Three things we learned from Sporting KC’s 1-1 draw with New York Red Bulls

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Following Sporting Kansas City’s 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls (full highlights above), it’s safe to say both sides are far from finished products as Week 1 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season draws to a close.

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Sunday night taught us a lot about both Sporting KC, as head coach Peter Vermes attempts to re-boot an already-accomplished side and return it to MLS Cup glory, and the New York Red Bulls, as Jesse Marsch looks to assemble his new team in a mold of his own.

THE FEILHABER-ESPINOZA DOUBLE PIVOT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS

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Those are Feilhaber and Espinoza’s passing diagrams. That’s a whole lot of red (65 percent completed) for two midfielders of their caliber, and with such a high defensive line behind them, it’s going to have to be much better going forward. In mid-season form, Felipe and/or Dax McCarty feed Bradley Wright-Phillips a better ball in behind the backline, and he’s finishing the one-on-one chance.

[ READ: All of PST’s 2015 team-by-team MLS previews ]

They also struggled positionally in defense, particularly in transition. The tendency for both players is to get forward, press high and always remain active. They did just that in the build-up to Lloyd Sam’s equalizing goal, and it cost them two points.

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That’s with the ball en route from Felipe to Sam. Notice where Krisztian Nemeth, the third central midfielder, is. Because he leaves such a gap in the center of the field, Feilhaber (right) and Espinoza (left) push forward to fill the void. Let’s have a look at what that leaves Sporting with defensively once Lloyd receives the pass.

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The answer: acres of space. Matt Besler rightly steps up to challenge Sam, but already on a yellow card, he can’t blow the play up with a firm tackle. Instead, Sam skates by Besler, turns him at the top of the penalty area and applies the perfect finish. Basically, soccer is dominoes, and one of Feilhaber or Espinoza has to be content to sit deep when the other presses forward, no matter the situation. They’ll get it because they’re both elite MLS players, but it’ll take a bit of gelling first.

All that said, Feilhaber was still the best player on the field. The above criticisms say a lot about how good he’s been for 18 months now, that I expect him to be near perfect every time out.

LIFE IS GOING TO BE A LITTLE TOUGHER FOR BWP IN 2015

Life was pretty good for Wright-Phillips when he had Thierry Henry feeding him five, 10, 15 or 20 golden goalscoring chances each game. So great, in fact, he managed to score 27 goals in 2014. Now, that’s not to say Henry was the lone maker of BWP’s historic goalscoring run, but it’s going to take all sorts of different contributions from BWP this year if the Red Bulls are to make the playoffs.

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Tha’s Felipe’s passing diagram. It’s actually pretty good (80 percent completed), but notice all of one pass completed into the final third. If that’s Henry hitting balls forward for BWP, at least half are complete and probably a couple in the back of the net, given Sporting’s high line.

I fear the Red Bull attack is going to struggle this season, unless/until BWP finds a way to be a bigger part of the build-up. Chances are going to be few and far between otherwise, and he’ll have to strike near perfect all year to put up his numbers.

MATT BESLER HASN’T LOOKED HIMSELF FOR NEARLY A YEAR

Look, I don’t know if it’s time to start asking, What’s wrong with Matt Besler (I don’t think it is), but he’s not been great since before the World Cup last year. And it’s not the “mistake” that led to the goal, or even the two yellow cards that got him sent off. It’s the little things at which Besler used to excel — practically to perfection — that haven’t been…right…for a while.

[ MORE: Kaka, Diskerud score as Orlando City, NYCFC draw in dual-debut ]

No doubt the absence of a true defensive midfielder shielding the back four has hurt the entire defense since Uri Rosell was sold in May 2014 — and Besler has often taken upon himself the responsibility to step forward and fill the void — he’s just not looked the same confident, never-puts-a-foot-wrong defensive commander I watched week in and week out from 2011 to early-2014.

We’ll leave it at that for now and see what the next few weeks look like before we go sounding any imaginary alarm.

Xhaka slams “bulls***” criticism of Arsenal

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Arsenal have been targets for a lot of criticism recently.

Granit Xhaka is usually at the center of it.

The Gunners captain came out all guns blazing after they lost 1-0 at Sheffield United on Monday, as he addressed Patrice Evra‘s comments that Arsenal are “babies” and always will be due to their mentality.

“We have to stop about mental [strength] bulls*** like this. For me, it is the same whether you play home or away – you have to win and show big character and a good game and not to always find the same excuse,” Xhaka said. “A lot of people they speak too much. It is not the first time he has spoken something about us. I have a lot of respect for him as he was a great player but you have to be careful what you say. But it is not only him – a lot of people speak a lot of bulls*** about us. It’s always the same.

“For me it is strange as they were in the same situation as us, they were players as well. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not always good but every week they speak bulls*** like this every week. I tell you the honest truth, I’m not interested in what people say and speak. We have to speak in our group to improve things and work hard and not listen to these people.”

Xhaka and Arsenal have only lost twice this season, 3-1 at Liverpool and 1-0 at Sheffield United.

But aside from being fifth in the table and two points outside the top four, pressure is being placed on Unai Emery and his squad as they’ve narrowly beaten Bournemouth, Burnley, Newcastle and Aston Villa so far. Their performances aren’t instilling confidence in anyone that they can seriously push for a top four finish this season.

Has much changed under Emery in the past 15 months? Nope. This is pretty much the same Arsenal team making the same old mistakes and looking vulnerable away from home. Nothing new here. Sure, some new players have arrived, but David Luiz, Pepe and Sokratis have all been hit and miss so far and it has been left to Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to try and rescue the Gunners each and every week.

Emery was supposed to change their style of play, develop them into a stronger team defensively and improve their chances of challenging for trophies once again.

None of that has happened, and it doesn’t look closer to happening. That is why the critics are circling around the Gunners. Monday was the perfect opportunity to prove their mentality had changed and they are a stronger, more balanced team under Emery. They aren’t and something drastic will have to change for them if Emery is going to win over the fans, and pundits, once again.

Ronaldo not ready for retirement: ‘Age is just a number’

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Cristiano Ronaldo reassured Juventus supporters and his legions of fans worldwide that at 34 he’s not ready for retirement yet.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule

“Age is just a number. It does not mean that at 34, 35, 36 you are at the end of your career,” Ronaldo said at a news conference ahead of Juventus’ Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday. “I can show that with my performances, how I play, the way I play, the way I still feel good, sharp, thinking about the game, more mature. This makes the difference.”

In the second season of a four-year deal at Juventus, Ronaldo had sparked concern among his fans when he said in an interview published a few weeks ago that he was starting to enjoy seeing himself “outside of football, so who knows what will happen in the next year or two?”

Ronaldo recently scored his 700th goal as a professional while on international duty with Portugal and has been nominated for a record sixth Ballon d’Or award – which would break his tie of five with Lionel Messi.

But Ronaldo said he’s more interested in winning a treble with Juventus.

“We want to win Serie A, we want to win the Cup, the Champions League,” he said. “Juventus should think big. … We are going to try to win all the trophies, we know it will be difficult, especially the league and the Champions League, but I think it is possible. Everything is possible.

“In terms of individual, I have nothing to say as this is individual. It is not the most important thing,” Ronaldo added. “The most important is the collective awards. If you win the collective awards you have more chance to win the individual awards. … The Golden Ball is for me in second place.”

While retirement may not be on Ronaldo’s mind yet, family time is a big part of his life now.

“To win games, to score goals, to enjoy myself, to arrive home and see my kids happy and say, `Congratulations daddy for scoring a goal.’ That makes me happy,” he said. “This is my motivation to come to train, for the games, to entertain people and the fans with my passion.”

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

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Carragher apologizes to Evra over Suarez t-shirts

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Jamie Carragher has apologized to Patrice Evra after Liverpool wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez in 2011.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The day after Suarez was banned for eight games by the English Football Association, who found him guilty of racially abusing Evra, Liverpool’s players put on t-shirts with Suarez on the front and back during their warm up in a Premier League game against Wigan Athletic.

Carragher and Evra were both analysts for our partners at Sky Sports in the UK on Monday Night Football for the clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal, and discussed the current problems with racism in the game.

“There is no doubt we made a massive mistake; that was obvious,” Carragher said.

Liverpool’s former vice-captain asked Evra how he felt regarding the situation with Suarez, and the former Man United, Juventus and Monaco left back revealed his disgust at the way the situation was handled.

“When I saw it I was like, this is ridiculous. This is unbelievable,” Evra said. You put your own club in danger when you do those things. You always have to support your player because he is from your team but this was after the ban. If it was before and we were waiting for the sanction, I would understand. What message do you send to the world? Supporting someone being banned because he used some racist words.”

Click play on the video above for the full discussion between Carragher and Evra.

Italy women’s team awarded for ’emancipating’ female game

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ROME (AP) The Italy women’s national soccer team was awarded the Foreign Press Association’s Invictus award Monday for promoting and “emancipating” the female game in the country with its run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: Sheffield United beat Arsenal with stellar defensive display (video) ]

Head coach Milena Bertolini and forward Barbara Bonansea were given the award during a ceremony at the Rome-based association.

With soccer dominated by men in Italy and few opportunities for girls, Bertolini recounted how she had to dress up as a boy to play as a kid.

“Now things are changing, thanks to the Italian federation’s school programs,” Bertolini said.

Bertolini and Bonansea lamented that female players are still not considered professionals and therefore are not permitted to earn more than $33,500 per year by Italian law.

“It’s not about the money, it’s a question of rights,” said Bonansea, who also plays for Italian champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Referee officials explain VAR decision on Rashford goal ]

While Italy’s men’s team is a four-time World Cup champion, the women had not played in a World Cup for two decades and entered as a prohibitive underdog during its opening match against Australia in France in June. But the Azzurre came back from a goal down for a 2-1 win courtesy of Bonansea’s two scores , with her second coming in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

“That goal shaped our World Cup, both in terms of results and in terms of promoting women’s soccer in Italy,” Bertolini said. “The strong emotions on the field were transmitted to everyone who was watching. I still get goosebumps now just thinking about that goal.”

The Azzurre went on to win their group then beat China in the first knockout round before losing to eventual finalist the Netherlands.

In a country of 60 million people, a total of more than 20 million spectators watched Italy’s five matches on RAI state TV, setting audience records for women’s soccer game after game.

The Invictus award is dedicated to “promoting the positive effects of sports in terms of integration and emancipation by the vulnerable sections of society.”