Three things we learned from Sporting KC’s 4-0 thrashing of FC Dallas

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Sporting Kansas City moved to six games unbeaten (three wins) with a 4-0 thrashing of FC Dallas on Friday night, pushing the Western Conference newcomers to third place in the wild West. Few expected Peter Vermes’ side to gel and take the league by storm this quickly, but they’ve been immensely impressive in doing so.

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Most importantly, Friday’s showing put the rest of the league on notice: the end of the 2014 season was more an aberration than a sign of things to come. Three things to be taken from the latest installment of Viernes de Futbol

Krisztian Nemeth was brought in to be a (the?) difference maker, but he’s turning into a star instead

The thought behind Sporting’s signing of the ex-Liverpool prodigy’s this winter was that he’d serve as a consistent second scoring threat, taking the focus of opposing defenses off last year’s 22-goalscorer, Dom Dwyer, while chipping in eight or 10 goals of his own.

Instead, Nemeth has hit the ground running in MLS (when healthy) and very much usurped Dwyer’s star power — at least for the time being — with a three-game stretch (three goals, two assists – six and two on the season) in which he’s constantly looked like the best player on the field, in games against New England, Seattle and FCD — three surefire playoff teams and MLS Cup contenders.

The way Nemeth dominated, and at times toyed with, FCD’s talented, veteran central defense on Friday night (just watch how he leaves Matt Hedges for dead HERE) should serve as notice to the rest of the league. He’s dangerous with clever runs into the left channel, he’s simultaneously shifty and strong in his hold-up play, and yet he somehow looks most comfortable when running straight at defenders with the ball at his feet.

Dear Jurgen Klinsmann, please write Benny Feilhaber’s name on your Gold Cup roster…in ink

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Benny Feilhaber, Sporting Kansas City

This is one has more to do with the last 18 months than Friday night’s shellacking at Sporting Park — though Feilhaber was pure quality yet again — but, to steal a now-famous line from Sacha Kljestan, are you even watching, Klinsmann?

Feilhaber has been, by miles and miles, the best midfielder in MLS since the start of the 2014 season (see HERE, HERE, HERE and most notably HERE…and especially HERE). Three months of total balling out wasn’t enough to earn a call-up to last summer’s World Cup? OK, fair enough, do it for an extended period of time. The second half of 2014 looked much the same as the first. Three three months of 2015, Feilhaber has four goals and seven assists to his name.

To say he’s been the best player on the field in 75 percent of Sporting’s games this season would be selling the man short. No longer just a one-way, luxury playmaker, Feilhaber covers more ground and recovers more balls inside his own half than most defensive midfielders. In short, he’s exactly the player the U.S. national team was praying Michael Bradley could be in a more advanced role last summer. No sour grapes here, though, just hoping against all odds and precedence that Klinsmann won’t make the same mistake two summers in a row.

FCD looked extraordinarily average without Fabian Castillo

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Fabian Castillo, FC Dallas — Photo credit: FC Dallas

FCD managed to get by to a certain extent (one win, one draw) in four games without Mauro Diaz earlier this season. While the Argentine No. 10 is the beating heart of everything FCD look to do on a given night, the level of fright Castillo puts into the hearts of opposing full backs — and the subsequent production built upon said fear — is simply irreplaceable and further cements his place as the most dangerous attacking player in the league.

Without Castillo in the 18 on Friday night, the Sporting midfield collapsed on Diaz early and often, giving nary a glimpse of time or space in which to operate. Without the threat of Castillo running behind the exploitable right side of Sporting’s defense, the backline pushed higher and higher, smothering possession after possession deep in the middle third of the field.

Keying in on and shutting down one star attacker isn’t all that difficult in MLS, but doing so against a duo as talented as Castillo and Diaz…that’s a whole other story.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

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It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.