Real Madrid survives Reus, Borussia Dortmund, reaches fourth straight Champions League semifinal

Leave a comment

Real Madrid is through to a fourth straight UEFA Champions League semifinal, though after enduring 90 troubling minutes against a short-handed Borussia Dortmund, all of the team’s weaknesses have been further exposed in the process. Losing 2-0 in Westfalia, Carlo Ancelotti’s team still advances with a 3-2 (aggregate) win, but with an error-prone defense and a midfield incapable of slowing down the quicker Germans, the Merengues looked more like survivors than victors.

An early penalty kick awarded after a Lukasz Piszczek handball gave Ángel Di María a chance to cement El Real’s semifinal spot, but stepping up in wake of the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, the Argentine was unable to beat Roman Weidenfeller in the 17th minute. Marco Reus soon made Real rue the missed opportunity, scoring twice before halftime, but when last year’s finalists were unable to convert their myriad second half chances, Real Madrid were allowed to claim another spot in the semifinals.

Having been eliminated in that round in each of the last three seasons, the nine-time champions will be hoping Ancelotti can guide them where José Mourinho never could. Borussia Dortmund, on the other hand, will have to content itself with a commanding performance that left the team one goal short of prolonging its Champions League run.

Real Madrid’s passivity left the Merengues without early answers against Dortmund’s pressure, something that nearly rendered irrelevant when a cross from Fabio Coentrão met Piszczek’s extended left arm at the edge of the BVB penalty area. Though replays showed the Dortmund left back may have left from the box by the time he made contact with the ball, referee Damir Skomina pointed to the spot, giving Di María a chance to put the tie away.

Though the Argentine’s plant foot slipped as he met the ball, his shot still seemed destined for the right side netting. Thanks to  Weidenfeller, however, we’ll never know. Diving to save a knee-high shot headed, the Borussia Dortmund keeper prevented Real Madrid from claiming an early, crucial away goal.

In the 24th minute, after Real Madrid’s first major defensive error, Weidenfeller’s stop took on a whole new meaning, with Reus’s finish into a near-empty net bringing the hosts back into the tie. Intercepting a weak Pepe headed back pass after a long ball from Manuel Friedrich, Reus dribbled around Iker Casillas’s charge to the edge of the penalty area, leaving only Sergio Ramos to defend Real’s abandoned goal. Blasting his shot between the Spanish international’s legs, Reus cut the visitors’ lead to two, giving BVB a one-goal lead on the night.

In the 38th minute, a second inexcusable Real Madrid error put the team’s lead in further doubt, allowing BVB to carry a 2-0 lead into halftime. After terrible giveaway from Aiser Illarremendi at the edge of his defensive third, Reus was allowed to run at the Real Madrid defense, collapsing it before laying off left to Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker’s shot was pushed onto the far post, but when the rebound came out to Reus, Ramos was again left watching a shot fly into an abandoned goal, bringing Dormtund within one, overall.

In the 60th minute, after showing little life through the second half’s first 15 minutes, Real Madrid finally awoke with a ball sent through the six-yard box by Gareth Bale. Eluding Weidenfeller, the pass was inches away from becoming Real Madrid’s decisive blow, with Karim Benzema failing to get to the ball before it rolled beyond the far post.

Moments later, when Benzema dribbled around Weidenfeller before a recovery from Mats Hummels saved a goal, the Real Madrid striker had seen his second close chance end without a shot on target. His team remained within one BVB goal of extra time.

source: AP
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (right) had there chances to provide Borussia Dortmund with an equalizer but was unable to build on Marco Reus’s two first half goals. (Photo credit: AP Photos.)

In the 64th minute, Dortmund was left regretting its own close call after Reus put Henrikh Mkhitaryan though on goal. After moving around an oncoming Casillas, the Armenian midfielder had a chance to make amends for a disappointing effort in the middle of the first half. Instead, faced with an empty goal, Mkhitaryan failed  to adjust for the speed he took toward the byline, nailing the near post with his shot.

Four minutes later, work from Reus and Lewandowski moving left-to-right in the penalty area left Mkhitaryan with another chance from the middle of the box. Finally getting a shot on target, the Dortmund midfielder fired straight at Casillas, who came up big on Kevin Großkreutz with a dive to his left minutes later.

Entering the final 15 minutes, the possession edge Real Madrid had carried out of halftime had completely evaporated. After playing on the counter throughout the first half, Borussia Dortmund were monopolizing play in the second. Their guests were quickly receding into two banks of four, with Xabi Alonso patrolling the space in between.

As the game approached full-time, Real Madrid crept deeper into its own end, though Dortmund’s increased pursuit meant the match’s final chances were El Real’s. Karim Benzema had an opportunity to ice the tie in the 80th minute with a chance near the edge of the box. Ten minutes later, his layoff into the right of the area left Weidenfeller diving in to prevent Bale from poking a decisive score into Dortmund’s goal.

When time ran out, Borussia Dortmund head coach Jürgen Klopp quickly went to shake Carlo Ancelotti’s hand, his lack of hesitation portraying a pride in his team’s performance. Down three goals coming into the day, BVB had done more than merely saved face. It’d left itself with a chance to win. Though, ultimately, Real Madrid survived into the competition’s next round, Klopp seemed content knowing his team leaves the tournament having put its best foot forward.

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

Twitter/@jonurbana1
Leave a comment

ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

Twitter/@ug_football
Leave a comment

CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Leave a comment

Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

Twitter/Cupini's
5 Comments

With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.