Brighton eager to write new chapter in the big time

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BRIGHTON — They’re here and they believe it’s where they belong.

For nearly two centuries Brighton has been known as a popular seaside town for vacations. But for at least the next nine months it will be known as the newest destination for the Premier League.

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On Saturday Brighton & Hove Albion celebrated their first PL game in club history and for locals of the city on England’s south coast it was tough to sum up how far they’ve come after being on the brink of extinction in 1997.

“The actual day and the atmosphere has been absolutely fantastic. It is absolutely huge for Brighton. I’ve lived here a long, long time and to be here, in the stadium, it is hard to put it into words,” said Brighton fan Ross Perrett with a smile on his face. “It is where we should be. Let’s just hope we can stay up. I’m sure we can.”

Brighton held their own in their first game in England’s top-flight since 1983. They were dominated by Manchester City, the favorites for the PL title this season, and succumbed to a Sergio Aguero strike after a small defensive mistake and an own goal. Life is tough at the top.

The Seagulls’ dream to become an established PL side is still a long way away from bring realized but with a savvy manager in Chris Hughton, plus being backed by owner Tony Bloom who made their impressive American Express Community Stadium dream real, they have everything necessary to emulate the likes of Southampton, Swansea City and Bournemouth before them.

On a sun-soaked day down by the English Channel, most of the 30,000 fans in the stadium thought back to the last time Brighton were promoted to the top-flight of English soccer in 1979 where they remained for just four years.

“It has been amazing, I go back to when we last got promoted,” lifelong Brighton fan Derrick George said. “It is different now with social media and everything else. It is massive compared to what is was then, but the one thing that isn’t different is the culture shock when you see the quality of the opposition.”

Man City provided Brighton with a rude awakening to life in the top-flight but there are plenty of signs they can beat the drop in their debut season. Hughton’s men were organized and resolute in the first half and went close twice in the second half through goalmouth scrambles after set pieces.

Despite the defeat, the day was one to cherish as manager Hughton pointed to afterwards.

“I thought they [the fans] were exceptional but they have been in my time here, but I think today was very much a club day,” Hughton said. “This club has a history and a very difficult history in recent years. There are an awful lot of supporters here who weren’t able to come a good few years ago because of where this club was playing. It was very much a club day but that’s then, now it’s about making sure we dust ourselves down and get some results that we will need.”

Pubs around the city center were packed by lunchtime on Saturday with banners stating their Premier League arrival prevalent. This city on England’s south coast was ready for the big time.

Around the city the usual tourists had arrived with London Victoria and London Bridge train stations just an hour away, but Manchester City fans were plentiful and everywhere you looked there was a reminder of how big of a day this was.

In a cosmopolitan city which welcomes anyone — think Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but an hour away from New York City and on the coast — Brighton will have the eyes of the world watching their team.

20 years ago Brighton were on the brink of extinction and facing relegation from England’s fourth-tier on the final day of the season. Late heroics meant they were saved, for at least a few months, but today will have seemed like a dream for their long-suffering fans.

Forced to relocate to Gillingham, over 70 miles away, to play home games after their Goldstone Ground home was sold off to property developers, they eventually returned to Brighton to play in a converted athletics stadium, the Whitdean Stadium, which had temporary bleachers, a running track around the outside and a long-jump pit behind one of the goals. For years they struggled in the lower leagues sponsored by the record label of  one of Brighton’s favorite sons, Norman Cook, AKA Fatboy Slim, as they battled and scrapped to no return to the abyss.

Eventually Bloom took over and helped bankroll the deal for their incredible Amex home and Brighton will now be at the top of the list for every away PL fan to visit this season.

When Bruno Saltor led the Seagulls out on Saturday with “Sussex by the Sea” blaring out over the loudspeakers, it will have made every Brighton fan pinch themselves.

They’ve come close to promotion in recent seasons, missing out in the agony of the playoffs, plus also had deep cup runs, but Saturday proved that this is a city ready for the big time and they are no strangers to visitors from around the world each and every day.

From its quaint cobbled streets housing vegan eateries and old pubs, to its seafront delights and comfortable climate (for England, anyway) Brighton is already up there with the coolest cities to have a Premier League team and the city is regularly voted the “hippest” and “happiest” place in the UK.

Despite the result fans of the Seagulls were still a happy bunch.

Lifelong Brighton supporters marveled at the extra hustle and bustle about the seaside town as the TV cameras rolled into town from across the globe (including our full crew on their UK tour) with journalists in the press room at the Amex wowed by the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard on location as pundits.

They won’t be the last.

“According to local reports tourism is on the rise and it will get a massive boost from this,” George explained. “This is a summer town so throughout the winter we are going to get thousands of away supporters and many others here, so that will only help.”

On the pitch Brighton will need help to try and stay in the PL with Bloom set to dig even deeper into his considerable pockets to fund a few more transfers (they broke their transfer record twice last week, mind you) before the end of the summer transfer window in just over two weeks. But given where Brighton have come from in the past two decades, the challenge of staying int he Premier League doesn’t seem insurmountable and isn’t as daunting as having to survive as a club.

“It is a smaller challenge than when we’ve been on the brink in the past but it is still a huge challenge” Perret said. “But one we can do.”

When Brighton walked out at the Amex on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. local time, whatever happened on the pitch over the next 90 minutes it was a “I was there” moment for their fans.

It was also a “look at how far we’ve come” moment.

“I thought of days at the Goldstone when I was young,” Perrett said as he watched his beloved Seagulls walk out to make their PL debut. “I was there with my mom and my sister and I could go and touch the grass, climb over the little fences there. Those were the good days but the whole game is different now. Those were the good times. And the good times are coming back now, for sure.”

Hughton hopes to bring the good times back but is also eager to write new history when asked if he’s now glad to get Brighton’s grand day out of the way.

“I must admit there is a little element of that. It is understandable for the history of this club and our first game in the Premier League that it was going to be a big occasion,” Hughton said. “It was going to be a big occasion whoever it was, but I think the fact that Man City were coming made it even bigger. My responsibility is to make sure we are a Premier League team next season. We have a realistic group of supporters that were excellent today.”

Allow England defender Alfie Mawson to charm you

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Swansea City’s Alfie Mawson is at England national team camp, and the young man is conducting himself in downright adorable fashion.

It seems the 24-year-old London defender cannot quite believe Gareth Southgate called his name for the Three Lions.

[ MORE: Key newcomers for USMNT friendly ]

“A lot of people wouldn’t have even heard my name until this call up,” Mawson told the BBC. “You know it’s down to performing well at certain times, it’s down to doing the right things and sometimes it’s down to being a nice person.”

Mawson has played every minute for Swans this season, picking up two goals and an assist. More importantly, he’s won 3.3 aerial battles per game and 6.3 clearances.

While this won’t necessarily serve him well against the Netherlands and Italy in this week’s friendlies — they don’t put a lot of hopeful balls into aerial or clearing positions — it’s kept Mawson on the England radar for this summer’s World Cup.

Mawson is two seasons removed from playing in the Championship, and was loaned to lower league clubs like Maidenhead United and Welling United. At the time, he was going to “car boot sales with my girlfriend” which from my limited Googling seems the English equivalent of a yard sale and flea market combined.

“We are in a good position now where we don’t really have to do the car boots unless she wants a bit of excitement on a Sunday morning.”

Pretty good position, yeah.

FIFA urges Russia to hasten work on delayed World Cup arena

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SAMARA, Russia (AP) FIFA has urged Russia to speed up World Cup preparations at a stadium which needs “a huge amount of work” to be ready on time.

With less than three months to go until the World Cup, the 45,000-seat Samara Arena is the only one of 12 stadiums which doesn’t yet have a pitch installed.

The stadium in the Volga River city of Samara was already badly delayed due to a complex roof design, but now cold weather in the Russian spring is causing further problems. The pitch can’t be installed until the weather warms up.

“Obviously we would expect further progress than this,” FIFA’s chief competitions official Colin Smith said on a visit to the arena Wednesday. “We don’t yet have a pitch, and obviously we need to wait for some warmer weather conditions in order to get this pitch installed.”

As of Tuesday, instead of a field, there was an area covered with tarpaulins and snow. Temperatures are forecast to stay slightly below freezing for the rest of the week.

“There’s a huge amount of work still to be done,” Smith added. “From the information we’ve received there’s nothing stopping all these areas being completed on time. It just requires commitment and more manpower to get it done on time, and when we talk about on time, we’re talking about the commissioning date of the end of April.”

If that date passes, it could restrict FIFA’s ability to test the stadium with Russian league games and install World Cup equipment. Outside the arena, deep snowdrifts cover much of an area that is due to be landscaped for the tournament and will host some facilities for fans.

Alexander Fetisov, deputy governor of the Samara region, said the stadium will be ready.

“I’d like to avoid unnecessary dramatization of the situation,” he said. “Everything is being done so that the stadium is commissioned in the time required.”

Samara isn’t the only World Cup field which has drawn attention in recent weeks. The stadium in Kazan has been widely criticized by Russian fans after a brown, muddy surface was used for league games after the winter break.

Smith said FIFA was offering Russia help to get its fields ready, adding, “We’re doing everything possible and we’re convinced that we’re going to have a very, very high standard of pitches at this tournament.”

Key newcomers for USMNT friendly

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While the excitement potential is high amongst big club USMNT call-ups like PSG’s Tim Weah and Everton’s Antonee Robinson, there are several other relative newcomers who are facing a more acute focus.

So yes, of course, we’re most excited to see the young guns fire away, but a few others will be under the microscope for different reasons.

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Paraguay is leaving some big names behind — Dario Lezcano, Jesus Medina, Edgar Benítez — but won’t be using as “B” or “C” of a squad as the USMNT. Key defenders Junior Alonso (Lille) and Gustavo Gomez (AC Milan) will be staring down the U.S. attack, while Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron will try his luck against the Yanks’ backs.

  1. The goalkeepers — With full respect to Bill Hamid and his five caps, the trio of backstops who could play against Paraguay are unknown entities on the senior international level. There are reasons to be excited about Alex Bono (Toronto FC) and Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew) going against Los Guaraníes — and Hamid, too — and standing behind a young and untested group of center backs should give plenty of chances to make a name for whoever is chosen (If Sarachan is more “woke” this go-round, it’ll be multiple keepers).
  2. Andriya Novakovich — The Telstar striker is checking all the boxes: 6-foot-4, productive on the youth level, and now succeeding overseas. The 21-year-old has 17 goals on loan from Reading in the Dutch second tier. While that’s far from a “Woah” figure considering the top-tier in the Netherlands isn’t exactly a defensive hot bed, it’s intriguing for Tuesday in North Carolina.
  3. Rubio Rubin — We’re hopeful Sarachan goes with a 4-4-2, which would allow both Rubin and Novakovich to get runs next to Bobby Wood. Rubin is seeing some time at Liga MX side Club Tijuana after his European adventure stalled following a hot start for Utrecht. He had an assist in CONCACAF Champions League play against Red Bulls this month.
  4. Tyler Adams — Speaking of that match, the Red Bulls got a goal from Adams. It’s fair to say he’s got the chance to be as special a player as Schalke youngster Weston McKennie (and would apparently like to join his USMNT teammate overseas). Adams and McKennie together could legit be an engine room for years. Will that begin on Tuesday?
  5. Cameron Carter-Vickers — The 20-year-old center back has shown resilience in England. His hot start to life at Sheffield United, on loan from Tottenham, cooled enough to have him sent back to North London, but Carter-Vickers has rebounded to become a key part of Ipswich Town’s back line. With 22-year-old Matt Miazga the only clear center back on the roster and older than him, CCV can quiet a lot of doubters.
  6. Kenny Saief — This guy has excited at nearly every turn since bursting onto the scene with Gent via the Israeli national team, and an injury cost him some momentum with the USMNT. Now healthy and on loan with Anderlecht, the same side which refined the fire of Sacha Kljestan, the once-capped Florida-born man is as intriguing as ever.

Season strugglers: Some ignominious PL performances

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Tuesday found us breaking ties on our “Most Impactful Premier League Summer Buys” rankings by digging through some advanced statistics sites.

In doing so, something struck us: We rarely if ever check out which players are faring the worst when it comes to those next level numbers.

Ah, the international break: Good for off-the-wall posts.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro have Morata’s back]

At the risk of kicking a player while he’s down, here are some negative numbers that stand out from the pack.

Of the 358 players who’ve played at least 10 Premier League matches, Joe Hart is having the worst season of the bunch according to Squawka. That’s a bit misleading due to how the site’s metrics operate, considering eight of the bottom 20 players are goalkeepers (and several, like Jonas Lossl and Jordan Pickford, are having outstanding campaigns).

So the unfortunate honor goes to Swansea defender Martin Olsson, who edges James McClean of West Brom for the infamy. Since the site does heap numbers on players by action accumulated, perhaps it’s better to single out the per-game and per-90 strugglers. Olsson and McClean are still very much near the bottom, but surprisingly Yannick Bolasie is the worst per game, and Swansea’s Wayne Routledge is having the least effective season per 90 minutes.

As for WhoScored, its metrics are hammering forwards, with Lys Mousset, Andre Gray, and Benik Afobe at the back of the back (ahead of McClean, again, who is a multi-site struggler).

These stats aren’t perfect, of course, and I like the idea of having McClean on my squad. But there are some other odds stats in the pack.

 These players might want to pass their next opportunity to the keeper. Of players with 10 or more shot attempts this season, Adam Lallana (11), Renato Sanches (12), Lewis Cook (14), and Dale Stephens (15) have failed to put a single shot on target.

— Of the 81 players who’ve tried their luck 30 times or more, these are the worst accuracy rates

— For perspective, Harry Kane has put 56 percent of his league-leading 162 shots on target, while second place man Mohamed Salah is 61 percent of 118.

— Defensive errors also can be increased significantly by the times a player is put under pressure by his team, which is why goalkeepers are high on Squawka’s list. Take them out, and you get a list with Spurs’ Eric Dier up top. Two of his six errors have led to goals against Tottenham, with Zanka (Huddersfield Town), Alfie Mawson (Swans), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), and Shane Duffy (Brighton) next with four errors.