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As NASL, USL combines open, lower-level landscape still in flux

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When the second division North American Soccer League convenes its player combine Friday, 80 players will compete to win spots on the 10 teams that will take part in the league’s spring season. When the 13-team USL PRO opened the third tier’s combine on Thursday, 102 players were scheduled to take part. Four times as many applied to go.

NASL’s potential players provide a more international flare, with 23 countries set to be represented on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. The raw numbers, however, are a reflection of the changing landscape of U.S. Soccer’s second and third divisions. Though NASL aspires to be a first division competitor to MLS, the real competition may be between the next two levels, where MLS’s cooperative agreement with USL PRO is quickly elevating the status of the third tier.

“[A] lot of MLS teams are starting to be affiliated (with USL PRO teams),” goalkeeper hopeful Brain Billings told the league’s web site, the former Bradley University No. 1 trying out at the league’s combine in Bradenton, Fla. Though Thursday, 10 affiliate agreements had been signed between MLS franchises and USL PRO teams.

“[W]hat better start than to try to start off the bat,” Billings said, “get a couple of starts here and there, and hopefully make the jump. You’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m glad to start at a level such as this.”

It’s a level that will include more professional-level talent than ever, with most of the nine MLS teams reaching affiliate agreements committing four players to their partner clubs. With 36 (potentially growing to 48) MLS-signed players taking part in USL PRO, more eyes than ever will be watching, evaluating, and looking for talent in the third-level league. And when players like new OKC Energy head coach Jimmy Nielsen retire from MLS, they’re more likely to look to go to a league that has defined relationships with Major League Soccer.

source:  There was once a chance for the NASL to have those type of relationships, with MLS and the second division coming close to their own affiliate agreement in 2012. Now, the relationship between the two leagues is unclear. Though some MLS teams still loaned players out to the NASL last year, a more-defined relationship with USL PRO means fewer talents will make their way to the second division. While a team like Los Angeles may still use the Fort Lauderdale Strikers to get games for players like Bryan Gaul and Kenney Walker (or, they may have their own unique situation), franchises with affiliate commitments will send their players to USL PRO.

It’s the prime example of how the second division has grown away from the first division, something the NASL may not necessarily mind. Expanding, signing players like Marcos Senna, and taking their first steps to poaching players like Andre Lewis, the league is trying to transcend the idea that theirs is an inherently lower-level circuit. Highlighting the array of international talent brought into their combine, NASL continues to position themselves as a potential competitor to MLS; if not now, then down the road.

That positioning was evident on NASL’s website on the eve of their combine. There, the league featured a profile of 19-year-old Spanish forward Noah Figueras, a player who trained at the Barcelona academy as a 12-year-old. Having recently moved to the United States, Figueras hoping to win a spot the U.S.’s second tier.

“Since I was a kid I always dreamed to become a professional soccer player,” Figueras told NASL.com. “I’ve worked very hard in my life and now that I have this opportunity I’ll do the best I can.”

“I’ve only been living here five months because of my dad’s work and I just tried out with some ID camps,” explained Figueras, who had been playing in Spain’s fourth tier.  “I can see that there is a total different style of play.”

A different style of play in a league that’s trying to blaze a different path. Whereas USL PRO is drawing players like Brian Billings to its combine — players who see the MLS/USL agreement as a path to the next level — the NASL is drawing from different sources. Of course, there’s bound to be some crossover, but more and more, the players who go to the NASL are embarking on a different path, if they’re not already on one.

Go to the second tier, and you’ll be part of a league that strives to create a profile to match MLS’s. Go to the third, and you may have your more direct route to the first.

Premier League Player Power Rankings – Week 14

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Here are the latest batch of Premier League Player Power Rankings, with Chelsea and Arsenal leading the way.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Antonio Conte‘s Blues have won eight on the spin and there’s no surprise that seven of their players feature in our top 20. There are also three players from Arsenal as the Gunners have now gone 13 games without a defeat in the PL.

Middlesbrough and Sunderland both have multiple players included which goes hand-in-hand with their recent good form, while Liverpool, West Brom, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace are also represented.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players over the past seven days in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the Premier League right now.


  1. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Up 1
  2. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – Down 1
  3. Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) – Up 16
  4. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – New entry
  5. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) — Up 6
  6. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) – Up 1
  7. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  8. Gaston Ramirez (Middlesbrough) – Up 5
  9. Victor Moses (Chelsea) – New entry
  10.  Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – New entry
  11. Jordan Pickford (Sunderland) – New entry
  12. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – Down 2
  13. Matt Phillips (West Brom) – New entry
  14. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  15.  Jermain Defoe (Sunderland) – New entry
  16. Alvaro Negredo (Middlesbrough) – Down 7
  17. Divock Origi (Liverpool) – Even
  18. Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace) – New entry
  19. Gary Cahill (Chelsea) — Down 5
  20. Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth) – New entry

VIDEO: Leicester academy product scores stunner from halfway line

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 08:  Layton Ndukwu of Leicester City crosses the ball during the FA Youth Cup semi final, second leg match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on April 8, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
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Take a bow, Layton Ndukwu.

Leicester City’s U23 side played Liverpool over the past weekend and video has emerged showing the English teenager scoring a sensational goal.

[ MORE: Klopp takes Liverpool on vacay ]

Ndukwu, 18, picked the ball up in his own half after latching onto a loose ball, took one touch and then sent a shot from well over half-field which caught the Liverpool goalkeeper out and went into the net.

Since David Beckham’s halfway line special back in the day, there is nothing quite like seeing a goal from that far out.

Drink it in below, while remember the name: Layton Ndukwu

David Villa wins 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors

CARSON, CA - AUGUST 23:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC scores on a penalty kick against Los Angeles Galaxy during the second half at StubHub Center August 23, 2015, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The league has spoken…

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After a second consecutive season of brilliance in the Big Apple, New York City FC striker David Villa has been named the 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP.

This season, Villa notched an impressive 23 goals and four assists for NYCFC and helped the club advance to the postseason for the first time in the team’s brief history.

Since joining MLS ahead of NYCFC’s inaugural season in 2015, the Spaniard has notched 41 goals in 65 matches, including the playoffs.

Villa beat out New York Red Bulls duo Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan for this season’s honors.

Paul Pogba urged to cut out the showboating at Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Paul Pogba‘s opening few months at Manchester United have not gone as expected.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Pogba, 23, became the most expensive player in history when he joined the Red Devils from Juventus for $113 million this summer but so far he has failed to show his best for and his United side is languishing 13 points off Premier League leaders Chelsea.

That has led to the manager of the French national team, Didier Deschamps, to offer Pogba a very public piece of advice. In a nutshell: stop showing off.

Speaking to French station RMC, Deschamps urged his midfielder for France to forget about trying to impress on a personal note and simply put the team first.

“Even when he does things well it’s not good enough,” Deschamps said. “So we can understand that it may encourage him to do things that are out of the ordinary but not necessarily helpful. He can do things that others do not, but it must also be the reality of what is good for the team. We’re talking about a young player. He is at a club where he is also used in different positions.”

Talking about different positions, Deschamps used Pogba in a much deeper role during France’s run to the EURO 2016 final in the summer and many believe his influence on games was impacted. Nevertheless, Pogba stuck to his task and dug in for France.

With United struggling and pressure already starting to pile not only on his shoulders but those of his fellow star players and manager Jose Mourinho, Pogba must sacrifice his individual flair for the team. Simply put, he must do whatever is needed to get the Red Devils back to grinding wins and challenging for a top four finish.

That all starts this Sunday as they host Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) looking to close the gap on another top four rival.

Pogba has been used in a central attacking midfield role in recent weeks and has looked a lot better than when he played in a deeper role. However, the balance between himself and other midfielders at United just isn’t quite right and that needs to change if Mourinho’s side will be successful this season. He has looked most comfortable with Ander Herrera alongside him in midfield and his link up play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a rare bright spot in yet another poor season, so far, for United.

He’s not the type of player who will scored 15-20 goals from midfield (he only has two thus far in the 2016-17 PL campaign) but he can be so instrumental in dictating the tempo of the game. That’s what United need him to do. Right now.