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SERIE A 2017-18: Guide to promoted teams in Italy’s top tier

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MILAN (AP) A look at Spal, Hellas Verona and Benevento as the promoted teams prepare for the start of the Italian league season this weekend.

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SPAL

Few outside of Italy will have heard about Societa Polisportiva Ars et Labor, to give Spal its full name.

The northeastern club has spent a total of 21 seasons in Serie A and launched the career of Fabio Capello. Before going on to win titles as a player and coach with AC Milan, Juventus and Roma, Capello played in Spal’s penultimate Serie A campaign in 1966-67.

It’s been a long way back to the top flight for the first time since 1968.

Spal has also gone through bankruptcy and been refounded twice – in 2005 and 2012. But it managed to recover from that latest setback to climb back to Serie A in just five years thanks in part to back-to-back promotions.

In 2016, Spal reached Serie B for the first time since 1993. Then it surprisingly beat Hellas Verona to the title to gain promotion while boasting the most prolific attack and the third-best defense last season.

Coach Leonardo Semplici has been the mastermind behind Spal’s climb up the leagues, after the former Fiorentina youth team coach took charge at the end of 2014.

Spal prided itself on having an all-Italian side. That is no more after Greek defender Marios Oikonomou and Brazilian center back Felipe joined in the offseason.

Italian forward Alberto Paloschi has also joined and he will be hoping to revive his career after disappointing spells at Swansea and Atalanta.

Semplici’s team has a good mix of experience and youth, including 20-year-old goalkeeper Alex Meret, who was called up to the Italy squad last season.

HELLAS VERONA

Hellas Verona has bounced straight back up to Serie A, a year after being relegated from the top flight.

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It will be a debut in the top division for coach Fabio Pecchia, however, who earned promotion in his first season in charge after stints as Rafa Benitez‘s assistant at Napoli, Real Madrid and Newcastle.

The 43-year-old Pecchia will look for advice to Alessio Cerci and Giampaolo Pazzini, who both have something to prove.

Cerci is looking to reboot his career after a dramatic loss of form following his departure from Torino three years ago, while Pazzini is hoping he can take his goal scoring exploits back to Serie A.

Pazzini has only scored 12 goals in his past three seasons in the top flight – including six in 30 appearances the season Verona was relegated – but the former AC Milan and Italy forward was given the captain’s armband last season and responded with 23 league goals, making him top scorer in Serie B.

Pre-season preparations were overshadowed by the Antonio Cassano saga.

Cassano, who had not played football for more than a year joined Verona at the beginning of July but eight days later he informed the club he was retiring for family reasons before announcing he had changed his mind later that day. However, less than a week later he quit the club for a second time.

BENEVENTO

Benevento is the latest Italian side to enjoy a fairytale first-ever promotion to Serie A.

It will be hoping to avoid the fate of Carpi and Frosinone, who went straight back down two seasons ago, and instead emulate Crotone which pulled off the great escape last season.

It has been an incredible rise for Benevento which went bankrupt in 2005 and restarted in Italy’s fourth division in 2007.

[ MORE:  Klopp reacts to Champions League win ]

The southern club was in the third division as recent as 2015/16 but back-to-back promotions have lifted it into Serie A for the first time in its 88-year history.

Under Marco Baroni, Benevento also became the first club to win immediate promotion to the top flight in its first ever season in Serie B.

It did so by finishing fifth in the regular season and beating Carpi in a playoff final.

George Puscas scored the winning goal in that final and his loan from Inter Milan has been extended. Benevento will be relying on the Romanian striker for goals as well as Fabio Ceravolo, who netted 20 goals last season.

It has also brought in Colombian striker Alexis Zapata on loan from Udinese and midfielder Danilo Cataldi also on loan from Lazio.

Benevento is a town of less than 60,000 inhabitants to the north-east of Naples.

More AP Serie A coverage https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

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MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.

Moyes: Chicharito could miss two weeks with hamstring strain

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David Moyes has given Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez assurances that he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a starting role with the Hammers, but the Mexican international will have to wait a bit for a chance.

[ MORE: North London Derby takes center stage Saturday morning ]

Hernandez, 29, is currently nursing a hamstring strain, leaving his status for this weekend against Watford in doubt.

“I think everyone knows he [Chicharito] has got a hamstring injury,” Moyes said during Friday’s press conference. “It could take a week, it could take two weeks.”

Moyes didn’t mince words recently when speaking about Chicharito and other players within the squad, essentially pointing out that no player will be awarded a starting role simply because of their stardom.

Hernandez has scored four goals in 13 matches this season for West Ham, who currently sits 18th in the Premier League. The Hammers have won just two matches to start the 2017/18 campaign and sit on nine points.

Alessandro Nesta steps down with NASL side Miami FC

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Miami FC quickly put itself on the U.S. soccer map in two short seasons, and much of the club’s success can be attributed to manager Alessandro Nesta.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down with Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

The former Serie A defender has managed the club in its first two years of existence, but Nesta’s time in South Beach is coming to an end.

Nesta revealed on Friday that he won’t be returning to the NASL club in 2018, as he prepares to fnd a “new challenge” in his managerial career.

With NASL’s future as a league very much up in the air, Nesta could be seeking a more stable position entering 2018, especially given that his name has been thrown around with several MLS jobs over the last few months.