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Barefoot to Big Time: MLS prospect’s 10,403-mile journey

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If pangaea never broke, Kentucky would still be a long ways from Lesotho.

Even a cursory look at globe is daunting, especially for a 15-year-old kid making the 9,000 mile trek from Southern Africa to Midwest America on his own.

This is at the heart of the story of University of Kentucky star midfielder and MLS Combine participant Napo Mastoso, who hasn’t seen his mother or father since moving to the United States almost seven-and-a-half years ago.

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Matsoso grew up in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital city, awed by his father Thato’s skills on the ball as a member of the country’s national team and local club Arsenal FC.

Napo darted barefoot through the youth soccer landscape in Lesotho, figuratively cutting his teeth on the opposition while physically cutting up his legs on the dirt pitches of Maseru.

Barefoot.

“The dirt hurts your body pretty bad,” Matsoso said. “When you slide or someone trips you. … I played barefoot until I was 12 or 13 years old. My father bought me cleats, they were not like labeled, they were just random cleats.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

Napo Matsoso hasn’t seen his parents since he was 15 years old, encouraged by them to leave the 145th most populous nation in the world for a chance on the schools and youth soccer fields of Louisville, Kent. Moreover, he said they haven’t seen him play a minute since he left the country.

[ MORE: Monmouth GK trials with Everton ]

His father’s professional teammate at Lesotho’s Arsenal, goalkeeper Thabane Sutu, had gone on to play in Egypt and coach in Turkey before settling into an opportunity in America with Louisville club United 1996 FC.

Sutu — now the GK coach at Louisville City FC — became friends with Marc Maguire, a father of two United players. Conversations on Sutu’s dreams to bring young Lesotho talent to the U.S. turned to action when Maguire welcomed two young players who he’d later adopt: Sunny Jane and Lepe Seetane.

It was an incredible experience for both. Maguire, now Jane and Seetane’s “American parent”, had two exceptional sons.

“They wouldn’t just clean their room,” said Maguire, a car dealer in Louisville. “We’d come home and find them cleaning the whole house.”

Both earned D-1 scholarships, with Seetane playing 78 games for Northwestern between 2010-13 and Jane earning All-ACC second team status at Maryland en route to a pro career with Wilmington Hammerheads and, currently, Richmond Kickers.

[ MORE: USL gets D-2 status ]

Four years after Jane and Seetane arrived, Maguire welcomed Matsoso. The experience followed suit, though Matsoso was understandably reserved at first.

“He’s a great kid,” Maguire said. “As we got to know him better, we discovered he’s quite hilarious, maybe the funniest person I know. He’s conscientious, he’s a hard worker.”

He had to be, moving from a world of hard pitches and harder tackles to the artificial turf and expensive cleats.

Some transitions were easy enough, like the on-field. Matsoso scored 29 goals and added 19 assists as a freshman at St. Francis High School in Louisville.

“It took me a long time to play on turf then on natural grass,” Matsoso said. “It also took me a long time get used to the cleats.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

The soccer part was easier than the myriad emotional issues that would seem to come with leaving everything behind to pursue a goal. Picture this teenager, uprooted. He was fortunately to have a loving new family here, and was at least able to update his Lesotho parents via phone.

But this was a rare opportunity.

“It was pretty hard but I knew it was going to be better for me, and my parents knew it was going to be better for me,” Matsoso said.

“They knew if I didn’t make the decision, things would’ve been different because not many people go to school. People will stay in the street, or rob people, do all the bad things. They knew at the end of the day that I’d be happy.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

Now Matsoso has hope that his hard work and electric gifts could bring about a reunion. He’s excitedly told his family about the MLS Combine, trying to explain the standard of the league and his chances to succeed.

Jane has been capped 7 times by the Lesotho national team and has assured Matsoso that he can contribute at the national team level. That means Matsoso may be on the verge of a reunion with the loved ones he left to pursue this worldwide sport.

“The head coach from Lesotho has contacted me asking how I feel, if I’m ready to play on the national team, and I’ve told him that I think I’m ready whenever I get the call-up,” said Matsoso, who is in the process of obtaining an American green card.

Matsoso was fantastic at Kentucky, first called to our attention by coach Johan Cedergren last Fall. Cedergren said Matsoso keeps teams off-balance, and the attacking midfielder can go box-to-box as well. He scored 19 goals and 20 assists in his four years at UK, thrice named First Team Conference USA after an All-Freshman Team campaign in 2013.

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“I like to get my teammates involved and make sure everyone is on the same page and involved in everything that the team is doing,” he said. “I’m trying to be a leader.”

Now comes the Combine in Carson, California. It’s 10,403 miles from Lesotho’s capital to the home of the LA Galaxy.

“I’ve always wanted to take it to the next level,” Matsoso said. “My dad when I was young he would take me to his professional soccer games and I just saw how much fun he had and how excited people were to watch him play. I was like, ‘I want to be like him, and I want to make the fans happy to come watch soccer’.”

That next step comes when he hears his name called Friday.

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Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.