Exclusive talk w/ AS Roma’s GM, CEO; Goal is to be “best in the world”

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It’s a good time to be among i Lupi.

AS Roma is back into the UEFA Champions League with ambitions to climb to its pinnacle, with the club’s on- and off-field affairs in order under president James Pallotta, an American.

PST had the chance to talk with AS Roma’s direttore generale, Mauro Baldissoni, as well as its CEO, Italo Zanzi, on the club’s recent tour of the United States. We chatted about the club’s aim to be the world champion, the challenges in restoring its lofty stature in Italy and the status of the American game and market.

And while Roma’s lone trip to the Cup final was 1984’s loss to Liverpool in penalty kicks and the world has watched as major money has bankrolled more European title competitors than ever before, neither Zanzi nor Baldissoni played it safe in the club’s ambitions.

“The goal is to be the best in the world,” Zanzi said.

The club is backing up its words despite a multi-year absence from European competition. Roma has spent wisely to propel Rudi Garcia’s unit forward while getting its business affairs in order.

And now Roma is among three Pot IV clubs no European giant wants to see in next year’s group stage.

“Apart from the last three seasons, Roma was consistently playing Champions League,” Baldissoni said. “We think that Roma must be a Champions League team. We’ve been successful in taking the club back to the top of the championship in Italy and we think that we’ll be able to compete at the European level.

“The US ownership group took over the club in, let’s say ‘not bright financial shape.’ We are trying to complete the turnaround while investing in new players and new talents. Due to the skill and value of the management team, we think that we’ve completed the mission to remain a Champions League team.”

Zanzi stressed the club’s acumen in spending wisely.

“We’re very fortunate but also savvy to have what we consider to be the best football management team that has demonstrated its ability to find special talent at terms that make sense,” he said.

All this from an American ownership group with Pallotta that caused some consternation in Italy. Could outsiders respectfully run this club? Zanzi admits that, as an American, they had to be extra sensitive.

“When you come into a new environment, a new country — particularly a city like Rome which is so storied — you have to be mindful to sensitivities,” Zanzi said. “What we found was definitely the most passionate fan base in the world who really just want to win. When you focus on the basics, winning on the field and off the field, it makes it easier to gain people’s confidence.

“We’re very mindful of always being respectful. We’ve never come in and said the American way is the best way or the Italian way is a bad way. On the contrary, we just want to be the best.”

And as a Roman, Baldissoni spoke of the concerns at the arrival of foreign administration.

“Actually being born and raised in Rome, a unique city with a story of thousands of years, of course there was some skepticism for the new owner coming from abroad,” Zanzi said. “It was to be expected and a natural reaction. It turned out to be a way to increase the expectations. Fortunately, we think we’ve met the expectation by now. We’re planning on doing better and better every day.”

So it brings them to America again. Roma has had a good relationship with Major League Soccer, playing the role of opposition in last year’s All-Star Game, and employed American superstar Michael Bradley for a long period of time.

In the case of the latter, Baldissoni admitted he had no thought to let Bradley leave Rome when the Toronto FC opportunity arose.

source: Getty Images“Michael was a great professional and also a wonderful football player,” he said. “We were not even planning to let him go. He wanted to be back in the United States. We were happy to keep him as a player.”

Zanzi was also sad to see him go, but it was a business move.

“Michael is a consummate professional and a player that any team or coach or ownership would want to have,” he said. “He had a very positive experience in Rome and we found a situation that worked out mutually in Toronto. Only positive things to say about Michael.”

And Zanzi also admits that the club would have no qualms taking on more Americans, but that the European rules make it very difficult. This troubles him a bit, as the success of his homeland is often on his mind.

“For me it’s very close to my heart,” he said. “The US on the whole continues to produce fantastic football players that are getting more experience sooner. It’s a shame that many teams in Europe have a limitation on the amount of non-European players that creates a challenge for American players. The ones that do come are successful, the represent their country well and they add value to their clubs.

“We look at the US as a growth market, not only from an economic perspective and a marketing perspective but also as a football one.”

With a stability in tow and a brand new stadium in the works, not to mention new partnerships with Disney and Nike, Roma is confident it can take its next steps to awakening its status as a European giant. The second-place club in Italy will lure better players to its home, threaten the existing holders and give Garcia what he needs to succeed domestically and abroad.

“Given all of the attention and hard work that we have put forward, and a very hard working style, we’re finding that players want to come to Roma now,” Zanzi said. “It’s an attractive place to be.”

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.