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.

VIDEO: Pair of Arsenal goals have it 2-0 at half

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Goals from Shkrodan Mustafi and Alexis Sanchez at the Emirates Stadium have given Arsenal a 2-0 halftime lead in the North London Derby.

[ STREAM: Second half live ]

Alexandre Lacazette cut a chance well wide and high of the bar in the first five minutes, while Spurs’ Harry Kane forced Petr Cech into a sixth minute save.

There were chances at both ends and a frenetic pace of play as the match approached the 20-minute mark, with Hector Bellerin‘s inviting cross unanswered by Arsenal.

Mustafi provided the derby breakthrough at the back post off a sweeping free kick to boost the Gunners into a 37th minute advantage.

And Alexis used great work from a lively Hector Bellerin to make it 2-0.

Watch Live: Arsenal v. Tottenham in North London derby

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This is it.

The Premier League returns with a bang following the two week international break as Arsenal host Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Arsenal haven’t won any of their last six games in the Premier League against Tottenham, while Spurs are three places and four points above the Gunners in the PL table.

In team news Arsenal start with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette up top, with Shkodran Mustafi returning from injury.

Tottenham have Dele Alli, Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane fit to play after recovering from injury.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Kolasinac; Ozil, Sanchez; Lacazette. Subs: Ospina; Mertesacker, Wilshere, Iwobi, Welbeck, Maitland-Niles, Coquelin

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris; Sanchez, Dier, Vertonghen; Trippier, Dembele, Sissoko, Davies; Eriksen, Alli; Kane. Subs: Vorm; Foyth, Aurier, Winks, Walker-Peters, Son, Llorente

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

[ MORE: Caleb Porter out as Portland Timbers head coach ]

MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.