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Survivors gather as Chapecoense plays first game since fatal crash

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CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) Slowly and steadily, Rafael Henzel will climb into the cramped space to broadcast Saturday’s friendly match for Brazilian club Chapecoense, the first since nearly the entire team was killed in an air crash almost two months ago.

Only six of the 77 passengers survived – and Henzel was one of them.

“The stairway at the Arena Conda is very steep, but I have extra motivation to be in that stadium again and see players wearing our shirt, the fans. It won’t be that stairway that will stop me,” Henzel told The Associated Press after his morning show on radio Oeste Capital.

Henzel has worked at Chapecoense matches since 2012, and is the voice of the team from the remote, southern Brazilian city of Chapeco. After 20 days in a hospital, seven broken ribs, multiple scars – one over his right eye- and worrisome pneumonia, Henzel went back to work at the radio station just over a week ago.

Now he’s making his second return – what he calls “Rafael 2.0” – in the match against Brazilian league champion Palmeiras, preparing to once again get behind the microphone at the tiny stadium.

His left foot is in a cast, but that won’t stop him.

“When I woke up at the crash site, I became aware of what had happened,” he said, recalling the crash. “Initially, I thought I was dreaming but then, shortly after, you start to realize that the plane had crashed.”

Three Chapecoense players survived – 19 were killed – when the plane slammed into the Andes mountains as it headed to the city of Medellin to face Colombian team Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final – the No. 2 club tournament in South America.

All three hope to play again, in one fashion or another. And all three are expected for Chape’s debut on Saturday.

Defender Neto, who spent more than 10 hours in the plane wreckage before being rescued, recently took his first steps without support.

He’s already visited the club and will be an inspiration for Chape’s new players in a busy season. Their 2017 commitments include defending their title in the Santa Catarina state league, keeping the team up in Brazil’s first division, playing for the first time in the prestigious Copa Libertadores – the continent’s No. 1 tournament – and fundraising in a pile of friendlies, including one against Barcelona.

“If I didn’t believe I could recover, I will get depressed,” Neto told reporters. “Doctors said I might return this year, but I don’t know whether my knees are still up for it,” Neto said in a press conference. “I will be here to give support to the players that come. It’s not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution.”

Winger Alan Ruschel is the player in best shape for a return. He expects to be back within six months, but no doctor says it will definitely happen.

“I will do all that I can to play again, and I will be patient to get there,” Ruschel said. In tears, he said he has no recollection of the accident.

“I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone,” he said. “I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever.”

Goalie Follmann will not play for Chape again. He had part of his right leg amputated and is still going through minor surgery. He is considering becoming a Paralympian and a member of Chape’s staff.

The goalie has avoided talking about the future, but is not as gloomy as many about his current state.

“I choose life over the leg,” he told doctors during his recovery. “We will manage this easily.”

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese .His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mauricio-savarese

Reports: Arsenal nearing deal for Lyon striker Lacazette

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Arsenal appears to be on the verge of adding another French international striker, but the Gunners will have to pay up in order to secure the goalscoring specialist.

Various reports have linked the Premier League side with Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette since last summer, but now, Arsenal is nearing a deal for the 26-year-old.

L’Equipe is reporting that Arsene Wenger‘s team is willing to pay over $67 million for Lacazette, who is coming off of a 28-goal season for Lyon in Ligue 1.

Meanwhile, Sky Sports confirmed the report, stating that the Gunners are in open talks with Lyon as the London side attempts to acquire the highly-touted forward.

Over the last four seasons, Lacazette has tallied over 20 goals in all competitions for the French club. The Lyon native had a career year in 2016/17, tallying 37 goals in all comps.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 17: East leads the way at the top

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The Western Conference has dominated MLS Cup for the better part of a decade, but it’s the East that continues to shine bright as this MLS season hits the midway point.

Here are PST’s latest MLS Power Rankings as we head into another busy weekend:

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TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)
 

22 (21)

21 (22)

 

20 (20)

Real Salt Lake: A win over Minnesota in their last outing was solid but the Claret and Cobalt still remain just one point above bottom out West.

D.C. United: A nice comeback win over Atlanta helped D.C.’s stock slightly, and apparently they’re one of the few clubs that has figured out how to have success against Tata Martino’s group.

Colorado Rapids: The Rapids were brought back down to earth after their three-match win streak. Despite that run, Pablo Mastroeni and Co. remain last in all of MLS.

19 (16) New England Revolution: Jay Heap’s group were flying high after a big win against Toronto, but another strong Eastern Conference side (the Chicago Fire) reminded the Revs how talented the East is.
18 (15) Philadelphia Union: Three straight losses have the Union back to where they were early in the season… at the bottom of the East.
17 (18) Minnesota United: There’s no doubt the Loons picked up their most exciting win thus far on Wednesday night against Portland. Adrian Heath and Co. will attempt to do something they haven’t accomplished yet in MLS; win back-to-back games.
16 (16) Montreal Impact: The Impact are unbeaten in four, but the Canadian side still has the fewest wins in MLS (4) through 14 matches played.
15 (19) Seattle Sounders: Rough conditions at Yankee Stadium shouldn’t have been anything the Sounders weren’t used to but the reigning champions couldn’t get it done against NYCFC before following it up with a solid draw against Orlando.

 

14 (14) Vancouver Whitecaps: A solid result against FC Dallas has the Whitecaps sitting in the final playoff spot out west.
 

13 (11) San Jose Earthquakes: The Quakes are winless in three and have scored just twice in the process. The club is hoping new signing “Vako” will be the DP spark the team needs.
12 (8) Columbus Crew: Greg Berhalter’s men have proven to be one of the better home sides in MLS. They’ll welcome a hungry Impact side on Saturday.

 

11 (13) Atlanta United: D.C. appears to be this club’s kryptonite. Atlanta will host last-place Colorado this weekend.
10 (10) Portland Timbers: It was an ugly match against Minnesota, but despite back-to-back losses the Timbers still sit third in the West.
 

9 (12) Orlando City: The Lions continue to show signs of improvement from their first two seasons in MLS. They’re late equalizer against the Sounders was the latest showing.
8 (9)  New York Red Bulls: 6-1 is the Red Bulls record against NYCFC. Even better for the Harrison side is that they haven’t lost at home to their New York rivals.
7 (7) LA Galaxy: Props to the Galaxy for their turnaround, but Curt Onalfo’s men need to clean things up at home. The Galaxy currently boast the worst home record in all of MLS at 1-3-3.
6 (5) FC Dallas: The defending Supporters’ Shield holders have a brutal schedule upcoming, which begins with another Texas Derby on Saturday.

 

 

5 (3) Houston Dynamo: This team keeps quietly going about its business, and despite it’s poor road record (0-6-2) the Dynamo sit second out West.
4 (6)  New York City FC: A big win over the Sounders should have Patrick Vieira’s men buzzing heading into their second Hudson River Derby in a span of 10 days.
3 (5) Sporting KC: Peter Vermes and Co. will face one of their biggest challenges to date when they head west to take on the surging Galaxy.
2 (2) Chicago Fire: The Fire are now unbeaten in eight, and it’s very fair to say that this club is pushing hard for the top spot in the East and the Supporters’ Shield.
1 (1) Toronto FC: Unbeaten in nine of their last 10, Toronto is still the odds-on favorite to win MLS Cup this season.

Celtic’s Griffiths tears into Rangers chairman after “gulf” comments

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Celtic star Leigh Griffiths took the Old Firm bait and promptly swallowed the fisherman.

If you missed it, Rangers chairman Dave King said Celtic should’ve been even further ahead of their rivals given the setbacks handed to Rangers, who finally climbed back to the Scottish Premiership this season.

Celtic went unbeaten, drawing just four of 38 matches and finished 39 points ahead of Rangers on the table.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

If Celtic won all 38, they could’ve finished 47 points clear of Rangers. So, we guess the gulf could be bigger.

Here’s what Griffiths had to say:

“What was the gulf? 30-odd points. How does he expect that to be bigger? They were touting at the start of last season that they were going to win the league and this and that.

Joey Barton was coming up and saying he was going to be the best player in Scotland – he lasted a few months. In the first [Old Firm] game, they got hammered 5-1 and they got hammered 5-1 at the end of the season. So, the gulf couldn’t be any bigger. This season, they’ll be trying to bridge the gap.

“Ultimately it’s about what we do and if we are at our best nobody in Scotland can live with us.”

It was absurd talk from King, who doesn’t need to amp up one of the world’s best rivalries and also doesn’t have a leg to stand on considering the dominant season from the Bhoys. Wow.

San Jose adds Designated Player from Legia Warsaw

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Valeri ‘Vako’ Qazaishvili is the latest MLS Designated Player, as the Georgian will hit the pitch for San Jose this season provided his visa and ITC go through.

Qazaishvili comes from Legia Warsaw after five seasons with Vitesse in the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder has been capped 24 times, and scored in Georgia’s 2-2 draw with Moldova earlier this month in World Cup qualifying.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Equally adept at right or left wing, Qazaishvili posted a goal and two assists for Legia following his transfer from Vitesse. He scored 28 goals and added 13 assists in 121 matches for the Dutch side.

From SJEarthquakes.com:

“We were looking for a player, a younger, offensive player, that really excites the fans and has the possibility to stay with us for a long period of time. That’s what we found with Vako,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “We wanted a player that knows how to take on a defender one-on-one, that sees the goal and that also wants to bring a spark to our game.”

San Jose sits seventh in the Western Conference table, and only two teams — Colorado and DC — have scored fewer goals in MLS. Jahmir Hyka and Cordell Cato have been fine, but San Jose needed a better chance creator.

Qazaishvili, in theory, fits the bill. If he has half the impact of fellow Legia export Nemanja Nikolic, San Jose is cooking with gas.