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Early Champions League exit highlights problems at Barcelona

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For the first time since Frank Rijkaard walked the sidelines at Camp Nou, Barcelona is approaching a crossroads, with today’s loss to Atlético Madrid underscoring the club’s evermore precarious future. But whereas before the club could pull somebody like Pep Guardiola from the ranks and right its course, the next chapter in Barcelona’s history looks less certain. Both on the field and off, an era of dominance may be coming to an end, giving today’s early exit from Champions League a bigger, more concerning context.

For most clubs, a quarterfinal departure wouldn’t be considered early, but when a club’s made six straight semifinals, it develops expectations. Particularly considering the only thing that stood between Barcelona and the final four was an opponent from Spain that’s not Real Madrid, Champions League becomes an even more telling test. While Atlético had proved its quality in four previous appearances with Barcelona, the Blaugrana had also showed its inability to conquer that new challenge. Now, that challenge has seen the Catalans out of Europe.

The problems extend back to league play, too. After running away with the title last year, Barcelona’s been pulled into a three-team race for first. The club’s early exit from Champions League may actually help in that regard, leaving it the only Liga contender not balancing European concerns. While Atlético and El Real extend their squads in a quest for European glory, Barcelona can focus on retaining La Liga.

Still, if previous years’ success is the benchmark, this season remains a cause for concern. The regression many thought would arrive sooner has started to surface in 2014. Be it by age (Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol), increased injury concerns (Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué), or departures (Víctor Valdés), one of the greatest teams in club soccer history is finally coming back to the pack.

That plight’s only exacerbated by problems off the field. At a time when Barcelona desperately needs to inject new talent, it may not be able to do so. Recently hit with a transfer ban for illegally signing underage players, Barcelona will be out of the next two transfer markets. Provided an appeal doesn’t diminish that sentence, Barça won’t be able to replace the departing Valdés. It won’t be able to bring in some desperately needed central defenders, and if it’s unable to reload, the midfield all of a sudden looks thin. With the core of the team set to play at this summer’s World Cup, a set of legs run ragged by the international schedule (and, Spain’s consistently runs in major tournaments) won’t get reinforcements.

source: Reuters
Sandro Rosell, left, resigned as Barcelona president in January. He was replaced by Josep Maria Bartomeu, right. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters.)

You can blame the Sandro Rosell regime for that, just as you can blame the departed president for the Neymar fiasco and the increasingly murky relationship between Qatar and a team that used to ar UNICEF across its chests. While fans all over the world romanticize the member-owned model, places like Argentine club scene and Catalonia (among others) get to deal with its repercussions.

After being chosen to replace Joan Laporta in 2010, Rosell moved the team toward the precarious, amoral place it occupies now. While the altruism of Barcelona used to strike an annoying cord, that elitist high-groins is still favorable to a tenure that’s left Barcelona no different from Europe’s other obscenely large clubs.

In that sense, what’s happening at Barcelona isn’t about today’s loss, though the departure from Champions League does gives us a chance to take stock. Just as Manchester United’s loss to Bayern leaves us asking what’s next for the Red Devils, Barcelona’s also reflects the club’s current woes. Not even claiming Liga and Copa del Rey titles will completely assuage the feeling that the season has been a step back.

In two months, Gerardo Martino may be gone, and while Barcelona will have a number of quality coaches pining for the job, others will see a two-window ban, aging core, and squad with holes as a reason to stay away. Be it Martino or somebody else, whomever’s in charge come July will have to deal with the miles another World Cup has put on Hernández, Iniesta, Dani Alves and Messi. And they’ll have to do so without being able to reinforce the core.

One loss in Madrid didn’t cause any of these problems. It only highlights the extent of them, and in that light the crossroads may not be a good one. It implies the club has options, yet locked into what it has, Barcelona may need to see this out. It may be helpless to prevent an end of an era.

Sydney FC return to winning ways in A-League

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 24:  Goalkeeper Danny Vukovic of Sydney FC makes a save as Bruno Fornaroli of City competes for the ball during the round 21 A-League match between Melbourne City and Sydney FC at AAMI Park on February 24, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
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SYDNEY (AP) Bobo scored twice as Sydney FC rebounded from its first loss in the A-League to beat Melbourne City 3-1 and continue atop the table.

[ MORE: Schmeichel speaks about Ranieri sacking, state of Leicester ]

Sydney’s ambitious attempt to become the first team to end the regular season unbeaten came unstuck last week when it was beaten by Western Sydney Wanderers in a fractious local derby, repercussions of which continued through the week. Wanderers were fined $20,000 by Football Federation Australia after its fans unfurled an obscene banner targeting Sydney coach Graham Arnold.

[ MORE: Chelsea, Everton extend unbeaten run in Saturday’s PL play ]

Sydney raised itself above that controversy on Friday with a comprehensive win over Melbourne City which briefly took it 11 points clear in first place.

Melbourne Victory restored the gap to eight points when it beat defending champion Adelaide United 2-1, and Perth leapfrogged Melbourne City into third place when it dumped the Wanderers 2-0.

Bobo opened Sydney’s scoring with a penalty, but City canceled that out only a minute later.

Sydney went in front again after the break, and Bobo sealed the win, set up by a superb through ball by Milos Ninkovic which highlighted their developing combination.

Midfielder Brandon O’Neil said Sydney was determined to leave behind the contention of their derby loss.

“When it all came out, the FFA and Western Sydney had to deal with it and it did,” O’Neil said. “It brought us together and we spoke about a few things, and nothing changed for us. We want to be premier (champions).”

Melbourne Victory’s win over Adelaide kept it in touch with Sydney with seven regular season rounds remaining.

Wellington kept its faint playoff hopes alive, staying in seventh place with a 2-1 win over Brisbane.

Whitecaps acquire U.S. defender Brek Shea in deal with Orlando City

Toronto FC v Orlando City SC
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With almost a week to go until the Major League Soccer season kicks off, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City may have pulled off one of the biggest trades of offseason.

[ MORE: MLS negotiating to bring Chicharito to U.S. in 2018 ]

The clubs announced on Saturday that the Whitecaps have acquired U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder/defender Brek Shea in exchange for forward Giles Barnes, who is headed to Orlando City.

“We are excited to welcome Brek to our club and city,” said Whitecaps FC manager Carl Robinson. “Brek is a tall, physical, skilled player and will bring a different dimension to our attack. Brek will join the group in coming days and we anticipate he will be available for selection as early as this Thursday’s Champions League match against New York.”

Shea, 26, began his career in MLS with FC Dallas before heading to England for a brief stint with Stoke City. The U.S. defender made his way back to MLS ahead of Orlando City’s inaugural season in 2015 and started 39 matches in that span.

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Meanwhile, Barnes has scored 33 goals since joining MLS in 2012. The 28-year-old forward played with the Houston Dynamo before spending last season with the Whitecaps.

Report: MLS negotiating to bring Chicharito to U.S. in 2018

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Bayer Leverkusen & Mexico
AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Major League Soccer has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars over recent years and now one of the Mexican national team’s top talents could be heading stateside very soon.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to ESPN FC, MLS is currently in negotiations with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen in an attempt to lure Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to the U.S. in the summer of 2018.

Expansion side Los Angeles FC has been heavily linked with Hernandez, with the club making its entrance into MLS in 2018. Additionally, the Los Angeles Galaxy have also been said to have strong ties with Chicharito.

Hernandez, 28, is currently under contract until next summer, and MLS is reportedly seeking a move in 2018 to avoid paying a transfer fee for the El Tri forward.

ESPN FC is also reporting that Chicharito could make around $9 million annually if he does in fact join MLS.

In 2015, Orlando City and the Chicago Fire were both linked with acquiring Hernandez but the Leverkusen forward was insistent upon the fact that he play Champions League football.

PL Sunday: Spurs look to regain second against Stoke

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Although there’s only one match on Sunday’s Premier League docket, the fixture bears great weight for both clubs.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Tottenham vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs have the chance to move back into second place at White Hart Lane as Mauricio Pochettino‘s side are firmly in a battle to finish runners’ up to Chelsea this season. Tottenham currently sit 13 points out of the top spot, however, five clubs are within four points of another in the battle for second. Danny Rose and Erik Lamela remain sidelined due to injuries but Spurs will remain the favorites in the fixture after having won their previous two league meetings.

Stoke enters Sunday having gone unbeaten in five of its last six PL matches and the Potters can enter the top 10 with a victory. Mark Hughes‘ side could be given a big lift with the potential return of Xherdan Shaqiri while Saido Berahino could be in line to earn his first start since joining Stoke. Both players could present massive upside for the Potters, who have struggled to find goals as of late. In their last four matches, Stoke have managed just three finishes, one of which came from an own goal.