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Garber on CONCACAF Champions League timing woes, “We understand that we are the outlier”

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Major League Soccer’s three teams left in the CONCACAF Champions League all crashed out in the quarterfinals this season, a fact that’s led to much consternation among the league and its supporters.

There’s no question the timing of the competition, which occurs very early in the MLS season window, hurts MLS teams in their quest to compete against “in form” competition from outside the league.

MLS commissioner Don Garber was asked about the schedule in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview with our friends at Soccerly:

Soccerly: Regarding the schedule, is the focus on changing CONCACAF rather than changing things here?

Don Garber: You guys have seen the last number of weeks. It is a virtual impossibility for us to play games in this country and in Canada in February. If we had changed the schedule for this year we would not have been able to play games. We had temperatures that were below zero, we had many feet of snow in most of our markets. It is impossible, so we have to hope that we could influence CONCACAF.

We accept and we understand that we are the outlier, and that we are playing at a different schedule. I think it’s in everybody’s best interest- including Liga MX- to have the fairest possible competition and we’ll continue to look at it over time. Nothing is going to happen in the short term on either side, that’s for sure.

Fields are a problem this time of year, just ask anyone who witnessed Toronto FC’s match with DC United last weekend. While DC is in the full throes of complaining, TFC — specifically Jermain Defoe — could’ve easily struck for a hat trick with better footing.

The league is in a unique climate for soccer and anyone who’s lived in the north knows the challenges that would be presented to MLS by a traditional winter schedule. How good would attendance be, regardless of the importance of the match, if Toronto was hosting a January match with its mean temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit? Other solutions to the CCL problem will have to arrive for the competition to truly be on even footing.

Success, then sustainability. How Leicester City can keep it rolling next season

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester reacts to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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It’s well known by now that Leicester City beat 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League. Now that they’ve crested the mountain, staying there is a whole new challenge, one that will present even greater odds.

When Blackburn won the Premier League in the 1994/95 season, they were unable to bottle that season’s success, finding themselves in a tailspin that saw their manager resign by October of 1996, and the club was relegated in spring of 1997. Just by that case study alone, it’s clear that for a small club that finds untold riches, the prospect of saving for the future is one that can easily escape among the chaos of success.

If winning the Premier League is climbing Mt. Everest, then maintaining that success is traveling to Mars.

That being said, Leicester could not have picked a better time to catch lightning in a bottle. With the influx of money at an all-time high, the player pool deeper than ever, and other English clubs in a state of transition, now is the time to pounce on the foundation they’ve built.

So how should the Foxes ensure the club returns to glory? Here are a few general rules for Claudio Ranieri and the rest of the Leicester City management to follow.

Forget about winning the title again

Having beat the odds, shocked the world, and captured the crown, everyone from the players to the staff will be hungry for more. It’s human nature. The key is to fight that. For the club to be successful, they cannot go into next season with a goal of winning the Premier League. There’s nowhere to go but down.

[ RELATED: Will Leicester City keep their stars? ]

The key is to keep expectations in check. There will be many more distractions, many more theaters of war to battle, and many more fronts to cover. Should the team specifically gun for another title run, it may hinder the long-term goals. The saying goes “shoot for the moon; if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply here. Could it happen again? Of course, but that wasn’t their goal this season, and they’ll need to resist the lust for blood following this season’s taste.

Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has plenty of work in front of him this summer. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has plenty of work in front of him this summer. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Don’t overspend

Money will be flying every which way this offseason. With every Premier League club earning a massive cut of the new television deals, there are sure to be much-inflated prices for lots of players. A sports marketing and data firm estimates this title run could be worth a massive $220 million to the club. Leicester’s own players will surely be tempted by heavy contracts and monstrous transfer deals.

What the club must avoid is overspending on one or two players. The staff must evaluate every player they scout, place a value on their head, and stick to that evaluation. Queens Park Rangers learned the hard way how overspending for players they wanted, and it cost them dearly when they could not stay in the Premier League. It’s hard to resist the temptation to plunk down big bucks for a flashy name, but it will only turn out poorly.

Build depth and anticipate injuries

The Foxes enjoyed untold luck this season on the injury front. None of their core group of players were injured for any significant length of time, and the club used the fewest players of any Premier League team this campaign. That is an anomaly. Next year, the club will need to significantly improve its depth, especially with Champions League play added to the Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup competitions. European play has doomed many other smaller clubs looking to bigger pastures, so this is a must.

[ MORE: Claudio Ranieri’s best quotes and moments of the season ]

Unfortunately, depth is one of the most difficult things to achieve in sports. Players naturally want to play, and therefore luring talented players to sit on the bench and be an insurance policy is nearly impossible. This will be a puzzle that Ranieri must solve if Leicester is to navigate four separate competitions next season.

Crucial players such as Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Riyad Mahrez, and others all maintained a pristine bill of health throughout the season (Photo: Getty Images)
Crucial players such as Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs, Riyad Mahrez, and others all maintained a pristine bill of health throughout the season (Photo: Getty Images)

Develop a transfer plan

A number of Leicester players saw their value skyrocket this season. The likes of N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and Danny Drinkwater will be highly coveted players in the transfer window. In addition, there will be plenty of high-profile players on other teams who will be available and could be lured by money and Champions League play.

[ MORE: Game-by-game look at Leicester City’s magical season ]

It’s easy for fans and media to aimlessly shout “hold onto your players!” but we aren’t the ones with $30 million waved in our faces. It’s just as easy for those same sheeple to toss transfer targets out ad nauseam – hunker down, because it’s happening. The key for Leicester management will be to meet, develop a transfer plan, and stick to it. Some players may go, their price too valuable to turn down. Others will join, as the decision-makers determine what they need and where to fill those needs. Should they blindly follow the mad shoutings of the silly season, things will go downhill quickly.

Maintain their identity

Above all, the club must not lose focus on what makes it Leicester City. This is a vague and difficult notion to conceive, but nonetheless an absolutely vital one. The quickest way for a club – successful or not – to lose its supporter base is to deviate from what makes those supporters love the club. It’s hard to say exactly what that is, and only Leicester City supporters can truly identify what magnetizes them to the badge. It is management’s job to identify what makes the Foxes the Foxes, and do everything in its power not to stray from that feeling.

This is an important concept for every club from the first tier to the seventh, but it’s worth pointing out in this case particularly because newfound success can intoxicate those in power, leaving them vulnerable to violating this code. It is of the utmost importance that Leicester City stays grounded, and keeps true to who they really are as a club.

Liverpool game program for Europa League match features Hillsborough tribute

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Programmes for sale prior to the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ahead of today’s game against Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals, the Reds have paid a wonderful tribute to the 96 who passed away in the Hillsborough tragedy.

On the heels of last Tuesday’s verdict that cleared the crowd of any wrongdoing in the disaster, the game program for Thursday’s match featured the Anfield crowd visible through a giant “96” on the front. On the back, a list of the 96 who lost their lives stands alone, along with the ages of the fans when on that day, with a “96” flanked by the torches from the Liverpool crest.

The jury’s verdict found in a 7-2 majority that the 96 who died in the crush were “unlawfully killed” due to “gross negligence” on the part of David Duckenfield and the rest of his security staff. It also stated that “fan behavior did not contribute to the tragedy.”

Jurgen Klopp was also featured in the program, urging his team and the fans on with the quote, “Tonight we are at our home, we are back at Anfield. this is our place and it is a place where special moments happen.”

LIVE – Europa League semifinals: Liverpool vs. Villarreal, Sevilla vs. Shakhtar

Liverpool's Dejan Lovren, left, and Liverpool's head coach Juergen Klopp celebrate after winning the Europa League quarterfinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool  FC and Borussia Dortmund in Liverpool, England, Thursday, April 14, 2016 . (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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This is it, Liverpool.

Trailing 1-0 from their Europa League semifinal first leg against Villarreal in Spain last week, Jurgen Klopp‘s boys must overturn that deficit in the second leg on Thursday to reach the final in Basel on May 18.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Adrian Lopez’s late goal is the difference but Liverpool still believe they are in a strong position to reach their first European final since 2007 when they lost in the UEFA Champions League final to AC Milan. As we saw in the stunning quarterfinal second leg win over Borussia Dortmund, with the Anfield crowd behind them anything is possible. Don’t forget, if Liverpool wins the Europa League then they will reach the Champions League next season, something they can’t do via their league position.

In the other semifinal on Thursday, Sevilla bring Shakhtar Donetsk to Spain with the tie level at 2-2 after the first leg in Lviv saw Kevin Gameiro score a late penalty kick for the La Liga side.

Sevilla is the two-time reigning Europa League champions and have won the competition four times in the last 10 years. With two away goals in their back pocket they will fancy their chances of advancing to the final for a third-straight season but Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar have overcome extreme adversity this season as they’ve played their entire campaign away from their home city and stadium due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Click on the link above to follow both games live from 3:05 p.m. ET, while we will have reaction and analysis from both games.

How will Premier League title really impact Leicester City?

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There’s no doubt that Leicester’s City incredible Premier League title win will have a huge impact on the Midlands club.

[ MORE: Too many “Vardy parties” ]

The 2015-16 PL champs have seen their global profile skyrocket, they are set for a huge cash windfall and for the first-time in their 132-year history they will play in the UEFA Champions League.

That said, it’s time to dig a little deeper and see exactly how the Foxes are about to be impacted.

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

Here’s a look at what them winning the PL will truly mean for next season and beyond.


Champions League balancing act

This is perhaps one of the most dangerous aspects of their success: how can Leicester balance European action? So far this season they’ve played just 41 games in all competitions at this stage of the campaign. They went out early in the the FA Cup and Capital One Cup and have been able to focus on the PL solely since January. That won’t happen next season.

Take, for example, Manchester City who have played 57 games so far this season. City are a team who reached the UCL semifinals, has been battling for the title, won the Capital One Cup and was knocked out in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Manuel Pellegrini, even with his incredible resources of a monster squad, have struggled to balance all four tournaments.

Leicester will have a very good chance of advancing to the Round of 16 in the UCL as they’ll be top seeds in the Group Stage draw. That said, it will certainly cause their small squad plenty of problems as we shouldn’t forget that manager Claudio Ranieri only use 23 players all season on their way to winning the title. That’s fewer than any other PL team during the 2015-16 campaign. Injuries were kind to the Foxes and they shouldn’t expect that next season and they will have to prioritize the PL and Europe over the domestic cups.


Financial benefits

Over the next 18 months Leicester is set to make at least $200 million from this successful season. That is just in TV revenue and award money from the PL and UEFA.

Even if they fall of the rails next season and end up finishing towards the bottom of the table, the new three-year TV deal will see the 20th place team in the PL earn more than the champions, Leicester, from this season.

Deloitte have suggested that Leicester could be in line to make $75 million from being in the Champions League group stage alone and if they manage to stay among Europe’s elite then it could generate another $75 million in sponsorship deals over the next two to three years.

Simply put, they will be rolling in cash.


Frugal plans for 2016-17

Now that Leicester know they will have more money to spend, their billionaire Thai owners will be thinking about their ambitions and where they want to take the club. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought the Foxes in 2010 for an estimated $60 million.

[ MORE: Ranieri: “I’m Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!” ]

The owner of the King Power company, a duty free giant of Thailand, has pumped millions into the club but now he has been repaid handsomely. The big thing here is what Ranieri thinks.

Speaking in his first press conference as the manager of the PL champions, he said he doesn’t want big stars to arrive this summer.

“I don’t want big names here. My lads are special. We have to bring some good players but they must have the same spirit,” Ranieri said.

The big boys of the PL will be spending big this summer, though. With Pep Guardiola arriving at Man City, Antonio Conte taking charge at Chelsea and Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp for a whole preseason, the Foxes won’t encounter another season where five of the six perennial giants of English soccer were slumbering.

A perfect storm was created for them to achieve this once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Spending big on new players will safeguard the future of the club but not recruiting heavily will make replicating this season incredibly tough.


Uncertainty over star names at the KP

That’s one of the biggest questions already circulating, just three days after Leicester were confirmed champions.

[ MORE: Mahrez to leave?

We’ve already heard from Riyad Mahrez‘s agent who rates the chances of the PFA Player of the Year staying at Leicester next season as “50/50”.  Mahrez was the creative hub of this team, scoring 17 times and creating 11 goals. If he leaves he would fetch a huge sum, perhaps in-excess of $45 million. Not bad for a guy they plucked from France’s second-tier for $800,000 two years ago.

Then there’s N'Golo Kante, the heartbeat of this team in central midfield. He reportedly has a release clause of just under $30 million and given his displays this season he is worth every penny. Kante leads the PL in tackles and interceptions but if he and Mahrez leave, plus Jamie Vardy is tempted elsewhere for a final huge payday, what will Leicester do?

Ranieri has already said they won’t spend big or bring big name players in but the odds of all of these players replicating their form and staying fit for another season are probably larger than the 5000-1 they were to win the title last summer.


Playing style evolution

This is one of those open-ended questions which we will not know the answer to for a while but it is clear that Leicester may have to have some kind of tactical evolution when it comes to how they play.

With long rests between games this season they’ve been able to recover and play pretty much the same way in each game. They have scored the opening goal in games more than any team in the PL this season and also have the most one-goal wins (14). In the second half of the season they’ve been far more defensive, allowing teams to come on to them and having the back four dropping deep which has allowed them to spring counter attacks which Vardy, Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki have taken advantage of.

[ MORE: What does this title win mean for PL’s future?

Analysts have been trying to figure out what Leicester’s stats guys have seen and talk of a “straight line efficiency” model is being whispered here in England. Leicester has figured out a way to get the ball from back to front as quick as possible and play the percentage game. They don’t take chances and Ranieri doesn’t ask his players to do anything they are comfortable doing.

Now that Leicester are no longer the unknown quantity, Ranieri will likely have to set up his team a little differently. If he aims to stick with the same group of players, are they capable of getting the same results with any style other than counter attacks?

The stats suggest they won’t be able to as they have the lowest average possession of any PL champion in the past 10 years (43.2 percent) and they rank 18th in the PL this season in pass completion. They have been set up in a simplistic way and it has paid dividends. Now, it will be interesting to see how other teams adapt to it and if Leicester need to, or will, tweak their style of play.