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

1 Comment

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.

LIVE, FA Cup semifinal: Chelsea v. Southampton

Getty
Leave a comment

Chelsea and Southampton clash in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday (10 a.m. ET kick off) for the right to play Manchester United in the final on May 19.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

Antonio Conte led Chelsea to the FA Cup final last season but they lost to Arsenal. Even though the Blues are up against it to finish in the top four in the league, winning the cup would be a big success for Conte.

Saints haven’t made a cup semifinal since 2003 when they lost to Arsenal in the final. Mark Hughes‘ side are entrenched in the relegation zone and have a bigger challenge than making the final.

[ MORE: Minute-by-minute on Chelsea v Saints

Click on the links above to follow the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis live from Wembley right here on Pro Soccer Talk.

Arrests made after violent soccer riot in South Africa

AP Photo/Bongani Mbatha - African News Agency
Leave a comment

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) Police say two people have been arrested and more arrests are imminent after a violent riot at a South African soccer game on Saturday night, when hundreds of fans ripped up parts of the stadium, invaded the field, and seriously assaulted at least one security guard.

Players had to run for the safety of the dressing rooms as the fans swept onto the field soon after the final whistle.

[ MORE: The latest Arsene Wenger news ]

Police responded with stun grenades to disperse the rioters, and television pictures showed riot police storming the field and a white armored police vehicle racing across the edge of the pitch.

South African Police Services spokeswoman Nqobile Gwala on Sunday confirmed the arrests and said the two people were facing charges of public violence and malicious damage to property.

The violence mainly by Kaizer Chiefs fans followed their team’s 2-0 loss to Free State Stars in the semifinals of the Nedbank Cup competition at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in the east coast city of Durban, one of the stadiums built for the 2010 World Cup.

In the most disturbing scenes, a female security guard was set upon by a group of supporters on the field. She lay on the ground as they hit her with plastic chairs. A man then kicked her twice in the head. After the second kick she lay motionless and face down on the grass.

Police spokeswoman Gwala did not say if anyone had died in the violence, saying police had no information yet from stadium or medical authorities on any deaths.

Kaizer Chiefs coach Steve Komphela resigned after the game.

“Emotional” Mertesacker: Send Wenger off “with a cup”

Leave a comment

Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker has made 220 appearances for the club, all with one man in charge of the Gunners: Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: The latest Arsene Wenger news ]

Mertesacker has won three FA Cups with Wenger, and he took up his pen — or laptop — for Sunday’s Matchday program.

The 33-year-old German says it’s down to Arsenal’s players to send off Wenger right: With two more successful rounds in the UEFA Europa League against Atletico Madrid and either Red Bull Salzburg or Marseille. From the BBC:

“We were only informed on Friday about the manager’s decision to step down at the end of the season, so it’s still quite emotional,” Mertesacker said.

“He’s been the major figure of this club for more than 20 years. He’s been so impressive for me and he has trusted me so much throughout my career, in bringing me here and making me captain even when I was injured. He also gave me a future role here at the club so I am very grateful and humbled for the opportunity he gave to me.

“There’s now an emphasis on us doing it for him too. We want to give him the send-off he deserves: with a cup.”

The French legend to end his time at Arsenal against Marseille would be delightful, don’t you think?

Watch Live: Arsenal-West Ham, Stoke-Burnley

AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Leave a comment

The Premier League has a pair of 8:30 a.m. ET Sunday kickoffs for us this morning, including one of Arsene Wenger‘s final matches at Arsenal.

There’s a London Derby between Arsenal and West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners look to stay fresh for Atletico Madrid and the Hammers aim to firm up their Premier League status for next season (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal, Elneny, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Welbeck, Lacazette. Subs: Macey, Mertesacker, Holding, Chambers, Maitland-Niles, Nelson. Aubameyang.

West Ham United: Hart, Zabaleta, Ogbonna, Rice, Cresswell, Masuaku, Kouyate, Noble, Fernandes, Mario, Arnautovic. Subs: Adrian, Cullen, Evra, Lanzini, Hugill, Carroll, Chicharito.


Stoke City’s climb out of the relegation zone will have to overcome Burnley’s desires for a Top Six place, as the Clarets can pass sixth place Arsenal with a win and a Gunners loss to West Ham (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Stoke City: Butland; Johnson, Shawcross, M.Indi, Pieters; Bauer, Allen, Badou, Shaqiri; Crouch, Diouf. Subs: Haugaard, Zouma, Ireland, Cameron, Fletcher, Ramadan, Campbell.

Burnley: Pope, Lowton, Long, Tarkowski, Ward, Lennon, Cork, Westwood, Gudmundsson, Wood, Barnes. Subs: Heaton, Taylor, Marney, Vokes, Hendrick, Walters, Bardsley.