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Zack Steffen talks Atlanta heroics, NYCFC, USMNT

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Europe has become the holy grail — if you will — for rising American stars, but Zack Steffen’s move back to Major League Soccer has made him one of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s hottest goalkeeping prospects.

The 22-year-old Pennsylvania native quickly became a name to know back in 2014 when he burst onto the European soccer scene after signing with German side SC Freiburg.

[ MORE: Whitecaps, Sounders end scoreless in Western Conference first leg ]

While the move quickly thrust him into the discussion as the “next big thing” in the USMNT goalkeeper pecking order, trailing the likes of Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, his time in Europe didn’t go according to plan after appearing in just 14 matches for Freiburg’s second team.

However, Steffen’s return to the MLS setup with Columbus Crew SC has brought him back into the spotlight, as he and his side quietly moved into the MLS Cup Playoffs as the most in-form team in the league.

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Pro Soccer Talk caught up with Steffen ahead of the Crew’s Eastern Conference semifinals clash against New York City FC.

“It’s always hard when you’re playing on the road, and the ball just didn’t seem like it wanted to go into the net, so I knew that made my job that much more important,” Steffen told PST following Thursday night’s dramatic penalty kicks win over Atlanta United. “I put an emphasis on every single game I play in, but I knew that I needed to play my best in order to give us a chance to win against a really talented Atlanta side.”

Early in the match, Steffen was called upon to make one of the saves of the 2017 season, as he leapt to his right to get a fingertip on Miguel Almiron’s curling effort in the 11th minute (video below).

It was the moment that provided the visiting Crew with a momentum-shift in their favor, which lasted the length of the match.

Speaking specifically on his own performance in the match, Steffen was pleased with his and his team’s resiliency on the road against one of the more boisterous crowds in all of MLS.

“It was huge for me,” Steffen continued. “It was huge for our team. I think we needed that momentum early on because they are a strong side and playing in front of that crowd made things really difficult early on. I think we absorbed their pressure early, which gave us a good shot to close the game out in penalties.”

Since June 24, the Crew have looked like a completely different team for a variety of reasons. Greg Berhalter’s side has lost just three matches in that span and boasting a 10-3-5 record overall — including Columbus’ win against Atlanta.

Despite the club’s success over the second half of the season, the Crew haven’t been discussed heavily by many as the number five seed heading into the East playoffs.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Steffen and his teammates, though, who embrace the role of underdog as they aim to bring Columbus their second championship in franchise history (2008).

“Honestly, I feel like a lot of us in Columbus fly under the radar,” Steffen said jokingly. “That probably just comes with the territory of playing in a lesser-known market, but I give our guys a ton of credit because we’ve gotten much better as the season has progressed.

“The second half of the season is a more accurate indication of the team we are, and can be. I think we showed that in the first round and will continue to do so moving forward in the playoffs.”

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Steffen believes his side is more focused than ever, especially his Crew teammates that fell to the Portland Timbers in the 2015 MLS Cup final — a match that saw the Eastern Conference side give up two goals inside the opening 7 minutes of play at MAPFRE Stadium.

“I think a lot of it comes down to our mentality improving since the All-Star Break,” Steffen told PST regarding the Crew’s rising play throughout the season. “We’re much more focused in training, and that’s translated well to game days. We have some work left to do this season, but I think we’re at a really good point with our form right now.

“I obviously wasn’t part of the squad two seasons ago that went to the final, but many of my teammates were and I know that all of us are itching to get to MLS Cup. It’s not just about our team. It’s about the great fans that support this club. We’re hoping to deliver another championship this year.”

Atlanta certainly proved to be a formidable challenge for the Crew to start their postseason run, and up next for Berhalter’s squad is New York City FC.

The two sides have familiarity with one another, after meeting at Yankee Stadium in the regular season finale on Decision Day — a 2-2 draw which saw Steffen make a crucial penalty-kick save on David Villa in the closing minutes.

Steffen boasted the second-best save percentage on penalties in the regular season, with three denials on seven spot-kick chances. That’s of course excluding his brilliant shootout showing against Atlanta, which saw the young shot-stopper make two critical saves after extra time to help Columbus progress.

“It’s definitely a huge help for us having that familiarity with NYCFC after playing them last week,” Steffen said of Tuesday’s opponent. “They’re a very strong side, with guys like [David] Villa, but I think we showed our ability to go to their place and get a result. If we can take care of business at home then I feel we’re exactly where we want to be heading into the away leg.”

The Crew have been a clear lift to Steffen’s morale as a player since linking up with MLS side last season, and while his focus remains on his club side, there is still that same drive and passion from before that he hopes will someday guide him towards the USMNT.

After previously appearing for the Under-18, U-20 and U-23 national teams, Steffen is on the right track. Now, he knows that he just needs to put it all together and “become the best player” that he can be.

“It’s always an honor to play for the national team,” Steffen told PST. “I’ve been able to have that opportunity since I was 12/13 years old, so it’s always a great experience to test yourself against the best from your country and then obviously guys from top countries like Brazil and European nations.

“The national team isn’t my top priority at the moment because I’m trying to become the best player that I can be, but I definitely want the chance to represent USMNT in the future because it would be a dream.”

Teething problems intensify the VAR debate

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It doesn’t matter if you are a fan of VAR or you aren’t. It’s going to happen. Get used to it.

With Video Assistant Referees trialed in English soccer for the first time over the past few weeks during both FA Cup and League Cup games, the debate has intensified around its value and how it should be used.

First off, let’s define exactly when VAR will be used. According to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) guidelines, VAR will only be used to “correct clear errors and for missed serious incidents” which have “match changing” outcomes.

The four areas VAR can be used for are:

  • Goals
  • Penalty kicks
  • Red cards
  • Mistaken identity

It is important to remember that the referee on the pitch is the only one who can sanction whether a video review is necessary after consulting with VAR officials who are watching on monitors and recommend, via an ear piece, if certain instances are worth a second look. The referee can then go and take a look at the incident on a TV monitor on the side of the pitch himself, if necessary, before either keeping his original decision or changing his mind.

So, with all that in mind, why are we still having problems? Number one: fans, players and even managers still seem to be unsure as to exactly how this technology will be used.

Hand gestures making a square TV symbol are now happening in grounds across the UK, trying to suggest to the referee that he needs to go to VAR. Extra pressure is being placed on officials and despite the system being trialed in Major League Soccer, Serie A and the Bundesliga with limited issues over the past 12 months, it seems like the English game is struggling to adapt to the concept even though it will make the life of referees much easier in the long run.

All in all, VAR can slow down the flow of the game but that’s only if huge game changing moments occur multiple times. How often does that really happen? Once or twice, on average, in a single game, if that?

I was one of those so-called purists who wasn’t in favor of the technology to start with, but seeing how easy it can be to rectify mistakes over the past few weeks, I’m all for it now. Kelechi Iheanacho‘s second goal for Leicester in their FA Cup replay win against Fleetwood Town on Tuesday proved how great this can be. Replays showed he was clearly onside and the goal was awarded after initially being ruled out. It took 10-15 seconds without the referee even going to a pitch-side monitor to check it out.

Simple. Easy. Effective.

That goal was an example of a “clear and obvious error” which, per the IFAB guidelines, is why VAR exists. But in Chelsea’s FA Cup win against Norwich City on penalty kicks on Wednesday, there was an incident where VAR was used but didn’t overturn a decision which caused controversy.

Willian was booked by referee Graham Scott for diving in the box, even though replays showed there was clear contact with a defender but VAR officials didn’t believe there was a definitive reason to overturn the initial decision.

Antonio Conte had the following to say about the new technology as he wants it to improve.

“If we want to use a new system, I can’t accept a big mistake,” Conte said. “In this case, the Willian penalty was a big, big mistake. Not from the referee on the pitch, who took quickly a decision to book Willian and didn’t have any doubt, but from the person watching the game [Jones]. I hope the VAR wasn’t a referee because if you see that watching on television and don’t think that’s a penalty … he has to improve. It was very clear.”

Well, Antonio, you may have to accept mistakes, especially at the start, but was that decision really a mistake?

The VAR official may have simply been agreeing with the referee on the pitch that there was contact between Willian and the Norwich defender but that the Chelsea man left his leg hanging out and tried to buy a penalty kick. Even though there’s an extra official looking at video footage of the event, unless he believes the referee has got the decision horribly wrong it will not be overturned.

As for Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who saw the technology used in his sides 0-0 draw at Chelsea last week in the League Cup semifinal first leg, he remains an advocate of VAR and believes this trial run is extremely helpful.

“Will there be some hiccups up at the start? Certainly,” Wenger said. “We have to improve the system, but we have to go for it.”

That is the correct answer here.

It will take time to get used to the technology, just like it did in MLS. But fans, players and coaches need to not only embrace VAR but also educate themselves as to when and how it can be used.

I have no doubt that if the system is introduced into the Premier League for the 2018-19 season it will be hugely beneficial. Largely because the PL have sat back and let the FA trial the system and other leagues around the world work out the kinks. By the time next August rolls around, we will have months of use of VAR at the top level with the 2018 World Cup also set to use the technology.

Look at last weekend in the Premier League. Two key decisions likely changed the outcome of games between clubs battling to stay in the Premier League. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s late equalizer for Watford would have taken all of 10 seconds to review and overturn as he clearly punched the ball into the net against Southampton to seal a 2-2 draw.

While Newcastle’s Mo Diame clearly handled a goalbound effort which not only cost Swansea a penalty kick but would have seen Diame sent off. Both incidents would have been cleared up quickly and easily without minimum fuss.

That is what this system is for. The gray areas of diving and intent with handballs will still exist, just like they did before VAR. But the clear-cut calls which officials can’t see and don’t get right will be overturned when new replays become available to them.

That’s where they need the most help and that’s why VAR should be welcomed into the English game with open arms.

The debates will still rumble on in pubs, stadiums and offices in the UK. The system being trialed to stop those never-ending debates is currently having the opposite effect.

Brazil’s Ronaldinho confirms retirement and plans farewell

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SAO PAULO (AP) World Cup and 2005 Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldinho confirmed on Wednesday his retirement from football. The 37-year-old’s last professional football match was in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

The Brazilian’s brother and agent announced the player’s decision on Tuesday. Ronaldinho confirmed the decision one day later in an Instagram post.

“After almost three decades dedicated to football, I say goodbye to my biggest dream. A fulfilled dream,” the playmaker said. “I did what I love the most as a professional for 20 years and another 10 years in the academy. I lived this child’s dream intensely.”

Obrigado Sr. meu Deus, por esta vida que me deste, família, amigos e minha primeira profissão!!! Após quase três décadas dedicadas ao futebol, me despeço do meu maior sonho, sonho realizado!!! Fiz o que mais amei profissionalmente por 20 anos, e 10 como formação de base. Vivi intensamente este sonho de criança, cada instante, viagens, vitórias, derrotas, a resenha, hino nacional, a caminhada no túnel, vestiário, entrada em campo, as chuteiras que usei, as bolas boas e ruins, homenagens que ganhei, os craques que joguei, os que admirei e joguei e os que só joguei no play, mas admiro até hoje! Enfim tudo foi incrível!!! Meu pai e minha família me apoiaram muito pra chegar até aqui, foi um trabalho em equipe. Chegamos ao fim da primeira etapa com uma história bonita pra contar… Vocês me conhecem, e sabem bem que sou tímido e não tenho o costume de falar muito, mas tenho que dizer a vocês muito obrigado, de coração, de alma lavada, pois fiz o que amo com a ajuda de todos, treinadores, preparadores, comissões inteiras, dirigentes, torcida a favor e contra, o motorista do ônibus, o roupeiro, o gandula, o árbitro e a imprensa. Obrigado, construímos juntos esta história, sem vocês nada seria possível… No mês de março faremos um anúncio de como será esta despedida e os próximos passos. Por enquanto, aqui vai meu muito obrigado ⚽. Aquela frase famosa “gracias vieja” por ser a minha fonte de inspiração por tanto tempo e companheiros de muitas vitórias!!! Obrigado a todos pelas mensagens e carinho!!! Um abraço forte, fui muito feliz fazendo deste esporte a minha vida e profissão.

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Ronaldinho, who had his best club moments at Barcelona, thanked teammates, coaches and fans for his career. He also praised the football with a reference to Real Madrid’s legendary player Alfredo di Stefano (1926-2014).

“Thanks, old woman, for being my biggest source of inspiration for so long,” Ronaldinho said.

“You know me and you know that I am shy, I am not used to speaking much. But thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

Ronaldinho said he will announce details of the farewell in March.

On Tuesday his agent Roberto Assis told the Associated Press that Ronaldinho’s plans include being a football ambassador for Barcelona, doing charity and working with music.

Ronaldinho’s decorated career also includes one Champions League victory with Barcelona in 2006 and two FIFA player of the year Awards in 2004 and 2005.

He played 101 matches and scored 35 goals for Brazil from 1997 to 2013. At the Camp Nou, Ronaldinho was an integral member of a squad that took Barca back to the limelight. The Brazilian played 207 games for the Catalans and gave 94 goals and 61 assists to the team.

Ronaldinho’s club career also includes Gremio, Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro in Brazil, Paris Saint-Germain in France, AC Milan in Italy and Queretaro in Mexico.

Several clubs and players around the world are still praising Ronaldinho for his football legacy, including his former teammate and protegee Lionel Messi.

“I learned a lot by your side. I’ll forever be grateful to you for making everything so easy when I joined the first team,” Messi said in his social media channels.

“I was lucky enough to share many things with you and I’m really happy about that because, as well as being a star out on the pitch, you’re an excellent person and that’s the most important thing. Although you’ve decided to retire, football will never forget your smile,” the Argentine said.

Three-time World Cup winner Pele also gave praise to the retiree.

“You brought a smile to everyone’s face, Ronaldinho. I hope you glide through life, like you glided through tackles,” Pele said.

Gerard Pique signs news Barcelona deal

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Gerard Pique has signed a new contract at Barcelona which keeps him at the club until 2022.

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Pique, 30, joined Barcelona in 2008 from Manchester United after leaving his boyhood club Barca in 2004 to join United’s youth team.

The new release clause in Pique’s contract is $610 million, with the Spanish international set to spend the rest of his career at the Nou Camp. The center back, who has won 25 major trophies with Barca, was delighted to nail down his future to his hometown team.

Pique has played in 422 games for Barca and scored 37 goals with the flamboyant defender a mainstay for much of the last decade.

Breaking out of the back line with surging runs and assured passing, Pique will go down as one of the greatest defenders in Barcelona and Spain’s history when he hangs up his boots.

In a team where the supreme attacking talent is always praised, it’s easy to overlook the achievements of Pique and his fellow defenders in the Catalan capital. However, there’s no doubt his composure on the ball, reading of the game and ability in the air makes him one of the top center backs on the planet.

Wenger: Sanchez likely to leave for Man United

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Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United is close to completion.

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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has confirmed that Sanchez is “likely to leave” for Jose Mourinho’s side, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan thought to be heading in the opposite direction plus a sizable transfer fee.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Crystal Palace on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com), Wenger revealed the deal for Sanchez is almost complete.

“I worked on transfers for 30 years so it is likely to happen, but at any moment it can break down,” Wenger said. “As long as it’s not over the line you have to accept it may not happen, these kind of things are not guaranteed. I have no problem with Sanchez’s attitude. He was in training fully committed. He is 29 years old and the next contract will of course be very important to him.”

So, there you have it. Sanchez to United is happening and with the numbers being mentioned, it’s easy to understand why he will leave. Sanchez will be paid $19.2 million per year, after tax, and he will also receive a $27.7 million signing-on fee and his agent will get $13.8 million.

United will get a new star No.7 in his prime and Sanchez getting a fresh start and being hungry to impress will certainly be music to the ears of Mourinho. Whether or not the Chilean international will have the same impact as Eric Cantona, who joined United in his late 20’s and helped led them to multiple PL titles, remains to be seen, but this deal does remind you of that circumstances. One player doesn’t make a team but a special player like Sanchez can make a heck of difference overall.

Wenger also spoke about the possibility of Mkhitaryan being part of the deal and it seems he is very keen on signing the Armenian international who almost joined the Gunners in the summer of 2016 before joining United instead.

“I like the player. We played many times against him when he was at Dortmund. He appreciated the quality of our games. The wages would not be a problem,” Wenger said.

It seems like everyone will be happy with this deal. Of course, Arsenal wanted Sanchez to stay and that’s why they didn’t sell him to Manchester City in the summer. Wenger couldn’t persuade him to sign a new deal and now, less than six months before he leaves on a free, they are getting a decent chunk of change and playmaker who, on his day, can unlock any defense in the world.

For United, Mkhitaryan is out of favor under Mourinho and they will get him off their wage bill, while they also get Sanchez in his prime and get one over on Man City where everyone thought he would end up.

All in all, this tricky situation seems to have worked out best for everyone, especially Sanchez and his agent.