Chicago’s Austin Berry next up for European training

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Chicago Fire defender and MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry is not wasting a moment in trying to elevate his stock and standing.

Berry is the latest MLS man to link up with a top level side abroad for winter training.

Chicago announced Friday that Berry will train with Spanish La Liga side Atlético Madrid from Nov. 25 through Dec. 9. Atletico is also the 2012 Europa League Champions, so these are quality players with which Berry will train.

Berry has the added advantage of joining second-year defender Jalil Anibaba, who is training with Madrid’s “second team” until Dec. 2. Anything that adds to the comfort level, anything that helps the players squeeze the most out of these training spells, can only be a good thing.

(MORE: Berry leads ProSoccerTalk’s Rookie of the Year conversations)

It’s interesting that Berry has gone to Spain rather than England, where more of these training spells tend to land. It’s a more technical league, and that may be more in line with what U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann is looking for in his center backs now; a little less lean to the “stop,” a wee bit more emphasis on the “distribute.”

And yes, Berry will begin to gather more and more mention for the national team. He’s 24, which is a little bit older to begin the identification and indoctrination process, but hardly unprecedented.

 

 

7 Ironmans in 7 days? Saints legend explains why

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Southampton legend Francis Benali is on a mission. In the past five years he has taken part in two huge challenges for charity, and the third starts on Apr. 29 and is his most demanding yet.

7 Ironmans in 7 days. Yep, you read that correctly.

Benali, 50, has set himself a goal of raising £1 million ($1.3 million) for Cancer Research UK in his post-playing career, as the 13-year Premier League veteran, who spent his entire 16-year career at hometown club Southampton, pushes his body and mind to the limits with a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile ride and then a 26.2-mile run each day, for seven days.

Let that sink in.

The “IronFran 2019” challenge will take him on a journey through England from Manchester to Southampton, and will take place from Apr. 29 to May 5, as it will finish with him completing the Southampton Marathon after seven gruelling days.


You can donate to support Benali by clicking here, or on the link above, as he aims to raise over $1.3 million to help Cancer Research UK. 


Talking to Pro Soccer Talk about what spurs him on each and every day during these challenges, Benali revealed he thinks about the individuals and families suffering with cancer. That pushes him on to keep going.

“I have paid a visit to the local cancer ward at Southampton General Hospital recently and I’ve met a number of children, a few of whom are planning to be part on the last day of the challenge [the Southampton Marathon on May 5],” Benali said. “We’ve been touched by it as a family and we have had close friends who have either been diagnosed or lost to this awful disease since starting the first challenge a few years ago. That drives me on and reinforces the efforts we are trying to make on the fundraising side to enable the researchers and the scientists to find ways of treatment and ultimately to find a cure.

“That is very much a factor in my mind. Knowing that I’ve got a few aches and pains and may not want to go training or continue through a session, when your mind flips to people that are fighting this disease and who are affected by this terrible illness, not just the individuals themselves but their families and friends as well, it has a massive impact. It certainly drives me on and spurs me on during the difficult moments.”

(Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)

A fiery left back during his playing says, Benali was a huge part of Southampton staving off relegation year after year in the 1990s, as the hometown hero led the battles at the Dell alongside the likes of Matt Le Tissier and James Beattie. He epitomizes the spirit of a true battler.

In recent years he’s turned his attention to raising money for Cancer Research UK with extreme endurance challenges, and has pushed himself to the limit by running between every Premier League stadium in 2014, covering over 1,000 miles on 21 consecutive days. In 2016 he then travelled between all 44 teams in the top two tiers of English soccer in just two weeks, covering 1400 miles which meant running a marathon then cycling at least 75 miles every day

Benali has now been training for months for IronFran, which is billed as his final big challenge to get over the £1 million marker as his current fundraising total now stands at just under £700,000.

As he enters the final days of his preparation for the incredible challenge, Benali admitted that making sure he gets the desired rest and refuelling in-between Ironman’s is just as challenging as completing the physical disciplines each day.

“I am really racking up the hours and distance on a daily basis to have the last final push to try and get my body accustomed to the pain and the aches I know are going to come on the challenge itself, and I know they will probably be a lot worse than what I am feeling now,” Benali explained. “It’s just getting my mind and body used to that uncomfortableness of the training and getting out of bed, and keeping moving really. I know from the previous experiences from the other challenges, it is sure as hell going to be the case. It is not just the physical and mental challenge of each of disciplines each day, it is as much a challenge to refuel and get the calories back in and start and get a good enough recovery process in. Including sleep, and what will be a lack of it, in order to get up the next morning to do it all over again the following day.”

The soccer world has rallied around Benali, just as it did in his previous two challenges in 2014 and 2016, with former and current professionals, Premier League and Football League clubs and personalities across the game in the UK and the world helping to spread the word about this mammoth challenge.

Benali admitted the support has been amazing to witness but ever the professional, he wants to make sure he finishes the challenge and do what he set out to do.

“It is wonderful to know you have that level of support and the well wishes coming in from colleagues and people I work with now,” Benali said. “At the same time it brings a pressure. I’ll be honest. The pressure to deliver the challenge, in my head, and complete it. The fundraising target is the main goal, but at the same time I ultimately want to complete what I set out to do. That certainly brings a few sleepless nights as well in my own mind.”

Credit: Chris Cole/ALLSPORT

Asked if he fancies taking his incredible endurance events Stateside, Benali, of course, mentioned some of the toughest event as capturing his attention for the future if he fancies another big challenge.

“I’ve seen some stuff in America, with the Race Across America (RAAM) with cyclists, which is an incredible event. I’ve seen the Badwater Ultramarathon is something that looks right out there on the limits of extreme challenges,” Benali said. “There is stuff I’ve seen in the U.S. that has certainly captured my attention. Maybe one day I might be able to run, or get permission from my wife Karen, to give me the green light on something like that. We will get this challenge out of the way first.”

Benali has never shirked a challenge, and throughout his career in the Premier League he dug deep to keep his hometown club in the top-flight against all the odds and was a machine at left back for Saints.

With Southampton in their own relegation battle heading into the final weeks of this season, Benali believes the club he loves can pretty much seal their place in the Premier League by beating Newcastle on Saturday at St James’ Park (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Just like his challenges, the battle is far from over for Saints.

“I always thought two more wins would do it prior to the victory against Wolves last weekend, so I think having seen Cardiff’s victory against Brighton, that really throws them in the mix and keeps us in contention of being in a relegation place,” Benali said. “I’ve always had that confidence in Ralph Hasenhuttl and the squad to survive and stay up this season, and that is no different right now. Three points and a big victory at Newcastle would be a big step towards survival. I think that would probably be enough given the games that are left and the run-in that Cardiff have. Fingers crossed it will all go well for Saints, and it will be a great game for everyone to watch.”

Championship wrap: Promotion race intensifies

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As always, things got weird and wild in England’s second-tier on Friday.

Leeds United lost at home to 10-man relegation battlers Wigan Athletic 2-1, despite taking the lead early and Wigan playing a man down for over 75 minutes.

Pablo Hernandez missed an early penalty kick for Marcelo Bielsa’s side who have now dropped out of the automatic promotion spots with three games of the season to go and no longer have their destiny in their own hands. This defeat marked the first time this season that Leeds have lost a game after taking the lead.

As for their main rivals for automatic promotion, Sheffield United rallied in the second half to beat Nottingham Forest on Friday and moved into second behind Norwich City as Blades boss Chris Wilder has done a magnificent job for the club he supports.

Norwich look certainties for promotion and their return to the PL after a three-year absence could be confirmed on Monday, while Sheffield United know they will be back in the Premier League for the first time since 2007 if they win their final three games of the season.

In the playoff race, West Brom, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough all won to sit in fourth, fifth and sixth respectively, while Bristol City and Derby are hanging around just outside the playoff spots with draws to set up a frantic final few weeks. There are some huge teams pushing to be in the playoffs and have a chance of playing in the richest game in soccer at Wembley on May 27, and Villa are the form team right now with nine-straight wins.

At the other end of the table, Bolton’s defeat at home to Villa means they were relegated to the third-tier and they will join Ipswich Town in League One for next season, while Rotherham and Millwall battle to stay out of the final relegation spot.

Below is a look at the standings and points in the promotion race, as the battle to get into the Premier League for the 2019-20 rages on.


As things stand – Championship table, promotion race

Automatic promotion
1st: Norwich City – Played 42, points 86
2nd: Sheffield United – Played 43, points 82

Playoff picture
3rd: Leeds United – Played 43, points 82
4th: West Brom – Played 43, points 76
5th: Aston Villa – Played 43, points 72
6th: Middlesbrough – Played 43, points 67

Pushing for playoffs
7th: Bristol City – Played 42, points 66
8th: Derby County – Played 42, points 64

Preview: Man City v. Tottenham

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“More of the same please, lads.”

That will be the message from neutrals everywhere as Manchester City host Tottenham on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), less than 72 hours after Spurs got past City at the Etihad Stadium in one of the most dramatic games in UEFA Champions League history.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Pep Guardiola‘s Man City must pick themselves up and now focus on winning their final five games of the season to win the Premier League title, while Spurs and Mauricio Pochettino need to win to keep their hopes of finishing in the top four alive. That said, Spurs may rest several first team players with their injury-hit squad creaking and the north London side focused on being ready for their UCL semifinals against Ajax coming up.

In team news City could have Fernandinho back, while Zinchenko will be assessed. Spurs are without Harry Kane, Harry Winks and Serge Aurier and youngsters Juan Foyth, Oliver Skipp and Kyle Walker-Peters could all play with injuries hitting Pochettino’s side hard.

What they’re saying…

Guardiola philosophical on late winner denied by VAR v. Tottenham: “VAR appeared to help try and cut out mistakes. The referees can take time, seconds, minutes to see the images and different angles. If we make a lot of mistakes with VAR then I wouldn’t agree with it. We have to take one minute, two minutes, five minutes, until the right decision is made. But I support it, from the first time and well before. If the goal from Raheem in the last minute, which was offside, ends up being a goal and Tottenham go out because of one offside, is not right. It’s so tough on them and I don’t like that.”

Pochettino on Spurs making the UCL semifinals: “This is a massive example for us – how important it is never to give up, to always have faith and believe in yourself, your teammates, the club, the fans. All our decisions we take are to help the club and this amazing history we are writing today will be a massive example for us in the future.”

Prediction

City will be determined to put Wednesday right, and even though their dreams of a quadruple are over, they can still win the domestic treble. Spurs will be emotionally exhausted after the 4-3 defeat at City which sealed their path through to the Champions League semifinals on away goals, and City have a bigger squad which they can rotate. 3-1 win to Man City.

MLS expansion rankings: Who could be teams 28-30?

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Major League Soccer has announced it plans to expand to 30 teams, as commissioner Don Garber revealed the decision was made at the Board of Governors meeting in LA on Thursday.

Previously the limit to expansion was set at 28 teams, but with an expansion fee for teams 28 and 29 set at around $200 million, and team 30 probably beyond that figure, MLS owners and directors aren’t going to push away the dozen or so cities lining up to pay that kind of cash to get a franchise.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Now, how big MLS should grow to is a debate for another day, and definitely one worth having when it comes to promotion and relegation by creating an MLS 1 and MLS 2, or how the realignment of conferences will impact things.

But below we focus solely on which cities are in line to get the next three expansion spots and rank them accordingly.


Teams 28 and 29 – Sacramento and St. Louis

I won’t go quite as far to say I’ll eat my hat if Sacramento and St. Louis aren’t teams 28 and 29, but I probably should… With both Sacramento and St. Louis steaming ahead with their MLS bids, it is no surprise that news from the governors meeting states that both cities will be invited to give formal presentations on their bids in the coming months. Both could be awarded expansion franchises by early August and begin play in 2021 or 2022.

Sacramento Republic FC has been ready for some time with their stadium plan sealed, and the final piece of the jigsaw is now in place as billionaire Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh Penguins owner) and his business partner Matt Alvarez will join the ownership group as and when they are awarded a franchise. St. Louis has always been a soccer hotbed, and with the Taylor Family who own the Enterprise group now leading the ownership group, STL has finally sorted its downtown stadium plan out. With no NFL team in town there is a gap in the market, and St. Louis would link up the Midwest franchises very nicely geographically.


Team 30

What about the 30th team? That race is a lot more complicated than Sacramento and St. Louis in pole position for teams 28 and 29.

Over the past few years we have ranked the wider expansion race many times, and the main thing to remember is this: things change very quickly as ownership groups get fed up, and MLS’ insistence that new expansion franchises must have soccer-specific stadiums (barring a few exceptions, ahem, New York City FC, Atlanta United…) creates problems for potential owners.

Here’s a look at the cities which submitted bids back in February 2017 to MLS (and one other) and how their chances stack up in the current climate:

Phoenix – They are looking like a very decent bet now, as crowds have been impressive in the past thee seasons, Didier Drogba has stuck around and they are financed by several wealthy investors, including Alex Zheng who owns Nice in Ligue 1. With a bit of a geographic gap between California and the Midwest for MLS teams, having a team in Phoenix links things up nicely too. If they arrive in MLS they will also build a soccer-specific stadium on the site of their current home. There’s more than a 50-50 chance they could be team 30. 

Detroit – This bid was gathering plenty of momentum in the league office and was one of the four finalists selected in the previous round of expansion with the other three including Cincinnati and Nashville both awarded teams, and Sacramento on the verge. But after plans for a downtown soccer-specific stadium stalled and the Ford Family got involved, things went south quickly. The plan to have a Detroit MLS team play in the NFL stadium of the Lions wouldn’t be dissimilar to what Atlanta United has done, but is this viable in Detroit? If MLS thinks it is possible to get large crowds for every home game, it would take very little from an organizational standpoint to award Detroit a team. There’s more than 50-50 chance they could be team 30. 

Raleigh/Durham – North Carolina FC are one of the most stable lower-league teams in North America and owner Steve Malik is an influential figure in American soccer circles. Given the freakishly strong college programs in the area and Raleigh/Durham a hugely popular city for young families to move to, there is plenty of potential here. Getting just 4-5,000 average crowds in the USL isn’t too impressive though, and unless that changes, it will put the league off. Possible, but a long shot.

Tampa Bay/St Petersburg – The Tampa Bay Rowdies have a loyal fanbase and the plans to redevelop Al Lang Stadium are impressive. With Orlando City already in MLS, there is a chance for a natural rivalry to grow, and with Miami arriving too, there’s a chance for Florida to become a real selling point for MLS. However, three MLS teams in FLA and Atlanta on the scene may be a little too much. If MLS decides it isn’t, Tampa could join pretty quickly, and despite some pointing to the Mutiny being shut down in 2000 as a warning sign, that hasn’t stopped MLS returning to Miami for a second go at things. Possible, but a long shot. 

Charlotte – No public financing or funding for a stadium plan sort of scuppered this bid early on, although the new ownership group of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers are said to be in talks with MLS about rejuvenating the bid as billionaire David Tepper has made it a priority. Having both Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham bid for teams was a bit of a nightmare, as it weakened both bids. These areas are huge soccer hotbeds, but as things stand it would be a bit of a shock if either got a franchise. An outsider.

San Diego – If they could ever agree on a stadium plan, San Diego would be a great place for an MLS franchise given its proximity to LA and a chance to build local rivalries. With the Chargers leaving town, like St. Louis there’s an opportunity to fill a sporting void. But with the Soccer City plan having plenty of big names but not passed by local government, this bid doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. Things can change quickly though. An outsider.

Las Vegas – Garber has mentioned Vegas as a potential city a few times, even though they didn’t hand in a bid to MLS for an expansion franchise back in 2017. Seeing how well the NHL’s Golden Knights have done in Vegas will be intriguing, as MLS has long looked at the NHL as a shinning light in terms of how teams are added to the league. Like Phoenix, a team in Vegas will fill the void between the West Coast and Midwest, but there is a lot to sort out and the USL’s Las Vegas Lights complicate things a little. They have been a solid addition to the lower-tiers with very good crowds, but having a strong, dedicated ownership group is what’s needed to kick on the Vegas bid. An outsider

Indianapolis – A steady soccer market for years, Indianapolis have had the Indy Eleven and crowds are pretty decent. However, not having an ownership group with deep pockets is pretty much against what MLS wants for expansion teams and unless that changes, the chances of having a team in Indiana’s biggest city remain slim to none. Add to that the success of FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew sticking around, plus St. Louis looking like a favorite, and the Midwest market is a little congested right now. An outsider.

San Antonio – With Austin being awarded a franchise, many will ask if there’s a need for four MLS teams in Texas. Of course, San Antonio has seen some very impressive crowds in the lower tier and San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field could be expanded rather easily, but the fact San Antonio was far from happy with Anthony Precourt being able to relocate a franchise to Austin doesn’t help its chances. An outsider.