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MLS Cup 2016 roundtable: Key topics ahead of Toronto vs. Seattle

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Ahead of the 2016 MLS Cup final this Saturday in Toronto, the PST crew take a look at the key issues as Toronto FC host Seattle Sounders FC with both clubs not only searching for their first MLS Cup trophy but also competing in their first-ever final.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

With over 35,000 expected at BMO Field in freezing conditions, everything is set up for one of the most exciting MLS Cup finals in recent history.

Can Toronto’s Designated Players lead them to glory and help them become the first Canadian team to win the title? Will Seattle finally reward its incredibly loyal fans by finishing off its miraculous run to the final with a win?

All that and more is answered, right here.


It’s here, MLS Cup 2016 in freezing conditions in Toronto… What are you most looking forward to about this game and why?

Joe Prince-Wright: The atmosphere. Watching the games in Toronto, the crowd really has been a 12th man and bought into this team. The stadium renovations have helped massively and turned Toronto into one of the most intimidating places to play in MLS. You can guarantee whatever the weather TFC’s fans will be out in full force and doing their best to roar their team on to victory. Something special is happening in the soccer scene in Toronto.

Nick Mendola: A new champion, and a few fantastic story lines: Does USMNT bragging rights goes to Bradley/Jozy or Morris? Is Nicolas Lodeiro able to “out-Seba” Giovinco? Can hardly wait.

Matt Reed: I’m looking to see how the Sounders handle the two-headed monster of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. For a long portion of the season teams only had to worry about Giovinco, which was a nightmare in itself, but now you throw in an in-form Altidore and that increases the challenge for the Sounders backline significantly.

Compared to other MLS Cup finals in recent years, is there extra excitement around this? Two well-supported teams with star names and fairly new to MLS.

Joe: I’m going to go out on a limb and say this could be one of the best finals ever. It’s safe to say defending isn’t the strength of either team (at least in the playoffs) and we could see a straight shootout, just like Toronto’s stunning Eastern Conference final win against Montreal. If you add the crazy crowd, the big name DPs and the fact that these two clubs have yet to win an MLS Cup, it’s a recipe for one heck of gameday.

Nick: I think this game had danger of being overlooked and under hyped before the Toronto-Montreal final at BMO. It was impossible to miss, and people will tune in for the atmosphere and the stars. Could be — and this is saying a lot — a watershed moment for MLS.

Matt: I think the fact that not only has neither team ever won a cup but couple that with the reality that they’ve each never played in a final prior to Saturday makes it all the more enticing of a matchup. Despite the frigid temperatures it could very well be one of the most highly anticipated finals we’ve seen when you consider the stars involved the game (Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, etc.).

Seattle has reached its first MLS Cup against all the odds. Does anyone have the sense their name is written on this trophy?

Joe: Sort of. When Sigi Schmid was fired and Brian Schmetzer was hired, nobody thought this would happen. I think most of the Seattle organization, their fans and even the players are a little bit stunned they’ve made it to MLS Cup. When you compare this team to others they’ve had in recent years, it’s not as good individually plus injuries to Clint Dempsey and others this campaign have been very disruptive. Somehow, they’ve made it to MLS Cup and these dream runs happen for a reason. Soccer works in mysterious ways.

Nick: I wouldn’t want to bet this game, mostly because Seattle is coming across the country and that’s been a recipe for struggle for almost every MLS side this year. Have to think Toronto is favored, fate or not (especially since fate is better known as the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro!).

Matt: It just seems like 2016 is the year of the Sounders. Both clubs have had superb seasons and have their own unique storylines heading into the match, but when you consider the fact that the Sounders looked dead in the water halfway through the season, made a coaching change and are playing without arguably their most influential player (Clint Dempsey) it really looks like this team will have their fate sealed in the biggest way possible on Saturday night.

What will be the key battle in this game?

Joe: I think Seattle’s defense staying firm and not allowing Morris to latch on to balls from Lodeiro in behind. With the home crowd roaring them on, it would be quite easy for Toronto to go at it early on and leave themselves exposed defensively. If Justin Morrow, Drew Moor et al. can use their vast experience in MLS wisely, and regain their top form from the regular season, TFC will have a great chance of winning.

Nick: Seattle’s veteran back line against Giovinco and Altidore.

Matt: Nicolas Lodeiro has been the game changer for the Sounders since joining over the summer and Morris definitely can’t do this all by himself. I think the Uruguayan will need to be on top of his game against the talented Toronto back line and if he can work some of his magic, particularly finding Morris, then the Sounders will have a solid chance to take home the cup.

If you had to pick one striker right now, would you have Jordan Morris or Jozy Altidore?

Joe: I’m going to go with Altidore, but only just. The way he is right now, you sense he will score every time he steps on the pitch. He has done that throughout the playoffs and he finally seems fully fit and has his confidence back. It feels like Altidore’s time to shine. Morris’ time to be the main man in MLS and for the USMNT will come in the future.

Nick: Altidore. His motivation is high and his experience better. Morris is more of a 1b choice than 2, though!

Matt: I love what Morris has done this season but have to pick Altidore here. He’s been on fire since early August and playing with Giovinco certainly makes it a lot easier to shine when you don’t have defenders solely zoning in on you.

So, if TFC wins MLS Cup, do you think they can build a dynasty like DC United back in the day and LA Galaxy in recent years?

Joe: That have a great chance. Greg Vanney hasn’t got enough credit for the balance he has brought to this team and if they can continue to add to the squad wisely, their three DPs will be around for the next three to four years.

Nick: It’s possible. The key players/Dps are young enough, that’s for sure. But Toronto also has given the league a bit of a blueprint for making the playoffs.

Matt: Toronto has to be one of the most, if not the most, complete squads in MLS right now. The moves the club made during the offseason were spot on, starting with Will Johnson, Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour. Then the attack has two of the most deadly strikers in all of MLS. In short, yes, I think this team is here to stay.

And if Toronto does win, will Michael Bradley be applauded for his decision to leave Europe to lead this squad?

Joe: I think Bradley has come under some unjust criticism in recent months. If you dissect his form for Toronto this season, he’s been one of the main reasons they’re in MLS Cup. Sure, he’s had a few bad displays for the USMNT but it’s not like anybody else around him has excelled either for the USA. He wanted to lead a team to glory and he’s on the cusp of doing so. I respect that.

Nick: I doubt it. The excitement of his arrival and ability to see him each week has been seriously tarnished (for now) by the disappointing performance of the USMNT. He’ll be rightly celebrated as a champion, but I’m doubting too many outside of Toronto will say, “Yeah, NOW it was worth it.”

Matt: I’m not sure Bradley will be applauded because he’s certainly received criticism over his move back to the states but he’s definitely played an integral role in the Toronto midfield. I think it’s easy to get lost in the Giovinco hype and looking at the talent in the backline, but Bradley has been stellar this season controlling the midfield.

We can’t not mention Sebastian Giovinco. If he plays the hero role (highly likely) and TFC wins, will he go down as the best-ever DP in MLS history?

Joe: Apart from Robbie Keane, which other DP has had a bigger impact than Giovinco in MLS history? I’m struggling to answer that. If he wins MLS Cup, I think he will sit alongside Keane as the best ever.

Nick: Yes.

Matt: I’m not sure Giovinco automatically becomes the best with just one title but he’s easily a top 5 DP. If Toronto builds this into a dynasty I think it’ll be easier to justify the Italian being considered the best of all-time over a Robbie Keane.

Finally, not letting you go without a score prediction. Who wins it?

Joe: Toronto to win 2-1. Somehow, I had a major epiphany in March during our preseason picks in the roundtable chat and I predicted Toronto to beat Seattle 2-1 in MLS Cup final. So, I’m sticking with that.

Nick: Toronto, 2-1.

Matt: The Sounders have defied all odds to get to this point but I think Toronto takes it 3-2 on their home field.

PHOTOS: Tottenham’s stunning new stadium

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Tottenham Hotspur’s new $1 billion stadium is taking shape and it is looking magnificent.

The plan is for Spurs’ new home at White Hart Lane to be ready for the 2018/19 season, with reports stating that Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will play their first couple of games away from home next season in order to squeeze in a few more weeks for construction.

Spurs’ new  home will seat 62,062 fans and will be the second-largest stadium in the Premier League behind Manchester United’s Old Trafford.

Take a look at the photos below in the spring sunshine in London, with the largest single-tier stand in Europe looking sublime as the roof panels are going on and the stadium is really starting to come to life.


Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso handed three-game ban

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After being named in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year on Wednesday, it has been a mixed few days for Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso as he has received a three-game ban with immediate effect after being found guilty of violent conduct.

Alsono, 27, stamped on Shane Long‘s calf in Chelsea’s 3-2 comeback win at Southampton last time out but referee Mike Dean missed the incident completely.

Since then Alonso has received a retrospective charge from the English FA and although the Spanish left back appealed the decision and the length of the ban, it was upheld and he will now miss Chelsea’s next three games.

Alonso will miss the clash at Burnley on Thursday, the FA Cup semifinal against Southampton on Sunday and the trip to Swansea City on Apr. 28.

Who will come in for Alonso?

Antonio Conte has already stated that Emerson Palmeri, a January arrival from AS Roma, will start at Burnley on Thursday and if the Brazilian full back impresses then it is highly likely he will stand in for Alonso in the big FA Cup semifinal on Sunday against Saints. Other options would be Davide Zappacosta playing as the left wing-back or even Cesar Azpilicueta out there.

As for Saints, they feel hard done by after Dean didn’t spot Alonso’s foul even though he was standing yards away from the incident and looking straight at it. At the time of the incident they led 1-0 going into half time and their manager Mark Hughes believes it would have made a big difference as Alonso’s cross set up Olivier Giroud to make it 2-1 and the Spaniard made a big difference from left back in the incredible 3-2 comeback victory. Still, at least Saints won’t have to play against Alonso on Sunday with revenge in the air…

PHOTOS: Liverpool unveil new 2018/19 kit

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Liverpool have gone for a “pepper red” kit for the 2017/18 season.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game ]

On Thursday the Anfield club released their new jersey for next season with New Balance once again their kit suppliers.

The key features of this new kit is a small collar, with a fresh white and red look throughout.

Check out the images and video below.


VAR decisions at World Cup to be explained on giant screens

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Fans attending World Cup matches in Russia won’t be left wondering about the reasons behind decisions of the video assistant referee.

After the VAR’s decision is made, replays will be shown on giant screens inside the stadiums accompanied by a written explanation.

It’s all part of the VAR information system that FIFA unveiled Wednesday .

[ MORE: Man Utd makes historic hire ]

FIFA will place someone in the VOR (video operations room) who will listen in to the VAR’s decisions and communicate them to both TV commentators and stadium personnel operating the giant screens.

“So we will have graphics on the giant screens, we will have replays after the decision on the giant screens, and we will also inform the fans about the outcome of a VAR incident and review,” said Sebastian Runge, group leader of football innovation at FIFA.

With the VAR making its tournament debut during the June 14-July 15 World Cup, FIFA is holding its final training camp this month for the 99 match officials – 36 referees and 63 assistants – who have been selected to go to Russia.

Thirteen VARs have been pre-selected and are being trained at Italy’s Coverciano complex, and FIFA referees chief Pierluigi Collina said more VARs and VAR assistants will be chosen from the 99 match officials.

Three of the 13 VARs come from Italy’s Serie A and two from Germany’s Bundesliga – elite competitions that already use video assistants.

The VAR can support the referee in four game-changing situations: goals and offenses leading up to a goal, penalty decisions and offenses leading up to a penalty, direct red card incidents and cases of mistaken identity.

Still, VARs in both Italy and Germany have received vehement criticism for long delays and bungled decisions this season.

On Monday, Mainz was awarded a penalty during halftime against a rival Freiburg side that had already left the pitch for the break – prompting the unusual scene of a team returning from the changing room to defend a penalty.

“Yesterday we had already discussed this incident here and gave match officials and VARs clear indication about what should be done if something similar in FIFA competition – specifically the World Cup – happens,” Collina said without providing further detail.

Collina added that the VAR should not be overused, adding that ideally it would intervene at all in a match.

“The goal of VAR is to avoid major mistakes,” Collina said. “The objective is not to have clear and obvious mistakes committed on the field of play. This is the target, the goal is not to re-referee the match using technology.

“There will continue to be incidents when a final answer will not be given and there will be different opinions,” Collina added.

Among other items involving the VAR:

MOSCOW CONTROL CENTER

FIFA will follow the Bundesliga model of a central control center for the VAR rather than using trucks outside stadiums.

“We will have all of the referees based in Moscow so there won’t be any stress in terms of travel,” Collina said.

For each match, Collina will select one VAR and three assistant VARs.

Training operation rooms presented to media included six monitors for the VARs and two more for technical assistants enabling the VARs to see requested replays.

There could be up to four technical assistants in the room for World Cup matches.

OFFSIDE CAMERAS

FIFA will install two extra cameras at matches to monitor offside decisions.

The cameras will be in addition to the 33 cameras used for broadcasters and they will be installed under stadium roofs.

Broadcasters will not have direct access to the cameras but if they are used by the VAR then broadcasters can show the video.

Runge added that three dimensional technology – considered the ultimate strategy for determining offside – is not ready for real-time access yet.

SWEAT AND STRESS

VARs will not officiate more than one match per day.

“It’s not like watching a match on the sofa sipping coffee,” Collina said.

Collina, who officiated Brazil’s 2-0 win over Germany in the 2002 World Cup final, explained why the VARs will wear track suits similar to referees’ on-pitch attire.

“The reason is at the end they sweat as much as someone on the field, because the tension is very high,” Collina said. “They can’t do two matches per day – it’s too stressful.”

COMMS AND HACKING

The Moscow control center will be connected to match officials via a fiber optic network.

If the network fails, the backup plan includes an old-fashioned land telephone line and a telephone stationed near the fourth referee for emergency use.

“Worst-case scenario includes a backup plan on site. That’s when the IBC is down – no power, no fiber network,” Runge said. “Then we have a plan in place where the fourth official would become the VAR and the fourth official would be replaced by the reserve referee.

“We have a cabin in the broadcast compound from where we send all of the feeds to the IBC anyway. That cabin can be turned into a smaller, light version of the VOR.”

Hacking has also been considered.

“We are aware that there might be something but our IT department put measurements in place that will protect us from that,” Runge said.

POST-MATCH BRIEFINGS

In extraordinary circumstances, FIFA will hold post-match briefings to explain decisions in greater detail.

“If something should happen that we think should properly and accurately be explained – and it doesn’t matter if it’s related to VAR or something different – if it is a matter to explain the background of a decision, as an exception certainly we will do it,” Collina said.

“But it won’t be a post-match press conference for every match, explaining every single decision taken during every single match.”

More AP soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf