The changing identity of … Major League Soccer

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In time, Saturday night will be seen as a watershed moment in Major League Soccer, the first time the 17-year-old league was able to convince both a prominent player and his club to play ball on a big transfer from Europe. That the player happened to be the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team makes the occasion more memorable (and Seattle’s circumstances are certainly different from almost every other team’s in Major League Soccer), but luring any player of renown who is still capable of dressing for one of England’s top teams would be celebrated as a league-wide victory.

Euro-centric fans will downplay the significance, and not without  reason, but within the scope of the league, Dempsey’s acquisition is undeniable progress. This is a milestone many fans have wanted to hit for some time. In addition to keeping the Omar Gonzalez-types from jumping once their first contracts play out, fans want to be able to compete for European-caliber talent; specifically, U.S. internationals. That the U.S international is the first to be reeled in makes this a boon.

It’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer, considered by many as more of a selling league, is now a buyer. Put another way, is the immediate future that of an importer, not an exporter? Given MLS’s structure, there’s no single answer to that. Even though they sold Fredy Montero earlier this year, Seattle’s clearly a buyer. When the LA Galaxy (seemingly inevitably) join Seattle and spend big for a third DP, they’ll affirm their status as heavy hitters. But the vast majority of MLS clubs still can’t compete with strong bids from clubs from even mid-tier European leagues. Still, between the established powers, the Pacific Northwest teams, and the two Eastern Canada clubs, more and more MLS clubs are capable of being players, not spectators.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC]

But not everything is sunshine and roses in MLS Land. Seattle’s spending is worrisome for some in the league, particularly those concerned that the growth of a few clubs threatens to dwarf the capabilities of others. Between expanding the Designated Player rules and instituting retention funds, the league’s affluent teams have more avenues to distance themselves from the pack. The extent to which that (as opposed to Seattle’s unique circumstances) influenced the Dempsey deal is debatable, but as part of the overall landscape, some see it as cause for concern.

Then there’s fan frustration, most present in Portland, who not only are Seattle’s chief rivals but sat on top of the allocation order when Dempsey rejoined the league. Many’s readings of the rules assumed the Timbers should get the rights to the returning U.S. international, even though those rules conflicted with the Designated Player guidelines. The Claudio Reyna precedent of 2007 seemed to solve that matter (the former U.S. captain returned straight to Red Bull on a DP deal), but for those suspicious of the league’s motives, the conflict was enough to fuel ire …

Ire that was on display Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field:

Infuriated by their rival’s coup, Timbers fans may be taking an excessively literal, inflexible view of the rules, which is not to say they don’t have a point. The written rules available on MLS’s web site do conflict, so much so that the league felt the need to issue a clarification after Dempsey was signed. The explanation was clear, consistent, and may have answered many’s questions, but for those who’d already decided the Dempsey deal was shaky, there was no tearing the tin foil from their heads.

[MORE: In pictures, Clint Dempsey is unveiled in Seattle.]

If Major League Soccer really is in that adolescence we discussed in the Seattle post, this is their teenage naivete. And like all mistakes of our high school days, this is mostly innocent – something to learn from. It is, however, a small reminder that it’s time to grow up. There are responsibilities and expectations that come with adulthood, and any hint that you’re making things up as you go along will lead people to question your maturity.

But this isn’t a matter of two steps forward, one step back for MLS. The Dempsey capture is a decided leap forward, even if there’s a stubbed toe on the landing. For all the confusion people found in MLS’s rules, the league is in a notably better place today than they were two days ago. That’s almost the definition of progress.

The USMNT year-in-review: Eleven matches, many questions

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The calendar year has not ended for the United States men’s national team, even if its playing slate concluded Tuesday with a 1-0 stoppage time loss to Italy in Belgium.

E(Bring on Berhalter, because it’s reportedly too late for anyone else).

[ MORE: USSF announces Player of Year finalists ]

The USMNT’s schedule this season was daunting, a visit from Bolivia the closest thing to a walkover and away matches to France, England, and Italy.

Interim coach Dave Sarachan finished his run with three wins, five losses, and four draws — all but one coming in 2018 — the most notable results being a draw with France prior to Les Bleus winning the World Cup and a win over Mexico in Tennessee courtesy of Tyler Adams.

Its leading goal scorer was Bobby Wood, and Josh Sargent was the only other player to score more than once. The other goal scorers were Tim Weah, Julian Green, Tyler Adams, and Kellyn Acosta.

Jan. 28 — USMNT 0-0 Bosnia and Herzegovina — Ike Opara was our Man of the Match in a drab affair to start the year.

March 27 — USMNT 1-0 Paraguay — A Wood penalty before half time was earned by Adams and set up by Marky Delgado. Adams had his strongest performance in a U.S. shirt, and the Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga pairing was promising at the heart of the defense. Wil Trapp was also quite good.

May 28 — USMNT 3-0 Bolivia — Zimmerman, Sargent, and Weah were part of an extremely encouraging rollover of an inferior opponent.

June 2 — Republic of Ireland 2-1 USMNT — Wood scored in first half stoppage to give the Yanks a surprising lead, but disappointing errors from Bill Hamid and Miazga allowed the hosts to snare a 90th minute win.

June 9 — France 1-1 USMNT — Green’s 44th minute goal was nice, but this was Zack Steffen’s coming-out party. That said, was it even the Yanks’ best goalkeeper performance of the year. Ask Tuesday.

Sept. 7 — USMNT 0-2 Brazil — Roberto Firmino and Neymar scored first half goals, but this moment was not too big for the  young Yanks (even if it was a case of not being experienced enough to know “their place”).

Sept. 11 — USMNT 1-0 Mexico — Tyler Adams’ 71st minute goal from an Antonee Robinson feed was a nice moment for the Yanks. Miazga’s taunting of Diego Lainez may have not been classy, but it was a moment for the future of the USMNT-El Tri rivalry.

Oct. 11 — USMNT 2-4 Colombia — Acosta and Wood scored after halftime to give the Americans a stunning 2-1 lead, but Los Cafeteros very much restored order. It was one to forget on the whole, but Acosta and Weah showed glimpses of what could be.

Oct. 16 — USMNT 1-1 Peru — Sargent looked set for his first match-winning goal in an American shirt, but DeAndre Yedlin lost track of Edison Flores in the 86th to nullify what should’ve been a fine day for Sarachan through youngsters Weah and Sargent.

Nov. 15 — England 3-0 USMNT — Let’s just pretend this didn’t happen. One of the worst halves of Christian Pulisic’s U.S. tenure led into an improved-for-him-but-pretty-much-no-one-else second.

Nov. 20 — Italy 1-0 USMNT (in Belgium) — The Yanks close off their season by wasting a prime performance from Ethan Horvath, with Sebastian Lletget losing track of Inter Milan youngster Matteo Politano on a stoppage time goal.

So what did we learn, huh?

— Well, there are still major questions as to who is going to line up next to John Brooks, whether in a back three or four, for the next run of World Cup qualifying.

— And what about in goal? Ethan Horvath has made a claim to the job presumably heading to Zack Steffen, and either goalkeeper could literally spend the better part of a decade in the job.

— DeAndre Yedlin was once presumed the right back for the next decade, but his performances in a USMNT shirt have been haphazard at best. Can a new coach get him in line with his performances for Rafa Benitez at Newcastle, or might Reggie Cannon or Shaq Moore be in play.

— The U.S. still doesn’t have an experienced left back, and perhaps this will all be about Antonee Robinson learning on the job (though Moore was perfectly fine playing out-of-position against Italy).

— Is it two center mids or three, and is Michael Bradley coming back into the fold?Because Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are penciled in for a while, and Kellyn Acosta has had fits and starts. Wil Trapp clearly also has a fan club in the USMNT hierarchy, and his club head coach is probably getting the job. So…. 4-1-4-1?

— Here’s something we already knew: This team goes as far as Christian Pulisic takes them.

— If Josh Sargent doesn’t start getting more meaningful playing time and Bobby Wood keeps living on his plateau, then you’re gonna be real mad when Jozy Altidore is striker No. 1 next summer.

How to qualify for soccer’s EURO 2020

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GENEVA (AP) With the inaugural Nations League program ending Tuesday, the 2020 European Championship is up next for the continent’s national teams.

All 24 places at Euro 2020 are up for grabs when qualifying starts in March, although the Nations League helped shape the draw that will be held on Dec. 2 in Dublin.

Germany, for instance, won’t be among the top-seeded teams because of its poor results since September.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

For 16 teams, there already is a backup plan to reach Euro 2020. Those Nations League group winners are sure of a place in a playoff round held in March 2020 regardless of their finish in the traditional qualifying groups.

Another quirk of Euro 2020 is there are 12 host countries – from Ireland in the west to Azerbaijan in the east – and none gets an automatic entry.

Here is the Euro 2020 outlook:

EURO 2020 QUALIFYING DRAW

All 55 teams in the Dec. 2 draw are seeded according to Nations League results.

They will be drawn into five groups of five teams and five six-team groups, with games played from March to November next year.

The Nations League top-tier group winners – Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England – must be in the smaller, five-team groups. They will play the Final Four tournament hosted by Portugal in June when others are playing Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The top two finishers in each group qualify automatically for Euro 2020.

Pot 1: Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Poland.

Pot 2: Germany, Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Austria, Wales, Czech Republic.

Pot 3: Slovakia, Turkey, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland, Bulgaria, Israel.

Pot 4: Hungary, Romania, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Georgia.

Pot 5: Macedonia, Kosovo, Belarus, Luxembourg, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Gibraltar, Faeroe Islands.

Pot 6: Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Malta, San Marino.

EURO 2020 PLAYOFFS

The last four places at the tournament will be decided through a 16-team playoff, the format of which is completely new.

Four teams from each of four Nations League tiers will play in a mini-tournament featuring semifinals and a final next March 26-31. The four winners advance to complete the 24-team Euro 2020 lineup.

If one of the Nations League group winners have already secured a spot, the next-best team in that tier will make the playoffs.

It is a golden opportunity for fourth-tier League D teams which are unlikely to qualify automatically.

So, one of Georgia, Macedonia, Kosovo or Belarus will make its tournament debut at Euro 2020. For Kosovo, it’s a first entry in qualifying after gaining membership of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016.

Other potential playoff lineups:

League C: Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland.

League B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden.

League A: Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England.

12 HOST COUNTRIES

Euro 2020 will be hosted in 12 cities in 12 different countries, kicking off in Rome on June 12.

It was supposed to be 13 cities – each hosting three group-stage games plus a knockout game from the round of 16 or a quarterfinal – but Brussels dropped out when a new stadium project failed.

The semifinals and final were awarded to Wembley Stadium in London, which also stepped in to get the four Brussels games.

Host nation teams who qualify will have at least two home games in the group stage.

The host city pairings are:

Group A: Rome, Italy; Baku, Azerbaijan.

Group B: St. Petersburg, Russia; Copenhagen, Denmark.

Group C: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Bucharest, Romania.

Group D: London, England; Glasgow, Scotland.

Group E: Bilbao, Spain; Dublin, Ireland.

Group F: Munich, Germany; Budapest, Hungary.

Round of 16 games (June 27-30) will be in: London, Amsterdam, Bilbao, Budapest, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, Dublin.

Quarterfinals (July 3-4) will be in St. Petersburg, Munich, Baku, Rome.

The semifinals will be July 7-8 in London, and the final on July 12.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

U.S. Soccer announces Player of the Year nominees

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The USMNT’s 2018 Player of the Year is going to be one of the new breed, while the USWNT’s list of nominees is a bit unusual as well.

Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga, Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp are the men vying to become the fifth different name to win the Male Player of the Year in as many seasons.

[ USMNT: Player ratings | 3 things ]

There are three players on the Female list to have won the award in previous years with Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath, and Alex Morgan having laid claim to the honor. Megan Rapinoe and Lindsey Horan are the other two nominees.

The two teams could hardly have had more different years, as the USWNT was undefeated behind a prolific season from Morgan.

The men stalled as U.S. Soccer failed to enlist a full-time coach, leaving interim coach Dave Sarachan to meld new players into a “part-time” system.

Steffen is probably the favorite to win the men’s award, though Miazga and McKennie had some high-profile moments in red, white, and blue. Trapp is beloved by the staff and could grab the award as well, while Adams seems a true long shot.

Pulisic talks Dortmund future, pride at USMNT captaincy

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GENK, Belgium — Christian Pulisic became the youngest captain of the U.S. men’s national team in the modern era on Tuesday, as the Borussia Dortmund star led the side out against Italy in Genk, Belgium.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

Remember: Pulisic is just 20 years and 63 days old.

The USMNT lost 1-0 to Italy, as they conceded a 94th minute goal after soaking up plenty of pressure and having goalkeeper Ethan Horvath to thank for several fine stops.

[ MORE: Sarachan out as USMNT head coach ]

Asked about the moment he became the youngest USMNT captain since 1990, breaking Landon Donovan’s record by over two years, Pulisic was full of pride.

“It is a huge honor to captain this team. I’ve been with these guys for a while and for them to think that I can lead the team, it means a lot to me. It was special but in the end we wanted a better result with the game,” Pulisic said. “For the coaches, staff, team to trust me to be captain of the team, it means everything. I was never a captain in my life. Now, to be captain for the United States national team it is an incredible honor. It doesn’t matter what age you are. I will never forgot this moment.”

Pulisic was one of the few U.S. players (Horvath and Tyler Adams the others) who tried to hold Italy back in a one-sided game where the U.S. had just 26.5 percent of possession.

The Dortmund winger was critical of the U.S. after their defeat to England last week, and he didn’t hold back following the loss against Italy.

“They came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”

Asked if adding veteran players into the squad in the coming months was the way forward, Pulisic said it will be up the new head coach to decide.

If he was the coach, he’d definitely give more minutes to experienced players.

“That would be up to the coach, it is impossible for me to see. I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”

And what about his own future?

Chelsea have been heavily linked with Pulisic in the past few days, while the Pennsylvania native has also been a long-term target of Premier League powerhouses Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur as his current contract with Dortmund runs until the summer of 2020.

Dortmund’s sporting director released a statement on Monday saying that Pulisic would not be for sale this January, and Pulisic was asked by Pro Soccer Talk if there has been any change in his current situation given the increased speculation.

“I’m still focused on Dortmund. We are doing great this season. Once the break comes [in January], that is always when I will have to discuss with Dortmund and see about my future,” Pulisic said.

The door appears to remain open for a move in the coming months.