Quick Six: Red Devils regress, Sunderland routs rivals, and the other headlines from the Premier League’s 24th round

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1. No “BIG THREE” Solution For Manchester United

When former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson claimed Charlie Adam’s corner kicks were worth £10 million, he was doing more than driving up the price of the then-Blackpool midfielder. Weighing in on the Liverpool target, Ferguson was also implicitly commenting on the limits of the Scottish international’s game. After all, how much time do we spend talking about Andrea Pirlo’s set piece delivery given everything else he can do. Pirlo, Adams is not.

On Saturday, however, Manchester United’s much-criticized midfield made the 28-year-old Stoke City distributor look like a world-class talent. With scores in the 38th and 52nd minutes, Adam’s brace book gave the Potters a historic win over Manchester United. It was the first time Stoke had beaten the Red Devils since joining the Premier League in 2008.

With all due respect to the Potters (who were fully worth their three points on Saturday), the big story here continues to be David Moyes, who showed no sign of adaptability by tossing Juan Mata wide right in a 4-4-2. For a team that has suffered because of a lack of final third creativity, it was a terrible choice, one that sets up the club’s record transfer buy as a potential waste of money. Rather than adapt to the new talent he’s bought, the first-year boss is forcing that talent into an underachieving approach.

We talked about that potential problem on Tuesday. Now, having seen how Moyes plans to use Mata when Van Persie and Wayne Rooney are available, United fans have another cause of concern. If their club ever acquires the talent to address the holes Ferguson left behind, do they have the right manager to make it work? Everything we’ve seen in 2013-14 says “No.”

2. Derby dominance fuels Sunderland’s continued climb

Given how Sunderland has been playing, 14th place actually understates their quality. Remember all that early season talk about whether they were too far gone? Now nobody thinks the Black Cats will end up in the Championship., the club having climbed out of the hole Gus Poyet inherited from Paolo Di Canio.

Instead, the story coming out of Saturday’s Tyne-Wear Derby is the Cats’ continued dominance for their northeast rival. With goals from Fabio Borini, Adam Johnson, and Jack Colback, Sunderland recorded their third straight win over the Magpies, a streak that’s transcended last season’s relegation worries, this season’s traumatic start, and generally sitting lower than Newcastle in the Premier League table since the Magpies’ promotion. After Saturday’s romp, Sunderland’s unbeaten in five against the fiercest rivals.

That was the perspective after Saturday’s win – one of dominance. The larger context casts Saturday’s win as the high point in the league’s most remarkable turnaround. This team wasn’t merely off to a poor start. They bad; like, people talking about how few points they’ll get bad.

Now? They’re one of the bottom half’s safest bets for survival. Credit of Johnson. Credit to Borini. But most of all, credit to Gus Poyet. His first Premier League job is turning into a dramatic success, at least early on.

3. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s two delivers three for Arsenal

Can we discuss this like mature adults  – people who know Manchester City plays tomorrow? That’s the deal. If not, we can’t talk about Arsenal moving into first after Sunday’s win over Crystal Palace. Call it a pet peeve, but if we’re going to treat them like the Premier League’s top team before the round’s over, I’m going to eject now.

Nobody’s going to do that? (Looks around the internet.) Well, I’ll be. This is amazing. Is the discourse finally evolving? Have we really stopped overreacting to “first place” on Saturday when the team’s likely to slide by Monday?

Probably not. With so much anticipation of tomorrow’s top-of-the-table tussle, people are speeding through Sunday’s two results to start the hype of Monday’s battle. It’s a special occasion. Thanks to tomorrow’s big game, we’re being spared all the unreasonable “woo hoo” that normally accompanies a team going top.

Arsenal does deserve a few woo hoos, though. We’ve seen how much trouble teams have had breaking down Tony Pulis’s Crystal Palace. We saw it in the first half on Sunday. Yet in the second, thanks in large part to the long-awaited return on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners were able to make it reasonably comfortable for themselves. Outshooting the Eagles 6-2 (shots on target) while controlling 73 percent of the ball, Arsenal went on to a 2-0 victory.

They may not end the round in first, but consider what Arsenal’s already accomplished. Nobody’s talking about whether they can stick around. The debate as to whether they’re real title contenders faded long ago. With solid (if unspectacular) performances like these, Arsène Wenger’s team has silenced the doubters, and while that doesn’t mean a consensus of experts sees the Gunners claiming the title, it does mean lingering concerns about Arsenal’s quality aren’t lingering any more.

4. Liverpool, Tottenham slips see Everton reclaim lost ground

Aston Villa left Everton empty handed, yet both teams had reason to be content after Saturday’s match at Goodison Park. The Villans continued a good run of form that began a week ago at Anfield, and while they’ve only claimed four points over the span, that haul has kept Paul Lambert’s team five points above the drop. The club seems to have stabilized in 10th place, heights it hasn’t enjoyed since the departure of Martin O’Neill.

For Everton, responding with two late goals showed the type of resilience they’ll need to stay in the race for fourth. Coming off a demoralizing loss to Liverpool, the Toffees needed to get back into the win column, particularly given the opposition – a mid-table team visiting Goodison Park. That they were able to do so without the injured Romelu Lukaku gives them hope they’ll be able to survive the big Belgian’s absence.

It was part of a near-perfect round for the Toffees, who saw the effects of their mid-week loss nearly wiped off the books by Liverpool and Tottenham’s results. Thanks to Kolo Touré, Liverpool gifted West Brom a second half equalizer in the Reds’ 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. On Saturday, Tottenham were unable to claim full points from Hull, also held to a 1-1 result in their visit to the KC Stadium.

On the week, Everton only lost on one to Liverpool – not a terrible result considering they had to go to Anfield. They also jumped a spot in the standings thanks to Tottenham’s one-point week.

The Merseyside Derby make have been an embarrassing setback, but five days later, that effects of that setback have almost dried up.

5. Shake up no solution for Fulham

Fulham made four changes for yesterday’s match against Southampton. They were still terrible. Though they kept up with the Saints for most of the match, they lost 3-0 at home. Clint Dempsey, Pajtim Kasami, and Alexander Kacaniklic may have been dropped from the starting XI, but they didn’t take Fulham’s terrible defense with them.

And that’s the problem. Fulham may have undergone a complete makeover last week, welcoming Lewis Holtby, William Kvist, and Kostas Mitroglou (who didn’t play this weekend), but they’ve done little to address a defense that’s allowed 15 goals in its last six games. Even with all their changes, René Meulensteen somehow justified starting Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell in the middle – a relegation-worthy midfield that can’t grit and gut their way out of the bottom three (West Ham found this out with Parker three years ago).

Whether Parker and Sidwell keep playing or not, something bigger has to change at Fulham. The team’s in a free fall that’s landed them at the bottom of the table, and although they’ve already let one manager go, desperate times call for desperate measures. This team has only gotten worse since Martin Jol left, and with four straight multi-goal losses in the Premier League, it might be team to see if Alan Curbishley’s ready to return to the sidelines. Maybe he can organize a defense.

6. Relegation picture as murky as ever

Sunderland’s climb from 20th to 14th has been fueled not only by their amazing turnaround but by the traffic jam that continues to clog the table’s bottom half. From Stoke in 11th to Cardiff in 19th, only four points separate the nine teams currently in the middle of the relegation battle. One good, Black Cats-esque run could see any of them join Aston Villa above the muck. Fall on hard times, and a team starts to look like Fulham.

Stoke did the most for themselves this weekend. Not only did they move four clear of 18th but they claimed points their relegation rivals are unlikely to duplicate. Manchester United may be struggling, but they’re still capable of claiming three against most of the bottom half. Against Stoke, however, they left empty handed.

West Ham and Cariff also scored big wins, with the Hammers’ 2-0 victory over Swansea giving manager Sam Allardyce another reprieve. They may still but in the bottom three, but with Andy Carroll setting up two goals, there’s hope the return of their only real striker can carry them out of the drop. Provided stops collecting stupid red cards.

Three things we learned from Seattle-Real Salt Lake

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The game in 200 words (or less): Nick Rimando stood on his head in an outstanding 7-save performance that will be the last of his incredible career, as a fine near post header from Gustav Svensson and a late marker from Nicolas Lodeiro sent Seattle Sounders to the Western Conference Final with a 2-0 win in Washington on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

Real Salt Lake had a strong first half, with attacking life sprung from Jefferson Savarino, but the hosts had more dangerous chances and took control of the match in the second 45 through relentless Jordan Morris and visionary midfielder Lodeiro. Svensson scored off a set piece and Lodeiro deservedly joined the scoring at the end of a Man of the Match performance before RSL’s Everton Luiz was shown a straight red for an awful two-footed tackle.


Three things we learned

1. Playoffs make unlikely heroes — It was going to take something special for Seattle to beat Rimando, and Gustav Svensson got the better of Kyle Beckerman to turn Lodeiro’s near post corner kick past the wrong-footed keeper. Brian Schmetzer’s teams have never lost a home playoff game, and that record stands thanks to Svensson’s noggin. It was the Swede’s 14th goal in 367 career matches.

2. Morris, Lodeiro lead determined Sounders — Morris, the MLS Comeback Player of the Year, has a first-class engine with a motor to match, and his on-field wisdom and improvement on both wings has made him a terror in MLS. Combine that with the vision of Lodeiro and there was a feeling of inevitability once the match reached halftime with zeroes on the scoreboard.

Lodeiro’s goal to make it 2-0, off a fine set-up from Raul Ruidiaz, was a sweet finish and a deserved marker. Look out, Los Angeles.

3. Rimando’s final game finds him in fine feather– The “Wall of the Wasatch” made a pair of very good saves in the first 15 minutes, the second causing him serious shoulder discomfort. He was needed again at halftime as Raul Ruidiaz raced onto an inch-perfect Lodeiro cross in the 43rd minute. After Nedum Onuoha blocked a shot with his face early in the second half, Rimando saved his teammate an own goal moments later. He made a flying 61st minute save to keep it 0-0, and made another terrific stop in the 86th minute to deny Victor Rodriguez with his seventh save of the night.

Twenty-two times capped by the USMNT, he played over 500 times for Major League Soccer teams and was very good on his final bow. He spoke to FS1 on the field after the game:

“I enjoyed everything. I enjoyed my 20 years and being here with family, it’s not the way we wanted to go. It’s a tough thing to swallow. It’s hard to put in words. I gave so much to the sport. To see it go, I’m just grateful you know, for everything it’s given me. It’s tough to lose like this. We’ll see what happens next.”

Man of the Match: Lodeiro — The 60-times capped Uruguay was lively from Moment No. 1 and will give Seattle hope against any remaining opponent.


NYCFC boss Torrent hints at coaching change after playoff exit

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A crushing defeat to Toronto FC may’ve signaled the end of the Domenec Torrent era at New York City FC.

The Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed was statistically the better team on Wednesday at Citi Field, but Torrent’s saw horrid errors from two players contribute to a 2-1 loss.

[ MORE: NYCFC 1-2 Toronto FC ]

Torrent worked under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Man City before taking the reins for the Bronx-based City, and led NYCFC to the East’s top seed and the second-highest performing offense in MLS. He finished second to Bob Bradley in the MLS Coach of the Year vote.

The defense wasn’t bad, either, but errors from Maxime Chanot and Ronald Matarrita opened the door for TFC on Wednesday.

Sport Business’ Bob Williams reports that Torrent was pretty blunt with the media following the loss, saying at one point, “NYCFC are ready for another coach, don’t worry.”

Three things we learned from NYCFC-Toronto FC

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The game in 200 words (or less): The Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed is gone from the MLS Cup Playoffs, and has no one to blame but itself.

The hosts took too long to get going at their temporary home of Citi Field — home of baseball’s New York Mets — and needed a strong first half from goalkeeper Sean Johnson to stay in the game before bowing out via two school child errors. The play overall was as haphazard as the baseball screen obstructed the TV cameras for most of the match, so it felt oddly fitting that Toronto’s appearances on the scoreboard came via elementary errors.

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

At the other end, well-traveled French-American backstop Quentin Westberg took over with an outstanding save on Maxi Moralez and another on Ronald Matarrita (an offside chance, alas). Alexandru Mitrita blew a 1v1 chance around the hour mark, but NYC found its breakthrough via Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. The Libyan forward lashed a back post offering from MLS assist leader Moralez home with just over 20 minutes to play. But Matarrita made an absolutely comical slide tackle on Richie Laryea in the box, and Pozuelo stepped to the line and put TFC in another conference final.


Three things we learned

1. Pozuelo punishes rusty hosts: NYCFC got a little too cute in dealing with a wild and unexpected lash into the box from Auro Jr., the message hailed by a series of popped-up headers not heard by City goalkeeper Sean Johnson (who to that point had been spectacular).

Maxime Chanot tried a header back to his keeper. It wasn’t a good one and Johnson declined to rush out for it. The one player City wouldn’t have wanted to run onto the mistake was former Swansea City man Pozuelo, who scored his 13th goal to go with eight assists in his first campaign with the Reds. He’d add his 14th when NYCFC made another terrible error, Laryea chopped down by Matarrita.

2. Savvy Toronto meets NYCFC plan head-on, but City regroups: Calmer on the ball and quick to reload, TFC was not bothered by the narrow pitch at Citi Field. The Reds were happy to play the ball all the way back to Quentin Westberg, but also more adept and desperate in 50-50 battles at the heart of the action. The second half, however, saw less crispness and tenacity from the Reds as NYCFC launched forward in desperation and NYC might’ve pulled out the win without those two costly errors.

Credit Toronto manager Greg Vanney, who introduced the penalty-winning Laryea late as a massive change from from right back Justin Morrow. Without Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, however, the Reds got the job done.

3. Johnson the early star, Westberg late: NYCFC veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson was much busier than his counter part in the first 30 minutes, and only stumbled once when he briefly bobbled Alejandro Pozuelo’s unfairly-won free kick. His finest moment came in the 37th, when Tsubasa Endoh backheeled to set up Jonathan Osorio for a vicious shot that Johnson’s pushed over the bar. Whereas the star of the first half was all about Johnson, TFC backstop Westberg was oh-so-necessary. The former Troyes and Auxerre goalkeepr made a big stop just after City equalized, and commanded the area as TFC took the win to the house.

Man of the Match: Chris Mavinga — Toronto’s Congolese center back was a force in the air and on the ground, putting an end to several big NYCFC chances with positioning and power.


FIFA inviting some non-champions to enlarged Club World Cup

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Based on qualification procedures seen by The Associated Press, teams can qualify for FIFA’s expanded Club World Cup without having to win a regional competition – even at the expense of some champions.

The FIFA Council on Thursday is set to approve China as host of the inaugural edition of the 24-team club competition in 2021 and review the qualification procedures, people with knowledge of the decision making told AP.

They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss FIFA’s plans ahead of the meeting in Shanghai.

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A document sent to council members seen by the AP shows the outcome of the initial talks between the FIFA administration and the six regional confederations to determine the criteria for securing one of the slots.

The revamped Club World Cup is due to be staged every four years, replacing the current annual format that features the six champions of continental competitions and the host nation’s domestic title winner.

But caps on the number of representatives from a single country in the new format raises the prospect of even winners of continental competitions missing out.

EUROPE

With eight slots, Europe will be the best represented continent at the Club World Cup even after rejecting four additional places, helping FIFA drive ticket sales and broadcast revenue.

All the Champions League and Europa League winners from 2018 to 2021 are set to qualify – although that could be dependent on UEFA determining the maximum number of slots per country. Clubs from England and Spain have dominated those competitions in recent years.

Should a team enjoy multiple wins across the competitions, the free slot is due to go to the most recent Champions League runner-up.

Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2018 when Atletico Madrid triumphed in the Europa League. English clubs swept last season’s trophies, with Liverpool victorious in the Champions League and Chelsea in the second-tier competition.

SOUTH AMERICA

While South America will get six slots, only the process for distributing four of them has been settled. They will go to the 2019 and 2020 winners of CONEMBOL’s two competitions: The Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.

The document shows no plan for determining the route to securing the remaining two berths or the limits on national representation.

ASIA

The three Asian places will to go the winners of the 2019 and 2020 Asian Champions League and the runners-up will have a playoff for the third entry into the Club World Cup group stage.

Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal will play Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in this season’s final next month.

If the title is defended in 2020, the runners-up from both years will complete Asia’s FIFA lineup.

But Asia only wants a maximum of two teams from one country. So, if the winners and runners-up in 2019 and 2020 are all from the same country, the two losing Asian Champions League semifinalists in 2020 would contest a playoff for a route into the global tournament.

NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA

The 2021 CONCACAF Champions League finalists will qualify but a process for deciding the third slot was left hanging in the FIFA Council document.

Mexican teams have won all 11 titles since the regional competition was rebooted as the Champions League. Only three of the finals have not been an all-Mexican lineup.

But a cap of two teams per country from this region will exist at the Club World Cup.

[ MORE: Talking CBA, MLS with Chris Wondolowski ]

AFRICA

The simplest qualification will be from Africa, with the places going to the 2021 Champions League finalists and the winner of a playoff between the two semifinalists.

The plan is complicated by a cap on two teams per country.

OCEANIA

Oceania is the only one of FIFA’s six confederations not guaranteed a place at the Club World Cup. To make one of the eight groups of three, the Oceania Champions League winner will face a playoff against the Chinese champions.

TOURNAMENTS DATES

A previous FIFA plan seen by the AP in March proposed the Club World Cup running from June 17 through July 4 in 2021, taking the slot originally set aside for the Confederations Cup competition that is no longer due to be contested.

For some players from Africa and the CONCACAF region it could be a busy summer, with their regional national competitions proposed to start on July 9.

The final two editions of the seven-team annual Club World Cup are being staged in Qatar this December and in December 2020.

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