PRO SOCCER TALKPST Select Team

This week’s MLS5: Our early look at the Most Valuable Player award

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Each week throughout the rest of the Major League Soccer season, we’ll take a look at (at least) one of the league’s major postseason awards, giving you our “if we have to vote today” view on MLS’s most prestigious honors. It’s our way of keeping a conversation going from start-to-finish rather than jumping in at season’s end to take inventory of the previous eight months. If we start paying attention now — thinking about things in terms of our eventual votes — hopefully we can make more informed decisions come October.

Every week, there’ll be one award and five points of discussion, and while it’s way too early to be making decisions about how we’re actually going to vote, it’s not too early to consider which players are distinguishing themselves.

We start with Most Valuable Player:

source: Getty Images

5. Mauro Díaz, FC Dallas

When you watch the young Argentine play you see an array of skills and choices that could vault him among the best players in Major League Soccer. For some, he’s already there, having won March’s MLS Player of the Month honor. Break down his games, actually track the end result of all those deft touches and though balls, and you see much of his skill has resulted in unrealized potential. He does have three assists (two primary), good for second in the league, but for all his orchestrating majesty, only five of Dallas’s 17 goals have come from open play. Soon, when those small, seemingly innumerable pieces of skill represent more than just potential, Díaz could climb this list.

source: Getty Images

4. Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew

Four goals, two assists, and the key role in a team that looks primed for one of the season’s biggest turnarounds earns Higuaín a place on this list, though whether he deserves to be above Díaz is another question. Though Higuaín has scored more goals, that’s by virtue of being his team’s penalty kick taker. Those scores aside his numbers, like his influence, is almost identical to Díaz’s.

For us, there are two tiebreakers. First, Higuaín has been more dangerous as a penalty area threat. Second, in Columbus’s system, he’s having to do more work to drop back and pick up the ball. Even when his team’s established possession in the opponent’s half, Higuaín’s often drifting to the flanks to influence the game.

Are those minor distinctions? Of course. It’s not easy to try to draw lines between Mauro Díaz and Federico Higuaín. If you prefer the FC Dallas man, we can’t argue. Columbus has also only produced five open play goals (though that does represent 55 percent of the team’s production).

source: AP

3. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC

Moment to moment, this is the most influential player in Major League Soccer. Defensively, he may be the league’s most valuable, and as he showed in Columbus, had can also be one of MLS’s most dangerous going forward. The game he missed against Colorado hurts his ranking, but once that gets teased out, he’ll likely be competing with our choice for number one.

source: Getty Images

2. Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy

With four goals in five games, Keane is proving as valuable as ever. While he doesn’t quite have the minute-to-minute effect that Díaz, Higuaín, and Bradley have, he has a much greater influence within 18 yards of goal. Only Marco Di Vaio and Clint Dempsey are getting off more shots per game, while no forward is generating more scoring opportunities for his teams mates (as measured by Opta’s Key Passes, for what that’s worth). Despite only playing five games, he leads the league with 11 shots on target.

source: AP

1. Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders

Who else could it be? Even though he’s missed two games through suspension, Dempsey’s tied for the league’s lead in goals (six). His three assists (two primary) are second only to teammate Obafemi Martins, with most of his contributions coming in high-leverage situations (via late goals against Portland, Dallas). When Michael Bradley gets more minutes under his belt, the philosophical debate between a high value attacker and all around midfielder will escalate. For now, Dempsey’s surged to the top of our early, theoretical MVP ballot.

Others considered: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Erick Torres (Chivas USA)

With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Another delay for MLS stadium deal in Charlotte

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A decision on public funding for a potential Major League Soccer stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina was delayed once again Monday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Charlotte’s city government committee stated no decision would be made on helping to fund a new MLS stadium before Aug. 2 when a country vote is scheduled.

It is the latest delay for the proposed $175 million stadium.

Potential owner Marcus Smith — CEO of Speedway Motorsports — has offered to pay the full $150 million MLS expansion fee, plus $87.5 million towards the stadium. With $43.75 million committed to help pay for the stadium, a decision on another $43.75 million has yet to arrive, leaving the stadium bid, and Charlotte’s entire MLS bid, in limbo.

Charlotte is one of 12 U.S. cities who have submitted a bid back in February for two MLS expansion franchises which will be awarded later this year. It is also not the first of those 12 cities to suffer a blow when it comes to requests for public funding of stadiums, as St. Louis found out recently with their MLS bid in ruins.

Via the Charlotte Business Journal, here’s some more information on what lies ahead for the Charlotte bid.

County commissioners voted in January to commit $43.75 million of property tax money to help pay for the proposed stadium. They also endorsed a county-owned site on the edge of uptown now occupied by Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center. Smith would build a stadium there after demolishing the existing stadium and arena.

At the time of the county vote, City Council was expected to decide on a related $43.75 million request also to be used for stadium construction. Instead, council members opted against a vote, citing higher priorities such as the next annual budget and an emphasis on public safety, affordable housing and jobs. This month, city council and the county commission each passed annual budgets without any property tax increases.

Smith has consistently said he remains hopeful local government and others will rally around the chance to bring an MLS team to town.

In a prepared statement issued Monday evening, Smith and his MLS4CLT bid group said of the council referral, “We hope the city and county can continue to work toward realizing the dream of a stadium in Charlotte on a timeline that works for all parties. Our commitment to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte has not wavered, nor has the support of thousands of people in this community who are looking to their elected officials to endorse this plan that will positively impact our region for generations to come.”

For now, those hopes look like a long shot.

 

FIFA release “Garcia Report” in full; issue statement

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FIFA has released the previously confidential Garcia report into alleged corruption surrounding the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process.

Previously the report, compiled in 2104 by American lawyer Michael Garcia, was said to be private and would never be released by FIFA.

Garcia, hired as an independent ethics investigator, quit when FIFA instead released a 42-page version of his report which acted as a summary of his findings, as he clashed with FIFA’s now former chairmen of the ethics committee, Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joackim Eckert.

However, German publication Bild had got hold of a copy of the full report and leaked extracts on Tuesday.

Now, world soccer’s governing body has got ahead of the game and released the report in full as Garcia looked into potential corruption among FIFA officials and high-ranking officials during the World Cup bidding process which saw Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 World Cup heading to Qatar.

Both Russia and Qatar were cleared of any wrongdoing in the initial report released, but there are detailed examinations of each country who bid for the World Cups, including the U.S., England and Australia.

Below is a statement from FIFA in full, while you can download the full report here.

The new chairpersons of the independent Ethics Committee, Maria Claudia Rojas of the investigatory chamber and Vassilios Skouris of the adjudicatory chamber, have decided to publish the Report on the Inquiry into the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup Bidding Process (the so-called “Garcia Report”).

This had been called for on numerous occasions by FIFA President Gianni Infantino in the past and also supported by the FIFA Council since its meeting in Mexico City in May 2016. Despite these regular requests, it is worth noting that the former chairpersons of the Ethics Committee, Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert, had always refused to publish it.

The Ethics Committee will meet in its full composition under the new chairpersons for the first time next week, and it was already planned to use this opportunity to discuss the publication of the report. However, as the document has been illegally leaked to a German newspaper, the new chairpersons have requested the immediate publication of the full report (including the reports on the Russian and US bid teams, which were conducted by Mr Borbély alone) in order to avoid the dissemination of any misleading information.

For the sake of transparency, FIFA welcomes the news that this report has now been finally published.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Ox to Liverpool; Nainggolan to Man United

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A report in Italy states that Manchester United are interested in signing AS Roma’s midfielder Radja Nainggolan.

[ MORE: Henry Onyekuru to Everton?

Gazzetta dello Sport claim that United will offer $51 million for the Belgian international as Jose Mourinho looks to totally overhaul his midfield.

Mourinho is reportedly close to closing a deal for Chelsea’s Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic and adding Nainggolan means there would be plenty of extra bite in the Red Devils midfield next season, especially with Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera around too. Per the report, Nainggolan could be added instead of Matic with the 29-year-old combative midfielder offered $159,000 a week.

Nainggolan has been heavily linked with a move to Chelsea in the past but the two-way midfielder stayed at Roma last season and scored 11 times as they finished in second place in Serie A.

After posting a cryptic message on Instagram on Monday stating “Thinking about what to do” expect this rumor to be cranked up a few notches with Nainggolan possessing the ability to score goals from distance and also dictate and break up the play in midfield. He seems like a perfect fit for the Premier League.


Liverpool is said to have taken their pursuit of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the next level.

The Daily Mirror believes Jurgen Klopp‘s side have made an approach for the Ox, as the 23-year-old considers his options with just one year left on his current deal at Arsenal and talks over a new deal at a standstill.

Played at right-wing back for the final months of last season, Oxlade-Chamberlain shone and kept Hector Bellerin out of the Gunners’ starting lineup. Capable of playing as a winger on either flank or a central midfielder (a role he believes is his best) the Ox’s versatility is a major plus, hence why both Liverpool and Manchester City are said to be chasing him.

The Ox has struggled massively with injuries since joining Arsenal from Southampton as a teenager in 2010, but the England international has undoubted quality and if Liverpool did meet Arsenal’s valuation of $34 million then he he would have the chance to flourish at Anfield. If he left Arsenal for Man City or Chelsea you’d question if he’d be a regular in either team, but at Liverpool he could play in any of the fluid positions Klopp loves in midfield or attack.

After spending the past seven years at Arsenal it would certainly be a shame for Arsene Wenger to see the Ox go, but with just 12 months left on his deal (like Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil et al.) this summer would be the time to cash in if Arsenal wanted to.

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