D.C. United captain Dwayne De Rosario and Will Chang General Partner of D.C. United, along with fans celebrate their 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake.

Schmid takes needed kick at Open Cup-Champions League hornet’s nest

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Seattle loves it some U.S. Open Cup, probably more so than any other market in Major League Soccer. And who can blame them? As the team was quickly finding its way in Major League Soccer, it was also winning the domestic cup competition, giving the team’s huge, still growing fan base three trophies to hang its hats on. They love the U.S. Open Cup.

That’s why today’s comments from Sigi Schmid opened some eyes around Puget Sound, with the Sounders boss saying he was unsure if the Open Cup winner will get a CONCACAF Champions League berth beyond this season. It was part of a larger rant about the competition, with Schmid expressing his disappointment about play during the June World Cup break.

Some markets across MLS love the U.S. Open Cup nearly as much as Seattle. In those places — places like Washington, D.C. — the scheduling news could have some of the resonance it does it Seattle. In other places, however, there’ll be no resonance all. U.S. Open Cup may the oldest ongoing cup competition in world soccer, but it’s one that has a major relevancy problem. In a lot of MLS markets, it’s just the thing your team does between games you care about.

None of this is news, but it is important context, particularly after D.C. United won the tournament last year. In an effort to provide an incentive to take the competition seriously, U.S. Soccer lets the Open Cup champion into CONCACAF Champions League. But for a league that’s struggled to be relevant in that competition, United’s inclusion is a hard pill for MLS to swallow. The team only won three games last season. What are the odds they’ll help against the Liga MX boogeyman that’s keeping the league down?

That’s why Schmid’s tidbit about the Open Cup’s connection to Champions League should make more waves than his scheduling concerns. For those who want the Open Cup to be a more celebrated, relevant competition, the comments will touch a nerve. Open Cup winners should be rewarded, the thinking goes. For those who see United’s place in Champions League as a joke, Schmid’s prediction struck a hopeful note.

Those hopes want U.S. Soccer ti mimic most federations and put its best feet forward. For the time being, U.S. Soccer has elected to forgo that goal and try to build up its cup competition, hoping to build a richer competitive landscape. In theory, Open Cup could identify one of the U.S.’s top four representatives.

As last year’s competition showed, that’s just not the case. It’s also not fair for a team like Real Salt Lake to miss out on Champions League because U.S. Soccer’s trying to prop up the Open Cup. If that’s a short-term gambit, so be it, but rewarding the winner of a single-elimination competition will never guarantee MLS’s best qualify for Champions League. And based on how we’ve seen teams react to the incentive, it’s no guarantee Open Cup will ever be something teams see as more than a competition of convenience.

Two things always come to mind when this topic comes up. First, while cup competitions have an important historic place in countries around the world, they’re important because of their history, not necessarily because of other competitive incentives. To reward the Open Cup’s winner with a Champions League spot confounds the those two issues. A Champions League spot can’t give the Open Cup a historical relevance which, despite its 101 years of existence, it doesn’t have. This just isn’t the FA Cup.

Secondly, the tail’s wagging the dog. You don’t provide rewards to the winner of a competition that lacks relevance. That’s a reason to avoid providing the prize. You wait for the competition to pick up then provide the reward. Else, you end up with situations where a team that won three of 34 league games is representing you on the confederation level.

Look throughout Latin America and Asia and you’ll see a number of vibrant soccer cultures that have no relevant cup competitions. Having a knockout tournament that complements a league competition isn’t a necessary thing, nor does it say if you’re a good or bad soccer culture.

If U.S. Open Cup doesn’t evolve into the competition its fans envision, we’ll be fine, and if the competition can’t stand on its own two feet without the CONCACAF Champions League inducement, it’s okay to let the competition go back to what it once was. People in Seattle and Washington, D.C., may be sad, but we can also stop pretending the tournament is something it may never become.

Either way, give the Champions League berth back to the competition that identifies the best teams. That will never be the single-elimination tournament. That’s Major League Soccer.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)