Southampton’s fans take over Milan

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MILAN — As Southampton’s players walked out at the San Siro to play Inter Milan on Thursday, many of their huge band of traveling fans had tears in their eyes.

They never thought they’d ever see this.

Saints lost 1-0 to Inter in a game they dominated and they were punished by the three times European champions after missing five glorious chances to score.

Still, what a journey it’s been.

From League One in 2009 to the Europa League in 2016 – some perspective: Inter won the Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble under Jose Mourinho in 2010, while Saints won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and finished 7th in League One — Southampton’s fans didn’t lose sight of the miraculous turnaround in their fortunes, even if one of the biggest nights in club history ended in defeat.

“There were tears in my eyes when I first arrived and saw it all,” Saints fan Adam Gray recalled as he stood in central Milan on Friday. “It was because it was a recollection of where we’d been and we are now is where we want to be. It was a realization that now we are here.”

For Saints fans “here” is Europe and they took over Milan for the past few days with thousands chanting along the Navigli Canals, the square in front of the Duomo Cathedral and all over the cosmopolitan, thriving hub of Italy’s economy.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule/tables ]

As they reveled in their dream away day in Group K – Saints had never made the group stage of the Europa League before and had brief and sporadic campaigns in Europe in the 1970s, 80s and in 2003 — there was always a lingering feeling to remember just how far they’ve come.

Six years ago to the week of the Inter game, Saints lost at Huddersfield Town in the Championship just a few months after gaining promotion from the third-tier.

Back then the San Siro and Milan seemed a million miles away.

Reaching Europe was a pipe dream which was talked about in the halls of St Mary’s following Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr saving the club from extinction in 2009. Nobody truly believed it would happen. But it was happening and Saints fans couldn’t stop pinching themselves.

This was happening.

Lifelong fans John McManus and Martyn Wolfe stood in the San Siro and looked down at their team taking on Inter: “It’s just surreal,” they both said, with a wry smile.

Close to 7,000 Saints fans packed into the away end of the San Siro, with Internazionale happily giving an extended ticket allocation after the initial batch sold out quickly.

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Marcelo Brozovic of FC Internazionale competes for the ball with Oriol Romeu of Southampton FC during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

It was said to be one of the largest ever allocations for a team who had gone to the San Siro. The Milanese people were stunned as retro Panini stickers of Saints cult hero Francis Benali were popping up all over town (at metro stations, local bars and bus stops) plus a friendly atmosphere was present throughout the three-day Southampton takeover with no hint of any trouble with the locals.

This was a once in a generation (maybe once in a lifetime) experience for Southampton’s fans.


Southampton’s players and manager, Claude Puel, knew how much this game meant.

In the prematch press conference at the San Siro stadium on Wednesday, ProSoccerTalk asked manager Puel, who only took charge this summer, if he would play his strongest team given the significance of the occasion.

“I don’t know my best team because all the time we can change five or six or nine players. For the moment we continue a good way with all the players,” Puel said. “It’s important to keep all the squad with a good concentration. If we want to stay with good results and a good physical level for all the games it’s important to respect all my players.”

“For example, of course this game is very important to us but after it is very important also the game away against Manchester City. All the games are important but for me my job is to have every time a good balance on the team with good players and good feeling between them, a good acquaintance. This is my job.”

The job of the fans was to get behind their team and that they did.

Walking around the streets of Milan, St. George’s banners were hung up with “Pride of the South” and “Southampton FC” emblazoned across them. There was dancing in the streets and late night chanting in bars. It was everything you could expect from a big European game. Except, Saints aren’t usually involved in matches like this.

This whole European campaign is seen as not only a reward for finishing sixth in the PL last season, but also their journey since the brink of extinction in 2009.

It tastes even sweeter given the fact they were knocked out of the Europa League in the playoff round the season before. That was only their second European campaign since 1981 and the thought of away days like this were snatched away from them at the final hurdle.

Then again, it could be a lot worse.

“I was talking to people and asking, what was our lowest point? Before the start of that 2009-10 season we had -10 points and no owners and were going to places like Rochdale and Hartlepool. Now we are in Milan and we are going to Prague. It’s incredible. It’s been a journey,” said Rich Caddick with a wide smile on his face.

Milan’s three airports — Linate, Malpensa and Bergamo — were packed with smiling Saints fans as they streamed in on journeys across from England. Some caught trains from Switzerland and neighboring Italian cities and some even traveled from New York City and other far flung destinations for this game. Many would stay for days after the game and some arrived early this week.

Everywhere you looked old friends were bumping into each other in bars and squares and for a few days Sotonians felt at home in Milan.

The contrast between the traveling band of supporters and the Milanese businessmen and women was stark. In amongst people dripping with Louis Vuitton and Prada were Saints fans tucking into a slice of Pizza with a pint in one hand and belting out a song.

On game day well over 7,000 Saints fans descended on Milan as tales of supporters buying corporate tickets and seats in the home end filtered through. It felt like a lot more than 7,000. A lot more. From the square around the Duomo Cathedral in central Milan to the bars lining the Navigli Canals in the south of the city red and white stripes were everywhere.

Before the match the plea from fans was simple: “Play the strongest team. This is it. This is the game we care about.”

A victory would give Southampton one foot in the Europa League knockout rounds in their first-ever appearance in the Europa League group stage. That didn’t happen with Charlie Austin, Steven Davis, Jose Fonte and Nathan Redmond not in the starting lineup.


The first time you walk up to the San Siro, it takes your breath away.

Especially on a foggy evening when the upper reaches of the iconic venue are shrouded in mist. It all added to the occasion.

Inside the stadium the crowd of just under 30,000 was made up almost one quarter Southampton fans.

They didn’t stop signing all night long.

To put this feat and occasion into American sporting terms, it is like a small college basketball team getting to the Sweet 16 and playing a powerhouse school at an iconic venue. It was a case of a small town against a big town. A small, yet proud, club against one of the biggest on the planet. We could keep going on with the comparisons but you get it. The stature of the two sides on the global stage is vastly different.

It’s not David vs. Goliath but Thursday’s game was a situation Saints’ fans never thought they’d be in.

“In 2008 we were thinking we were going to lose our club and all of a sudden we are now in the San Siro. It’s amazing,” lifelong Saints fan Karen Arkell said. “There are Saints fans who would have never experienced anything like this and there are younger a generation coming through who are getting used to it.”

The game itself saw Saints throw everything at Inter but somehow fail to score. From Jay Rodriguez’s early miss to James Ward-Prowse‘s shot which whistled wide, then both Charlie Austin and Virgil Van Dijk having two great chances to score but saved by Samir Handanovic who was the clear man of the match as his manager Frank de Boer saluted him after the game.

At the final whistle Southampton’s fans were deflated. Down but not out was the message as their quest to reach the knockout rounds of the Europa League and continue this European adventure carries on.

The singing carried on, both at the final whistle (see below) and all over Milan as a mood of celebration was still around (along with a tinge of disappointment) as the cool Milanese air felt a little chillier than it would have had Saints secured a famous win.

“I am absolutely gutted. We could have had them. We should have won,” Gray reflected. “We just need to invest in putting those chances away. It put a little dampener on the mood after the game but at the end of the day, we are still here. There’s progress and we are enjoying that. The atmosphere was awesome. Better than any Saints game I’ve ever been to.”

The fact that pretty much every Saints fan was “gutted” at losing 1-0 to Inter Milan at the San Siro says it all. They’ve come a long way in a very short space of time.

“It’s just surreal,” Wolfe and McManus said again as they sat in a trendy bar near Navigli Grande as Saints fans mixed with locals after the game.

Several players saluted the supporters after the game with captain for the night, Virgil van Dijk, perfectly summing up the emotions from everyone connected with the club.

“I’m so proud to be a Southampton player with those supporters. They deserved more and so did we.”

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale competes for the ball with Virgil Van Dijk of Southampton FC during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)


As strong coffee was sipped readily on Friday morning along Milan’s busting streets after a few days of celebrating Saints’ resurgence, there was a realization that this may be as good as it gets.

Two mid-size teams in the Premier League, Southampton and Leicester City, are both in the group stages of Europe courtesy of their unexpected top six finishes last season. But with perennial powers strengthening this season, it will be a lot tougher to reach this tournament for the foreseeable future.

“This year with so much investment at Everton and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool improving, we won’t finish in the top six. I’m sure,” Gray said, reluctantly. “This is here for us to enjoy. This is it. Until the next time…”

Until the next time arrives (if it does at all), Saints’ fans will follow their team wherever they go. Do fans of the smaller clubs appreciate these occasions more?

“I think they appreciate it more than big clubs,” Saints fan Rob Peters said as the sun shone down on his red baseball cap outside the Duomo cathedral. “We may not be in Europe for another few years. The big clubs take priority, so, as Saints fans, we have to just go for it.”

Ruddick agreed.

“Big clubs do it every season. They take it for granted,” Ruddick said. “They know they are going to come away again next year. We don’t. So we make the most of it while we can.”

Now they’ve had a taste, Saints feel like they belong at this level.

Flicking through Gazzetta Dello Sport on Friday, the player ratings showed that Saints’ team ranked higher than Inter, as did the manager, and the man of the match was Inter’s goalkeeper. Little Southampton went to the San Siro and roughed up the 18-time champs of Italy, who were scratching their heads as to how they won.

“For a game that wasn’t so crunch — last night’s game wasn’t so important in the grand scheme of things, really — for a game like that, the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Gray admitted. “Everyone was right behind them. We’ve had a great few days and we couldn’t have asked for anything else… Other than a win.”

With home games against Inter and Hapoel Be’er Sheva and a trip to Prague in late November (Saints only have 1,700 tickets for that game, which they’ve already sold out, but speculation says that double that are amount are expected to make the trip), everything is to play for in Group K with just three points separating first from fourth.

Can Saints make it through to the knockout rounds as one of the top two teams?

“I’m a little bit nervous about it now after last night,” Peters admitted. “If we lose the next game at home against Inter we are in a little bit of trouble. We are good enough to go through. That’s for sure. We totally dominated them last night.”

There was a lingering feeling of what could’ve been (the amount of Saints fans I heard say ‘I just wanted to see us score at the San Siro’ was outrageous) among supporters but tales of parties in night clubs, bars and elsewhere long into Thursday night and Friday morning were rife.

“People were definitely deflated after the game but then we left the stadium, we got back into the city and then just kept singing in the pubs… Until five o clock this morning!” Caddick laughed. “The whole experience was the most important thing.”

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: Charlie Austinof Southampton FC disapponited during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

This experience will never leave Saints’ fans and players. It is something few clubs of their size get to taste and it was a moment to savor.

Can it happen again? Can Saints’ qualify for Europe by finishing in the PL’s top six this season?

“It is just beautiful,” Gray said as he looked along a busy side street ahead of his girlfriend flying out to meet him for a quick vacation until next Tuesday. “The atmosphere has been great. It is just great to be here and now we wait for the next one.”

When that next one is, we will have to wait and see. Fans are already signing about making their way to Stockholm, Sweden, where the Europa League final is being held on May 24, 2017.

Although that may be a tad hasty, Southampton’s trip to Milan showed the team from the biggest city on the south coast of England is ready for the biggest of stages.

With fans landing back home, the home game at St Mary’s against Inter Milan in two weeks sold out early on Friday morning.

Europa League fever continues to grip Southampton and their fans don’t want the European adventure to end.


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Rojo’s reaction to Sanchez joining Man Utd was priceless

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Speaking to an Argentine publication while on duty, the Manchester United defender shared a number of interesting tidbits.

[ MORE: Young backs Luke Shaw ]

The first, and perhaps funnier one, came from a family visit to Manchester for the Christmas holiday, as Rojo set off a bunch of fireworks in his neighborhood, one he did not realize was shared with United legend Alex Ferguson.

Rojo said Ferguson saw him the next day and congratulated him on “the light show,” with the defender quipping that he thought he might be on his way out of the Old Trafford set-up.

But the more quotable translation comes from the Argentine learning that Chilean superstar and Premier League rival Alexis Sanchez was traded Arsenal red for the same hue at United.

Rojo said Sanchez has turned out to be a lovely guy, but that doesn’t change his initial shock at the news. From TYC Sports, translated by The Mirror,

“Every time we came up against one another, whether in internationals or when United played Arsenal, I would give him a good kicking – and he did the same to me.

“On top of that I used to insult him, and he would reply in kind. So when I learned that he was going to join United I said: ‘Oh, ******* hell, no, now this guy’s going to be here’.”

It likely happens more often than we know, given the competitive nature and furious tackling at the highest level. The old cliche “You’d love him if he was on your team” leaves out the fact that he’s also no longer on the opposition, beating you up.

Not to mention, there’s always that opening conversation, “Hey, that thing I said about your parents…”

Bradley, TFC not freaking over winless start (video)

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Toronto FC is Major League Soccer’s reigning champion, coming off one of the finest seasons in league history, and perhaps the best hope yet for a CONCACAF Champions League title.

It’s also in last place after three Match days in the 2018 season.

[ MORE: Top MLS free agents ]

That’s a tough juggling act, at least emotionally. Given the long and forgiving MLS season, TFC is going to be fine. But the Reds also have a group of players and executives not exactly known for resting on laurels.

TFC has not scored in losses to Columbus and Montreal, but rang up four goals over two matches in knocking UANL Tigres out of the CCL.

So on one hand, yeah, unprecedented success for the club. On the other…

“It’s certainly not ideal to look at the table for the next 13 days until we play again,” Bradley said. “On the other hand it’s been a busy start and we’ve gotta use the time over the next little stretch to regroup mentally, physically for what we hope is a really busy time.”

To recap: Yes, TFC deservedly advanced to next month’s CCL semifinal tie with Mexican monster Club American. No, they aren’t happy to lose a pair of league matches (even if they could’ve easily taken results in both with two favorable bounces).

“Let’s be a little bit honest and also say in the moment that while there have been things in these two league games that haven’t been good enough, we’ve been a little bit unlucky in terms of balls rolling across the goal line and some big chances that we haven’t been able to score on. You have to look at it from all angles. We’re certainly not happy,” Bradley said.

Young backs Man United teammate Shaw to become star

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Ashley Young‘s performances on the field and in training have helped keep Luke Shaw off the field, but the veteran winger sees the potential in Shaw that manager Jose Mourinho may not.

Per the BBC, Young said that Shaw could be among the “best in the world” at his position. Shaw was substituted off at halftime of Man United’s 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup and was publicly criticized by Mourinho after the game, sparking controversy and plenty of conversation in the media over the past 48 hours.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

“I want to see him doing well,” Young said. “It’s like all players, you just have to get your head down and work. He’s a fantastic player. He can be one of the best in the world.”

Shaw has struggled to make an impact and live up to expectations since making a $42 million move from Southampton to Old Trafford in 2014 as a 19-year-old. Shaw has made 99 Premier League appearances over the last four seasons for Man United but he’s been marginalized this season with just seven appearances.

When he moved to Man United, he likely looked at the 2018 World Cup as a goal, in which he could cement his place as the England left back of the future. Now, he’ll almost surely be watching the tournament from home, wondering what went wrong along the way.

Top Free Agents Available for MLS clubs

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We’re three weeks into the season and MLS teams can now take stock in what they have, and what they’re missing.

Thanks to the demise of the North American Soccer League as well as the increased allocation money available to MLS clubs, there are a whole host of MLS-level players who have suddenly found themselves unemployed as we get towards the end of March. Some of these names could very well impact MLS clubs, if not at the very least provide depth.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Let’s take a look at some of the available players who are waiting for a call, in no particular order:

Jermaine Jones

A lightning rod for his play on the field and comments off it, Jermaine Jones is a former UEFA Champions League player with many years of U.S. Men’s National Team experience.

It’s kind of shocking that he hasn’t landed with a club, though part of that could be because the LA Galaxy were ready to move on, his outspoken nature, and the fact that he’d like to stay with his family in Los Angeles.

However, if LAFC or the Galaxy change their mind, or Jones agrees to move to another market, he could absolutely add value in a team’s midfield, either as a starter or a spot starter.


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Jacob Peterson

After a stellar goal-scoring college career at Indiana, Peterson developed into the kind of hard-working, hard-running forward that is perfect in Peter Vermes’ system in Kansas City. While he didn’t always light up the scoresheet, Peterson was always there to provide defensive pressure to opposing backlines, run the channels to open up space for his teammates, and score a few goals himself.

The 32-year-old scored six goals in 21 appearances for Atlanta United last season and could absolutely be a strong option for a club off the bench.

Chance Myers

Peterson’s former teammate at SKC, Myers has never fully found his pre-injury form since he tore his Achilles’s tendon in 2014. The speedy right back made just one appearance for Portland – playing behind the terrific Alvas Powell in 2017, but if he’s finally overcome some of the injury problems, he provides a really experienced, well-tested defender to any club in need of some back line experience.

Simon Dawkins

Dawkins second spell with the Earthquakes didn’t go as well as his first. After spending a pair of seasons with Derby County in the Championship, Dawkins returned to San Jose in 2016 on a Designated Player contract but managed just five goals and two assists over two seasons, with no goals or assists in 2017. If Dawkins is willing to take a pay cut, he’d be a great speedy asset for a team struggling to create offense.

Gideon Baah

The 26-year-old centerback never worked out in two injury-plagued seasons with the New York Red Bulls. Baah was in preseason training with the LA Galaxy but wasn’t offered a contract. If he’s over his injury troubles, an MLS team can do worse than a player capped for Ghana and still in his prime.

Kevin Alston

A former first overall selection who has been called up to multiple January USMNT camps, Alston has been through a lot during his playing career. He’s suffered plenty of muscle injuries but the toughest was when he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a rare but treatable form of leukemia. Thankfully, Alston recovered and spent the last two seasons with Orlando City, mainly playing for Orlando City B in 2017. If given a chance, Alston provides a very experienced mind as an outside back, and could provide plenty of guidance to a team filled with young players for a season or two.

Bobby Burling

The veteran centerback had his option declined at the end of the 2017 season with the Colorado Rapids but he was part of the Rapids side that defended its way to second in the table. While injuries have shortened his career, Burling could be a solid depth signing for a club in need of a hulking centerback.

Patrick Nyarko

The speedy winger had a rough 2017 after a strong 2016 in the red and black of D.C. United, and was let go at the end of the season. Though he’s now 32-years old, Nyarko can still provide a spark from the wing and change the game off the bench. His goal record and assist record doesn’t lie, with 24 goals and 49 assists in 236 career regular season matches.

Josh Gatt

It appears that the injuries may have finally caught up to Josh Gatt. The former high school prodigy who signed with SC Rheindorf Altach (over a commitment to Indiana University) as an 18-year-old, suffered three successive torn ACLs during his time with Molde. Gatt made his way back to the U.S. and featured for both Minnesota United and the Colorado Rapids, failing to make a difference for either club.

Perhaps the expectations were too high, but if his knee is feeling good, Gatt can provide the kind of game-changing speed that teams desire. Hopefully he can get one last shot.

Danny Szetela

Szetela has enjoyed a brilliant last few years with the New York Cosmos, but with the Cosmos not playing professional soccer in 2018, Szetela should have been a candidate for any club looking for a solid central midfielder. The former U.S. international can still raise his game to the MLS level, and his calmness under pressure will help any club should they pick him up.