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.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”

Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup

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Manchester City’s quest for the historic quadruple is over after Pep Guardiola‘s 10-man side was shocked by League One side Wigan Athletic in the fifth round of the FA Cup at the DW Stadium on Monday.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Will Grigg scored the game’s only goal, a late winner after the home side had been thoroughly outplayed and out-possessed for 78 minutes. With 45 places currently standing between them in the English football pyramid — and Man City garnering “best of all time” consideration — “upset” doesn’t even begin to describe Monday’s result.

On the other hand, City represent the third Premier League side knocked out of this season’s FA Cup at the hands of Wigan: Bournemouth, in the third round; followed by West Ham United, in the fourth.

City were reduced to 10 men during first-half stoppage time, when Fabian Delph went flying in on Max Power as the two contested a 50-50 ball inside Wigan’s defensive third. Referee Anthony Taylor initially withdrew his yellow card from his pocket, but protests from the aggrieved party appeared to change Taylor’s mind, and Delph was off.

Prior to Deplh’s dismissal, Wigan had done well  enoughto hold their own against the runaway PL leaders. The Latics had a pair of half-chances, most notably through Grigg in the 12th minute, that could have easily gone their way. Much of the play, though, as is to be expected, was controlled by City (first-half possession: 82 percent), though Guardiola’s men were unable to break through before going a man down.

Still, the share of possession remain unchanged throughout the entirety of the second half, as City patiently probed and used possession as their best means of defense… until the 79th minute arrived.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

The ball was played back to Kyle Walker, into space; rather than receiving the ball at first opportunity, Walker let it run on as he prepared to play it back to Claudio Bravo; Grigg saw his opening and pounced quickly; his first touch used his body to shield Walker from the ball, and his second set up the shot; Grigg went for the far post, curling the ball around Bravo and nestling it just inside the post.

Wigan will now host another PL side, Southampton, in the quarterfinals.

Barry Bennell jailed 30 years for abusing young players

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LIVERPOOL, England (AP) A former English youth soccer coach was jailed Monday for 30 years for abusing 12 young footballers after the judge called him the “devil incarnate.”

Barry Bennell, a former coach at Crewe and scout for Manchester City, was convicted at Liverpool Crown Court of 50 child sexual offenses committed between 1979 and 1991.

“Your behavior towards these boys in grooming and seducing them before subjecting them to, in some cases, the most most serious, degrading and humiliating abuse was sheer evil,” Judge Clement Goldstone told the 64-year-old Bennell.

Bennell looked at the floor and nodded as the judge sentenced him. Some members of the public began to applaud as he was sent down, but were stopped by the judge.

Goldstone said Bennell had appeared to his victims as a God.

“In reality, you were the devil incarnate,” the judge added. “You stole their childhoods and their innocence to satisfy your own perversion.”

Goldstone said Bennell’s abuse had destroyed the enthusiasm his victims had for playing football and had led to them suffering problems including suicidal thoughts, alcoholism and depression.

Bennell has already served three jail terms, totaling 15 years, for similar offenses involving 16 other victims in England and the United States.

LIVE, FA Cup: Wigan host Manchester City

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All conquering Manchester City head to third-tier Wigan Athletic on Monday (Kick off, 2:55 p.m. ET) to keep their quest of a legendary quadruple alive.

[ LIVE: Follow Wigan v Man City here

Pep Guardiola‘s men are 16 points clear atop the Premier League summit, while they are virtually through to the last eight of the UEFA Champions League and are in the League Cup final against Arsenal at Wembley on Sunday.

Can anyone stop them?

Wigan stand in their way with the Latics promotion favorites from the third tier who have already beaten Premier League teams Bournemouth and West Ham United to reach the last 16.

The winner will host Southampton in the quarterfinal for a place in the semifinal at Wembley Stadium, and City’s fan will be feeling a little nervous heading into this game.

Why? They played Wigan in the FA Cup final in 2013 and lost 1-0 after a last-gasp header from Ben Watson sealed one of the greatest upsets of all time to hand the Latics their first-ever major trophy. Wigan also beat City in the FA Cup quarterfinals in 2015, the last time they met in this competition.

Surely Guardiola’s boys won’t be on the end of another upset this time, especially with this starting lineup…

Click on the link above to follow the action live, while we will have analysis and reaction from the final FA Cup fifth round clash right here at Pro Soccer Talk.