Marco Pappa officially back in MLS; Seattle’s choice tougher than it appears

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Late Wednesday, the league confirmed: Marco Pappa is coming back to Major League Soccer. Pending a new visa, his international transfer certificate, and a successful physical, the former Chicago Fire attacker will be returning to North America, though his destination is unclear. With another former MLS midfielder potentially returning from Northern Europe, it’s unclear the Seattle Sounders will snap up the Guatemalan international.

The Sounders have that right thanks to the Mauro Rosales trade, a deal which gave the team the second pick in the allocation order. A former MLS player sold outside the league, Pappa has to come back through that special dispersal process. With Philadelphia having used the order’s first pick (acquired from D.C. United) to select Maurice Edu, it’s Seattle’s turn. By Friday, the Sounders must decide whether they want Pappa, a decision that would send them to the back of the allocation line.

Thanks to some sleuthing from a Pacific Northwest blog, it’s a well-known secret that former Sounder Erik Friberg has been contacted by Seattle about a return to MLS. Like Pappa, he would have to go though allocation, having been sold to Malmö (Sweden) in Dec. 2011. That puts Seattle in a position to choose. If they really want Friberg, they need to get him committed to a return, else risk passing on Pappa in the face of an uncertain reward. If they prefer Pappa, they’ll lose their chance to reacquire Friberg.

For those that remember 2011 (when both players were in Major League Soccer), the decision may seem like an easy one. At least, it seems easy on the surface. While Friberg was a solid player for Seattle, he was also a somewhat unremarkable one, scoring only once in 34 all-competition appearances during his only season on Puget Sound. Pappa, on the other hand, was an All-Star and scored 26 goals over four seasons. Why would Seattle pass on Pappa to select Friberg?

(Note: We’re going to put salary, a very important part, aside, as we have no idea what Pappa will make or what Seattle’s offered Friberg.)

There are a number of reasons, perhaps most important of which is fit. If Seattle really does stick with their diamond midfield (and that’s still very much an if), Friberg fills a current hole. Aside from Brad Evans, Seattle doesn’t have a starting-caliber player to serve as one of the carilleros in front of Osvaldo Alonso. Whereas Friberg can slide into that spot on the left side of the diamond (and be a significant upgrade to the departed Adam Moffat), Pappa can not.

Pappa’s best role would be the one currently carved out for Dempsey, though that would have the virtue of forcing the U.S. international to a forward’s spot. (It’s also not the spot Pappa excelled in with the Fire.) Though Sigi Schmid was reluctant to use Dempsey as a forward last year, even infamously starting Shalrie Joseph up top in the Sounders’ last game of the season, it would be Dempsey’s best position in this hypothetical set up. It would also keep the team from need both needing a.) a mercurial Obafemi Martins to live up to his paycheck, and b.) Kenny Cooper to be 2012 Kenny Cooper, not the guy who struggled in various places between 2009 and 2013.

Beyond positional fit, Seattle knows Friberg. He fits off the field, too. For a team trying to address the terrible locker room dynamic that compounded 2013’s tailspin, that’s important. Based on how Friberg assimilated in 2011, it’s safe to assume he’s somebody who will come in, play a role, and work to excel in that spot. He’s unlikely to demand a specific kind of role be carved out.

That attitude helped Friberg develop a loyal following among hardcore Sounders fans, whose excitement about the potential reunion is reflected in gifs such as this (as embedded in the previously linked post):

But perhaps the most important (and most obvious) reason the 2011 versions of Pappa and Friberg many not be relevant: 2012 and 2013 happened. During that time, Friberg went to Malmö, was a regular starter on teams that finished third and first, and (last year) became a goal scoring threat. His six goals in 27 games were a career high.

That rate may overstate his scoring potential, but compare that performance to what Pappa’s done since moving to Europe. Over 16 months, Pappa made 12 appearances, two starts, and failed to score a goal. While you can argue that there’s a big difference between the Dutch league (the Eredivisie) and Sweden’s (the Allsvenskan), the difference in competition at Heerenveen and Malmö is not as great. Friberg has played well in his last two years in Europe. Pappa has not played at all.

Put it all together, and the guy who seemed an inferior player in 2011 looks like the better choice now. He’s a better fit on the field, a known personality within the organization, and has played much better over the last two years. Pappa’s talent means he has a greater upside, but to achieve that upside in Seattle, the Sounders may have to change the on-field plan they’ve been developing since Dempsey’s arrival. While that might not be a bad idea, it’s one the Sounders might not be willing to pursue.

That willingness will be reflected in how the next two days play out. Seattle has until Friday to decide if they’re going to select Pappa. If they pass, that will be a strong indication Friberg’s coming back. If they don’t, either Friberg has elected to stay in Europe (with Italy rumored to be an option) or Seattle has swung for the fences with Pappa.

Totti out to ‘destroy’ Lazio in what could be his last derby

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MILAN (AP) Roma great Francesco Totti is out to “destroy” Lazio in what could be his last derby.

Totti’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the 40-year-old forward is likely to retire and move upstairs into a director’s role at the club where he has spent his entire career.

“It’s a different match to all the others,” Totti said. “It’s a team you always try to destroy on the field but with the maximum respect.

“For the city, for the curva, for the fans, you always try to give 101 percent. It’s a match you always want to win.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Roma won the last derby 3-2 last month but still lost to Lazio in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Totti played less than 10 minutes in each match.

That semifinal defeat still hurts Roma and its fans, which are likely to fill the Stadio Olimpico again after ending a 14-month protest following the removal of deeply unpopular security barriers.

“It will be like all the other derbies, a must-win match,” Totti said. “It’s important because we all remember how the last one finished. We have to get our revenge.”

Sunday’s match is also crucial for the battle for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the group stage of the Champions League.

Roma is currently second, four points ahead of Napoli, which visits Inter Milan on Sunday. The team which finishes third has to go into a playoff for Europe’s premier club competition.

Roma has a more difficult run-in than Napoli. After the derby, it next faces AC Milan and Juventus before ending its season against Chievo Verona and Genoa. Napoli plays Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

[ MORE: Henry, Aguero on playing for Pep ]

“It will be a very important derby for the standings and we will try everything to have a great game to bring home the three points,” Totti said. “We are going through this battle for second serenely and calmly, also because now we have a four-point advantage on them.

“There are only a few matches left until the end of the season, even if three out of five are very difficult on paper. We will try everything to finish second.”

Lazio is fourth, seven points behind Napoli.

Totti has been playing for Roma for 25 years – remarkably more than 28 percent of the club’s existence – since making his debut in the final stages of a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993.

Totti, who also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, could have won more than the solitary Serie A title, two Italian Cups and two national Super Cups he claimed with Roma, but he rejected offers of more money and glory to remain with his childhood club.

His face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital, where he is loved by Roma fans and respected by supporters of Lazio, despite his antics against them.

Totti has scored 11 times against Lazio and often celebrates these extra-special goals with T-shirts made for the occasion. One famously said, “I have purged you again,” while he revealed another reading simply “Game Over” after a victory in May 2015.

He hit the headlines in January of that year when he scored the second of two goals against Lazio and, in a pre-planned celebration for becoming the all-time leading scorer in the derby, grabbed his phone off Roma’s goalkeeping coach and took a selfie under the Curva Sud with thousands of adoring fans in the background.

In the Eternal City, Totti is Roma’s eternal leader – first made captain in 1998 when he was only 22.

Nike alluded to his “King of Rome” nickname at a promotional event on Wednesday to unveil new gold-colored boots to mark the Roma captain’s 25 years at the club.

Totti, who was greeted by about 200 chanting fans, was instructed to sit on a throne with the steps leading up to it bearing the names of the seven kings of ancient Rome, with his name placed on the final step.

“I have nothing to do with these kings,” Totti said. “I prefer to be judged than to judge.”

Bayern Munich activates clause to make Coman permanent

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Bayern Munich has announced its decision to make Kingsley Coman’s loan from Juventus a permanent move.

Coman, 20, operates as a right wing and striker, and can also play on the left. He’s made 40 Bundesliga appearances with six goals and six assists over two seasons for Bayern.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

It’s a $24 million option, and will bind Coman to Bayern through the 2019-20 season.

From FCBayern.com:

“Kingsley Coman is a crucial player for the future of our team, so we’ve decided to exercise the option,” commented Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: “Kingsley is a promising player with great potential. We’re convinced he’ll help us in the coming years.”

Coman, Renato Sanches, and Joshua Kimmich are all under the age of 22.

Mourinho has chance to make major statement in Manchester Derby

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The betting market says Man City is more than even money to beat Manchester United, and wagering on the latter to win Thursday’s derby match is a longer shot than the Red Devils finishing in the Top Four (an achievement to be sure).

The worth of those metrics is debatable, but allows a sincere thought: Given their thin depth and the road challenge, a win for Jose Mourinho would be as impressive as almost anything Manchester United has accomplished this season.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Maybe that’s obvious to many of us, but a twirl through the spheres of United supporter social media shows something different. Many Red Devils are confident of their teams’ fortunes in Thursday’s Manchester Derby, with one even predicting a 3-1 win in a comment on the NBC Sports Soccer Facebook page.

That could be an outlier, sure, but shows the demands Manchester United supporters place on their big spending club. United won’t have Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two of the best players in the world, and it’s not as if the club has had time to adjust to their absences. No one has played more minutes for United than Pogba and Ibrahimovic this season.

United is also without Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Phil Jones at the heart of their defense as it attempts to shut down Sergio Aguero and/or Gabriel JesusDavid Silva is a doubt for City, who also may not have John Stones, but Guardiola has options.

How Mourinho attacks — or doesn’t attack — City, and how Guardiola sets up his XI, will be interesting leading into the match, because parking the bus lacks its usual luster given the center back carnage. Will Mourinho trot out Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera in a bid to clog the midfield? Will he run Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as a strike pair?

The answers to these questions and the unlikely event of a United road win may end up shining all over Thursday. And while that win would wind up being overshadowed by United’s finish on the Premier League table and UEFA Europa League, there’s little doubt it would stake a serious claim for Mourinho’s time at United being on the rise.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.