hopes will help them compete for the upcoming Clausura’s crown. In San Jose’s Rafael Baca, Philadelphia’s Michael Farfan, and Los Angeles’s Jose Villarreal, the Mexico City club are getting three players capable of starting in Major League Soccer, signings  that will raise a number of eyebrows north of the border.

As of Sunday, none of the players’ Major League Soccer teams had confirmed the news, with San Jose going so far as to tell multiple outlets that Baca remains under contract for 2014. Adam Serrano, who covers the LA Galaxy for LAGalaxy.com, reports that Villarreal’s move iss a year-long loan with an option to buy, raising the possibility that all three players could be on similar deals. But with (bizarrely) the league’s official web site unable to get its clubs’ representatives to confirm the moves, we’re still in the dark as to if, how, and why three Major League Soccer players landed with Cruz Azul.

On Sunday, the trio were unveiled along with Marco Fabian, Fausto Pinto, Xavi Báez – Cruz Azul’s other additions to a team that finished fourth in the Apertura’s qualification stage. In the Liguilla, the team was seen out of the tournament by fifth seeded Toluca, with the club website acknowledging they need to “reinforce many parts of the team” if they’re to improve on their fall result.

Baca just completed his third season with the Earthquakes, starting 28 games and recording two assists. A linchpin along side Sam Cronin in San Jose’s midfield, Baca had made 79 appearances since debuting for the team in 2011, scoring twice while assisting on nine goals.

Michael Farfan broke out as Philadelphia’s playmaker in 2012 and was selected to the All-Star Team but never found a groove in his first full last year under John Hackworth. The 25-year-old, also having completed his third season in Major League Soccer, had four goals and nine assists  in 82 games.

Villarreal is a homegrown player for Los Angeles who has also appeared for the United States’ U-18, U-20, and U-23 national teams. The 20-year-old debuted for the Galaxy in 2012 and has made 13 appearances, scoring two career goals.

 

The trio’s debut with their new club could come as early as Jan. 4, with Cruz Azul opening the 2015 Clausura at CONCACAF champions Monterrey. By then, we should know something about how the players ended up in Mexico. Still, with their new team having unveiled the players at a Sunday press conference, it’s truly bizarre that the league’s own machinery can’t get somebody to confirm the moves.

Rumors about Cruz Azul’s potential swoop have been circulating since last week, but without announcements from the league, the whys and hows of La Machina’s signings remain a mystery, even though the club unveiled their new players on Sunday. Whether these are outright sales or temporary loans remain to be seen.

Perhaps the only certainty beyond the trio having signed contracts in Mexico: Cruz Azul have certainly “surprised” MLS followers with their triple swoop.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.

Europa League: Arsenal, Marseille host semifinal 1st legs

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Arsenal’s Champions League dreams could be in for a rude awakening against tournament-tested Atletico Madrid.

The Premier League vs. La Liga match-up is one of two Europa League semifinal first legs set to be served up Sunday, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg meeting in the other.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

There’s something romantic about Arsene Wenger closing out his time at Arsenal against French opposition in Lyon, but Atleti and Salzburg won’t step aside for poetics.

Both matches kickoff ay 3:05 p.m. ET

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid

It’s a bit stunning that this tie has no history considering both club’s statures in their leagues and Europe, but that’s what we’ll se when Arsenal welcomes Atleti for the first leg.

Arsenal boasts two of the top 10 performers in the UEL this season — it would be three had the Gunners not sold Theo Walcott — and are paced by Aaron Ramsey, who has four goals and an assist. Mesut Ozil, who’s ready to return to the pitch, has the reverse with a goal and four helpers.

The Gunners have outscored UEL opposition 29-10 this season.

It’s no surprise that Antoine Griezmann has been Atleti’s best attacker since the Madrid side dropped out of the UCL to run rampant through the UEL knockout rounds. Atleti beat Copenhagen 5-1, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1, and Sporting Lisbon 2-1 for an aggregate score line of 15-3.

Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Don’t expect this to be a simple case of Ligue 1 bossing inferior opposition: This pair met in the group stage, with the Austrian side winning at home and drawing 0-0 in France.

Salzburg has shown its mettle in various ways during the UEL. After allowing just one goal in an unbeaten group stage, they’ve won 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 versus Lazio. That’s no easy road, and Marseille represents another big challenge.

Marseille is bidding to make its first European final since 2004, and has been led by Dimitri Payet‘s three goals and four assists, and Lucas Ocampos’ four goals and one assist. Marseille has knocked off RB Leipzig, Athletic Bilbao, and Braga after the group stage.

Names you’ll need to know from Salzburg: defenders Stefan Lainer and Paulo Miranda have been spectacular, and Munas Dabbur and Valon Berisha have each scored five times in the tournament.

Mourinho on longtime nemesis Wenger: ‘We can be friends in future’

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Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had a poor relationship, but the former thinks he’s soon to get along with the latter.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Manchester United boss Mourinho, 55, heaped praise on the departing Arsenal manager ahead of the two sides’ Sunday meeting at Old Trafford (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), saying the Frenchman has earned much respect.

Branding Wenger “iconic,” Mourinho says his fiery rivalry with Wenger stemmed from Arsenal’s stature in the Premier League when the Portuguese took over Chelsea.

“If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future,” Mourinho told Sky Sports News. “I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.”

Mourinho said he’s tried to show his respect for Wenger, 68, over the past few seasons. It may become a passable relationship, but we find it hard to believe the pair will be dining together on a regular basis as the sun sets on their managerial careers (Mou has a while to go, we think).

Real’s Modric on Bayern feeling unlucky: “That’s their problem”

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Bayern Munich produced far more chances than visiting Real Madrid in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg in Germany, but lost 2-1 at the Allianz Arena.

Franck Ribery butchered an open shot at goal, Robert Lewandowski beat Keylor Navas but didn’t score late, and Thomas Mueller missed getting contact on a shot inside the six.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

It was that kind of day, and Mueller is baffled that his team did not finish more than Joshua Kimmich’s opener.

“Everybody is wondering why this game is 1-2 for Madrid,” Mueller reportedly said. “We still cannot believe it.”

The quote comes from BeIN Sport’s Tancredi Palmeri, who has a stinging rebuke from Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric.

Real wasn’t great on Wednesday, but also limited their big mistakes to one: Marcelo’s lapse of judgment which helped Kimmich to open the scoring for Bayern Munich.

The hosts had a huge giveaway from Rafinha on the match-winner, and backup backstop Sven Ulreich didn’t have a phenomenal day on either goal. Throw in Arjen Robben’s injury requiring an 8th minute substitution, and Bayern did not have much good fortune on the day.

This one, though, doesn’t seem over, even with the tie moving to the Bernabeu.