Three teams from Major League Soccer remain in the tournament as an all-MLS tie takes place at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday between the Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls.
The first leg of their quarterfinal will provide an intriguing peek as to the offseason work both Carl Robinson and Jesse Marsch have done to crank their teams up a few notches, as both clubs will rely on plenty of young talent once again this season. Marsch has handed the captains armband to U.S. national team midfielder Sacha Kljestan after Dax McCarty’s departure in the offseason, while the Whitecaps have never lost at RBA in three previous visits.
Former Seattle Sounders star Fredy Montero won’t make his debut for the ‘Caps as he continues to work on his fitness but he could play on Mar. 2 in the return game at BC Place, while this tie at least confirms that one MLS team will be in the semifinals of North America’s top club competition.
Reigning MLS Supporters’ Shield champs FC Dallas also kick off the first leg of their CCL quarterfinal against Arabe Unido from Panama on Wednesday as the Texas outfit host the opener before heading down to Central America next week for the second leg. New DP signing Cristian Colman has impressed and given the absence of the injured Mauro Diaz, Oscar Pareja will look at him to make Dallas’ offense tick against a Panamanian outfit who went a perfect 4-0-0 in the CCL group stage.
In the two other CCL quarterfinals not involving MLS clubs, Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa drew 0-0 at home against Liga MX side Pachuca on Tuesday in the first leg of their quarterfinal. El Tri star Hirving Lozano was kept quiet by Saprissa but Pachuca will fancy their chances of advancing with a home game to come in the second leg. On Wednesday two Liga MX teams do battle as Tigres host Pumas in Monterrey as the runners up from last season look to make another charge to the final.
Deportivo Saprissa 0-0 Pachuca – Played on Tuesday, Feb. 21
New York Red Bulls vs. Vancouver – Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET
Tigres UANL vs. Pumas – Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Arabe Unido – Thursday, 8 p.m. ET
CCL quarterfinal 2nd legs
Pachuca vs. Deportivo Saprissa – Tuesday, Feb. 28 – 10 p.m. ET
Arabe Unido vs. FC Dallas – Wednesday, Mar. 1 – 8 p.m. ET
Pumas vs. Tigres UANL – Wednesday, Mar. 1 – 10 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. New York Red Bulls – Thursday, Mar. 2 – 10 p.m. ET
Jose Mourinho’s comments on Tuesday about not ruling out a potential move to China for United’s all-time leading goalscorer hardly quelled those rumors.
With Rooney’s options wide-ranging, plenty of reports state he is heading to China, while others say he wants to remain at United. Other reports state he fancies a move to another Premier League team and further rumors suggest he could be on his way to Major League Soccer.
The bloke has options. Lots of ’em.
Rooney, 31, has 18 months left on his current contract at United and the transfer deadline for the 2017 Chinese Super League season is next Tuesday. That means if any reported deal to China happens — Rooney could become the highest paid player in history with wages of $43.5 million a season, per reports — it has to happen fast. However if a CSL team moves on one of their four allotted foreign players outside the window they are allowed to replace him.
The two favorites to sign Rooney in the CSL are Guangzhou Evergrande and Beijing Sinobo Guoan (the two most valuable clubs in China), with the former winning the CSL title six seasons on the spin and already having the likes of Jackson Martinez and Paulinho in their ranks and Luiz Felipe Scolari as their manager.
That said, the Daily Mail claims he has interest from Major League Soccer, plus Everton are reportedly interested in re-signing the boyhood Evertonian 13 years after they sold him to United. However, Rooney’s wage demands could be a stumbling block for the Toffees.
Is MLS a better option for Rooney than China? Financially, probably not.
We’ve seen MLS’ model changing in recent season with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba all moving on this summer and clubs hankering to entice the next Sebastian Giovinco over from Europe instead. MLS’ shift towards attracting younger DPs from Europe by offering huge wages has been hampered by the rise of the Chinese Super League and its mammoth salaries which have enticed the likes of Oscar, Ramires, Hulk, Jackson Martinez and Graziano Pelle from Europe’s top leagues.
MLS will still be a very attractive option for Rooney and his family but with clubs like the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls changing their tact in recent times and opting to nurture Homegrown players over expensive veteran imports, Rooney’s options in MLS have all of a sudden become a lot more limited.
Maybe LAFC would offer him a chance to move to LA when they arrive in MLS in 2018? Orlando City SC has an open DP spot. And then there’s Atlanta United but they already have all three DP spots locked up. Also, New York City FC have one DP spot open but could a Manchester United legend really play for a club so heavily linked to Manchester City? Probs not.
Anyway, whatever Rooney ends up deciding to do in the coming weeks or in the summer he will have plenty of options. China and MLS seem like the best way for him to have one final payday and play regularly. No matter what he has achieved in his glittering career for club and country, Rooney is no longer guaranteed regular minutes at United and that would be the case at any other top six team in the Premier League.
The emergence of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard at United mean he will be a bit-part player now and in the future. He spoke out last month about his frustration regarding that situation and the writing is on the wall for United’s all-time leading goalscorer as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba continue to grab the spotlight at Old Trafford this season.
Rooney is entering the final acts of an imperious, somewhat elongated show at United. It’s obvious his future lies elsewhere, but where?
When news began to spread of a trade regarding one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable faces, Sacha Kljestan was with his New York Red Bulls teammate at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp.
The clarity over Dax McCarty’s move to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire is very much uncertain — even a month after the fact — but the veteran midfielder’s absence left an opening for the Red Bulls captaincy.
And that was an opportunity that Kljestan was honored to be named.
“I was just proud. My first feeling was that I’m thankful for Jesse [Marsch] having that trust in me and my teammates having that trust in me as well, which is very important,” Kljestan said. “But I just feel very proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and represent every member of the club that works with the New York Red Bulls. Most importantly I want to represent the fans in a way that they are proud of.”
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, what they have had over the past two seasons in Kljestan is a player that not only provides flash and brilliance on the pitch but also stability off the field and in the locker room.
Since making his return to MLS in 2015, Kljestan has notched an astounding 34 assists — the most of any player during that span — to go along with his 14 goals.
Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been impressed with Kljestan’s work ethic since bringing in the Designated Player, and he says little thought needed to be put into naming the U.S. international his squad’s next captain.
“It almost wasn’t even a choice at all,” Marsch said in regards to naming Kljestan his primary captain. “He had served as basically a vice-captain for two years and it was an natural fit. There were discussions with the staff but I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy that is a top leader. That being said, we’ve said all along that the captain isn’t a one man job.
“It’s about a community of people and certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis [Robles] and Brad [Wright-Phillips]. I think the three of them will take on big leadership roles and there’s room for young guys to blossom into bigger leadership positions as well.”
The Red Bulls have undoubtedly proven their success in the regular season since rebranding to the aforementioned name in 2006 when the Global giant, Red Bull, acquired the franchise.
The last 11 seasons have provided the club with plenty to cheer about, including two Supporters’ Shield crowns and only missing out on the postseason once, but the Red Bulls have struggled to get past one major hurdle.
Winning an MLS Cup is challenging.
It’s only something that 11 teams have accomplished in the league’s history. Of those 11 teams, only five of them have won two or more titles since MLS’ inception in 1996.
Marsch’s approach since day one has been very clear to both his team and the opponents that the Red Bulls face. The goal has been to play an attacking-minded press, similar to that of Barcelona in the club’s hay day.
While that pressing style likely won’t change, the team is prepared to add another dimension to its attack by switching to a two-forward setup starting in 2017.
“With our little tweak in formation that we’re doing now, we’re trying to be less susceptible to opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines,” Kljestan said. “We’re working on ways now to become more connected and become harder to break down and really make teams earn their chances against us. We might go through some growing pains with the formation but I think it’ll make us stronger in the long run.”
The Red Bulls begin their 2017 journey on Wednesday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The two sides will meet a second time on March 2 in Vancouver.
“Last Thursday in practice, I was welling up to see the guys in Atlanta training tops with Tata coaching them,” Eales told PST earlier this month. “I’ve had over two years without any games. I hadn’t experienced the highs and lows of why we’re all in this game. Come the fifth of March, it’s going to be a quite an emotional time.”
Not just for Eales, but for an Atlanta market which has proven quite rabid for the sport. United has sold almost 30,000 season tickets, a record for an expansion team.
The excitement isn’t simply a matter of a shiny new toy for sports fans in Georgia. Eales, along with technical director Carlos Bocanegra and manager Tata Martino, have constructed what, at least on paper, could be a monster.
There’s the Designated Player trio of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba, young guys Miles Robinson and Andrew Carleton, MLS mainstays Michael Parkhurst and Tyrone Mears, and Chilean veteran Carlos Carmona.
None of those assets were there when Eales, 44, bought into owner Arthur Blank’s vision in September 2014. And that’s what gave the gig its allure.
“You talk about soccer being a global game, and it’s very rare you get a chance to start a whole new club from scratch,” Eales said. “To do it with an owner like Arthur Blank who is committed to the City of Atlanta, committed to the community, and committed to a winning team just made it an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Eales wasn’t a stranger to America, a former Ivy League Player of the Year from his playing days at Brown University. He later went home to England where he became a director at West Bromwich Albion en route to his executive job at White Hart Lane.
So, yes, the acumen is there. And Eales’ admiration for MLS is a lot higher than many American critics suspect.
“I dealt with MLS from the other side of the fence with Robbie Keane to LA, Jermain Defoe to Toronto, and Clint Dempsey to Seattle,” Eales said. “Fresh perspective when you come from the outside, you look at how teams have built their teams and you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
“The one thing I was clear on from the start, was I felt MLS, globally outside of America, it almost gets more respect from other countries than it does in America. I’ve seen that with players like Simon Dawkins. When I was at Tottenham, we loaned him to San Jose, he developed as a player and we were able to sell him off to Derby. It’s a global league, the standard of football is getting better all the time. I really felt the time was right where you could try to get players in their prime and sell it to them as career development, not a dead end.”
Blank contacted Eales, and convinced him that Atlanta United wasn’t a vanity play. The soccer team wasn’t going to be the Atlanta Falcons’ “little brother”, but a major part of the community.
“Building a roster, putting in the academy, building a training ground, an affiliation with the Charleston Battery, all of these things can’t happen overnight,” Eales said. “There’s been a lot of thoughts and strategy that’s gone into building the roster.”
Not to mention time zones, travel, surfaces, calendar, salary cap, the popularity of other leagues… Eales wanted to find a technical director with both positive vision and MLS wisdom. Enter Carlos Bocanegra, the USMNT captain who had started and finished his playing career in MLS before performing well overseas with Fulham, Rangers, and Rennes.
“What I didn’t want to do was come in from the Premier League and say, ‘Everything European is the way we should do it and Americans don’t know anything about soccer.’ Clearly that’s not the case and I knew that.”
Eales said Bocanegra is a good friend in addition to the perfect man for the job. He added that both men didn’t take long to embrace the city, and that the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl didn’t hurt sports fever in the Peach State.
Now Georgia will turn its attention to the red and black of Atlanta United, a team brimming with talent and experience. One of the early bets for Eales and Bocanegra was that it wouldn’t be about older big names. When asked about the successes of Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto and Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle, Eales almost bristles at the thought that the moves inspired him. Young and fast was already entrenched in his model.
“It’s been a long time planning,” Eales said. “We were already going down this model. Lodeiro has been fantastic in Seattle and Giovinco is by far and away the best player in the league. He was that first one where someone was taken not over 30 and it showed, despite what the Italian national team manager said at the time, you could come here, play your game and get your career back on track.
“We felt we could go even further was to get those younger players. We’ve got Miguel at 22, Hector at 22, and Josef at 23. You’ll see increasingly now it will be a chance for us as a whole league to bring in top players and get bigger and better, year on year.”
While Eales has not had the fun of match day and won’t really have that experience until March 5’s visit from the Red Bulls, he’s had fun keeping an eye on his last two Premier League clubs and their top half success.
“I have to laugh because I still talk to a lot of my colleagues back at Tottenham and when they say ‘We’re doing well since you left’ I tell them it’s all about building the foundation,” Eales said.
“Chelsea have had a great season but Tottenham with the young squad they’ve got and the manager they’ve got in Mauricio Pochettino, they are going to be titlists in the near future. And West Brom, I love West Brom. It’s a great family club and it’s really exciting to see them solid in the top half of the table. It’s a testament to the guys, Tony Pulis and the team, how they built with a plan year on year to become a solid Premier League club. They have a strategy and they stuck to it.”
So, too, does Eales and United. The roster he’s assembled and his legendary manager combine to give the look of an instant playoff contender.
Yet Eales, like MLS, is going to have to see it. The difference is that United’s president already believes it. Bring on the chills.
Villa, the reigning league MVP, was initially shown a yellow card by referee Nima Saghafi for a slap to the face of Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza (the incident begins at the 36:50 mark of the above video). Following a review of video evidence (Video Assistant Referee — VAR), which MLS has implemented on a trial basis this preseason, Saghafi correctly changed Villa’s booking to a straight red card.
The biggest stumbling block for video replay in soccer is, undoubtedly, the length of time each video-assisted decision would require to be made. From the moment Villa made contact with DeLaGarza’s face, to the time Saghafi re-enters the field of play and shows Villa his red card, 2 minutes and 33 seconds has passed. From the initial incident to the restart of play, 3 minutes and 43 seconds.
That might not sound like a ton of time, but when you consider that’s time that will have to be added on in stoppage time, the typical three or four minutes quickly balloons to seven or eight minutes. The fact that a referee’s decision was corrected is a huge win, and proof that the use of video replay can and will help referee’s make game-altering decisions; the process by which that happens, though, still needs expedited.
Update: This post previously misidentified Villa as the first MLS player to be sent off via the use of VAR. Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara was shown a red card via the use of VAR earlier in the preseason.