Kyle Bonn

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How Fulham rebuilt their Premier League dreams

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Fulham Football Club will remain in the Championship.

The club that reached a Europa League final in 2010 is still battling to recover from its tumultuous faceplant a few seasons ago.

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The Whites came close to a Premier League return this week, falling by a single goal as so many have to a scrappy, rigid Reading side in the playoff semifinal. Forced to remain vigilant another season, they are primed for another run at the top flight.

Every club has a story. Fulham’s was storybook: bought by Mohamed Al Fayed in 1997, the club was in the third tier of English football and spiraling down further. Smart hires and an injection of cash spent in the right places changed that all, and within four seasons they had risen to the top flight where they would stick for a decade. The incredible run in 2010 inspired a fanbase to dream even bigger, high on the increasing level of success each new year brought.

Then, it all went wrong.

Al Fayed’s old age and failing health convinced him to sell, and in the process of shoring up the books, an 18-month dry spell caused the club to spoil in the summer heat, suddenly vulnerable. Panic does funny things to a team in crisis. They hired a crazy German manager. They signed an expensive yet broken striker. They were relegated from the PL in 2014. The next season, with hopes of starting fresh in the Championship, the club finished 20th and supporters had nightmares to two decades earlier.

Fast-forward to today and the Whites, despite their playoff stumble, look more and more prepared for a slow build to ready themselves not just for a top flight return but another lengthy stay, something only accomplished by years of preparation. The Premier League beckons.

“I’m really just interested in preserving the club and honoring the history and tradition of the club,” Tony Khan, Fulham’s Director of Football Operations and son of American owner Shad Khan, insists. “But also [I’m] trying to get the club hopefully to heights it’s never seen before.”

What happened? What changed? What went right when it all seemed to be going wrong?


POSSESS YOUR FATE

Fulham was unable to break down Reading, scoring just one goal over the course of both semifinal legs. The Championship playoffs are soccer’s version of the Hunger Games; only one can advance beyond the mire while the others are forgotten to time.

The Championship itself is a ruthless libretto – known dramatically as a physical gauntlet that sees only the toughest survive. Fulham under Slavisa Jokanovic, however, completely buck that ideal, playing a possession-heavy style of football that at its best manufactures a sparkling on-field product with brilliant goals and alluring flow.

That wasn’t the case until recently.

Last season, Fulham finished 20th in the table, largely thanks to an aging squad that couldn’t keep the ball and a leaky defense that carried over from its Premier League relegation. This year, with Jokanovic’s instruction and the bevy of new signings, Fulham held 57 percent possession and completed passes at an 87 percent rate, both of which shatter the numbers the Championship has seen over the last four years.

So how did they finish 6th, barely snagging the final playoff position?

“I think one of the big things we’ve seen over the course of the season is they’ve definitely learned and gotten better,” said Ted Knutson, owner of StatsBomb.com and an analytics professional with a heavy following on social media.

The results back up that claim. Fulham struggled to open the season, particularly through a brutal six-game stretch of winless league play in September.

“[We] took a lot of personal abuse when we came on and started to apply these things,” Khan said, “and now I’ve seen a lot of people turn around and see that we weren’t doing anything bad, and maybe what we were doing wasn’t so crazy.”

Fans weren’t happy that a career mathematician was taking over their club. They blissfully ignored that for years he had focused all his brainpower on sports.


BOYS OF SUMMER

Following the close call with relegation back to League One, it was clear that something had to change at Fulham. The players brought in were talented individuals, but they weren’t coming together.

“Their recruitment had been so bad that they had to improve,” Knutson said of Fulham’s past few seasons. “They literally had to. It’s a reversion to the mean. With the amount of money that’s in that club, they couldn’t have gotten much worse. This was just an impetus to help them make better decisions.”

That impetus was the addition of Tony Khan full-time.

Tony had been working with his father’s NFL team the Jacksonville Jaguars in the player recruitment and identification department with an analytics and technology focus, and before that in basketball and baseball analytics with his own company TruMedia.

While Tony had been heavily involved in player identification with the Jaguars in the past, this was the first time he had been truly given roster control with any team.

With him, Tony brought his analytics models and experience, and implemented the “both boxes checked” system of player recruitment. This helped merge traditional scouting and analytics to create a list of targeted players who passed the test in both categories.

It didn’t go over so well with fans.

“There are some people that have written some really nasty letters to me last summer and early in the season and even again in January,” Tony said. “In the past week multiple people have written me to say they’re very sorry about the things they said, they can’t believe they said those things, they’re very apologetic, and they see now what we’re trying to do; that we weren’t trying to stomp on tradition or do anything negative, that we really believe in what we’re doing. This might be different than the way things have traditionally been done but we think this is a good system that will help the club.”

Unfortunately, that fiery backlash wasn’t an isolated incident.

“We had the exact same thing happen down the road,” Knutson, a former employee in Brentford’s player recruitment department, said. “It is partly natural for that to happen; if the fans don’t understand quite what’s going on, it’s tougher for them to associate with and accept it. Also, most of the time when analytics is talked about these days, it’s talked about as sort of a flameout. Like the Damien Comolli Liverpool period, or ‘why hasn’t it helped Arsenal win the league?’ and the clubs that are doing it well tend to keep it under the radar.”

Thankfully for Fulham, the introduction of Khan’s methodology and direction had an immediate positive impact.

The front office overhauled the roster at an almost inconceivable level. Of the 49,386 minutes played by Fulham players last season, nearly 40,000 of those departed the club. In their place came attacking flair in Sone Aluko, Floyd Ayite, Neeskens Kebano, and Lucas Piazon plus a wildly successful midfield partnership in Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen.

“They mostly got it right,” Knutson said. “Kebano has been excellent, and their midfield has been really stout, and that might be the most important part in the Championship. Johansen and McDonald are top class midfielders that have stabilized the whole club.”

To finance this, the club sold striker Ross McCormack for a Championship record $15.5 million to Aston Villa. That decision came with significant risk, as McCormack had carried Fulham the previous season with a whopping 23 league goals, but the sale in hindsight was a massive success given his utterly disastrous campaign this year.

They offloaded bigger names in Maarten Stekelenburg, Kostas Mitroglou, and Ben Pringle. They let go aging players in Fernando Amorebieta and Jamie O’Hara. They also fleeced Cardiff City in a straight swap of full-backs, giving away former Swansea flop Jazz Richards in exchange for Scott Malone. Of the 66 goals scored by the club last season among all competitions, they retained 10.

Little of this would have taken place without Tony Khan and his influence.


ANALYZING THE GAME

Tony Khan – and his right-hand man Craig Kline – started working in sports analytics at the University of Illinois. He began working in basketball out of college studying statistical models, and came to football while his father began exploring options to purchase an NFL team.

By the time Shad Khan had bought the Jaguars, his son was fully immersed in sports metrics, and was given a role in the player identification department both implementing his own statistical models and helping to develop technology to further the department.

Khan also purchased TruMedia, a company that is heavily involved in professional sports metrics across a number of fronts, particularly in Major League Baseball.

In a nutshell, this isn’t Tony’s first rodeo. But it’s certainly his biggest. The transition was slow, as Tony took time between responsibilities with the Jaguars to implement the analytics department over the past year and a half. At first the internal response was slow, but since his full-time appointment things have really taken off.

“Going into this previous summer was the first time I really took it over and took the lead on it,” Tony said. “Since I’ve taken responsibility for [transfers], things have really gone in a great direction, I’m really proud of that.”

The implementation of analytics is growing across Europe. However, it’s facing plenty of roadblocks. It’s hard to figure out why.

“What’s wrong with more information?” Knutson asked. “How can that be wrong?”

While some sectors refuse to embrace the wave, others have welcomed it. Many of those clubs are American influenced from the top down, such as Liverpool, Arsenal, and Roma. Tony’s presence at Fulham has added the club to that list.

“Fulham are a fairly rich club in terms of what’s possible in the Championship,” said Knutson. “It took them a long time to figure out and actually make the changes. That’s not me being critical of the Khans – in many cases it’s better to take the time learning before making sweeping changes because then you’re less likely to make mistakes and you’re more likely to do it in a way that’s both acceptable and effective. So for Fulham to come along and do this has been very valuable.”

“It’s intrinsic in the American ideals that fit with sport, not just with football but with sport.”


LIGHT THE MATCH

“I’m here because I believe in the club,” Khan said. “I could be working at a number of different places and I love the Fulham Football Club and I’m here because I want to be here and I believe in the club.”

That’s a growing sentiment, but it’s not quite there yet. More and more statistics and metrics are beginning to meander their way into mainstream use. Chalkboards are popping up on social media. Knutson’s social media following has increased as his radar boards gain popularity.

“I do think the success we’ve had this season has opened a lot of people’s minds,” Khan said, “and led to many people that did not have a positive opinion on the place of analytics in player evaluation and recruitment in European football to see that it’s not such a bad thing and it can actually be very useful when applied properly as I think we have.”

There’s no magical formula or supercomputer that can solve every club’s problems.

The concept has always been to provide those tasked with critical choices with as much information as possible to increase the chances of making the right decision. As money in the game flows in, the weight those decisions carry become larger, and thus the need for additional help increases.

“I think the rest of Europe is starting to catch on, and it feels like there’s grass out there, and it’s all really dry, and it’s just waiting,” Knutson said with a snap of his fingers, “for a match to spark it.”

Tony Khan and Fulham have plenty of work to do this summer.

Upgrades are likely needed both up front and at the back, and keeping hold of the squad’s best players will be an accomplishment. Midfield playmaker Tom Cairney in particular is a gem wanted by many Premier League clubs, and maintaining his loyalty for another season in the Championship will be a true challenge. Jokanovic will no doubt be a marked man.

Nevertheless, the club continues looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and with embracing advanced metrics, they hope for a leg up on the rest of the Championship rabble.

Lionel Messi takes snapshot of massive kit collection

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When the final whistle goes on a Barcelona game, the opponents often search out Lionel Messi in an attempt to barter for the shirt on his back. It’s an honor to be selected by Messi to swap.

Little do we thing of the shirt going in the other direction.

Now, with the swift click of a camera shutter plus a social media post, Messi has given us a look into his monstrous kit collection. It’s pretty incredible.

The room filled with jerseys includes big names including Francesco Totti, Yaya Toure, and David Luiz plus current and former teammates Luis Suarez, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, and Dani Alves,  It’s no shock that there are a host of Real Madrid kits, including Iker Casillas, Angel Di Maria, and others. Notably, his arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo does not appear.

A post shared by Leo Messi (@leomessi) on

Unsurprisingly, in the center is the back of his own Barcelona kit plus the front of an Argentina shirt.

This room is a magical kingdom of soccer kits present and past. Geek out at your own risk. How many names and teams can you recognize?

FIFA cans long-tenured ethics committee judge, prosecutor

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FIFA has voted not to nominate ethics committee judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and prosecutor Cornel Borbely for re-election.

Eckert has been with FIFA since 1978, presiding over countless decisions involving FIFA personnel accused of various ethics breaches. Borbely, a Swiss lawyer, has served as chairman of the investigatory chamber since 2006.

Needless to say, the firing did not sit well with the pair. “The impending and clearly politically motivated non-reappointment puts de facto an end to the reform efforts,” Eckert and Borbely said in a statement. “This will inevitably lead to a renewed loss of trust and further hurt the already tarnished image of FIFA. Consequently, the non-reappointment will have a negative impact on FIFA in the medium and long term.”

Since FIFA revamped its ethics process in 2012, both men have served with greater freedom, but ultimately their positions hold little power without the subpoena power that most governments possess. Eckert presided over the cases against Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.

Greek judge Vassilios Skouris and Colombian lawyer Maria Claudia Rojas were nominated by the FIFA council in their places.

UCL Wednesday preview: Real Madrid with heavy lead on Atletico

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One team is confirmed as a Champions League finalist, so now it’s time to find out who will join Juventus in Cardiff.

Real Madrid seems to be the easy choice as they hold a 3-0 lead heading across town to the Vicente Calderon at 2:45 p.m. ET. It is the final time the stadium will host the Madrid derby before Atletico moves to Estadio La Peineta in the summer.

[ MORE: FIFA sets 3-month timeline for 2026 World Cup vote ]

That three-goal lead for Madrid is monstrous, given both Madrid’s world-beating attacking threat and Atletico’s struggles to score this season, especially in European competition. The club has scored more than two goals in a Champions League match only once this campaign, a wild 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen away from home.

The real difficulty for Atletico will be looking to attack for three goals while not giving up any at the other end. After being shut out on the road, just one away goal for Real would mean the hosts would then need five goals to advance. A clean sheet is a must.

“If they score the tie is even more difficult,” said Atletico midfielder Saul Niguez, “but a goal in the first half would give us a lot of strength and could make them nervous.”

History, though, has not been kind to Atletico. Real Madrid has eliminated them from the Champions League in the last three seasons. Two were in the final, but the one that featured a game at the Vicente Calderon saw a 0-0 first-leg draw. Juventus is looking for an opponent, and while history is likely to repeat itself, a comeback for the ages would be quite the way to send out the old, storied stadium.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Arsenal

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  • Arsenal is winless at Southampton in last 5 games
  • Saints have not scored in 3 of last 4 home games
  • Arsenal has lost 5 of last 6 road games

Arsenal looks to take advantage of its game in hand on the top four as they travel to Southampton to take on the Saints at St. Mary’s on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Gunners still remain in a position of uncertainty, and while their Champions League hopes remain slim, a road win over struggling Southampton would see them move within three points of the top four with two matches remaining. Meanwhile, a loss would all but eliminate Arsenal from Champions League contention.

[ RELATED: Wenger would never work under a Director of Football ]

Southampton, meanwhile, sits in the clogged middle tier of the Premier League table, not playing for much except final positioning, and a lack of motivation has led to a winless run of four games since April 8th. Most recently, Saints have played to a pair of drab 0-0 draws against Hull City and Liverpool, the latter of which saw the Saints hang on for dear life under a relentless Reds attack.

Arsenal could be without defender Laurent Koscielny, although the last time Arsene Wenger doubted his French defender’s fitness, he made the starting XI. Southampton could see Charlie Austin make a return, and manager Claude Puel has suggested he could rest players who have built up heavy minutes.

What they’re saying

Claude Puel on Manolo Gabbiadini: “Sometimes it’s difficult when you come back from an injury, difficult to find the good rhythm and good intensity. On Sunday we played a difficult opponent for a striker. Against Liverpool it’s difficult for a striker. He played alone between two or three defenders and it’s difficult to have the good ball. Like many strikers his quality is in the box. Against Arsenal I think this game will be open and perhaps we will see more opportunities for them and for us.”

Arsene Wenger on teams without European play“It raises questions. There are two kinds. The last two seasons, teams who have not had big possession won the league and, as well, the teams who were not involved in Europe at all won the league.”

Prediction

Arsenal could have problems with Southampton’s defensive style of late. The Gunners have often struggled against teams that bunker in and defend, which Saints did against Liverpool. This game has 1-1 written all over it, with Southampton scoring on a counter.