After 12-year absence, Southampton wholeheartedly embrace European return

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SOUTHAMPTON – “We are Southampton… we’ve come from League One.”

That was the chant which rang out around St Mary’s moments after Graziano Pelle had put Saints 1-0 up against Vitesse Arnhem in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League third qualifying round match. Saints’ fans wanted to give everyone a reminder of just how far they’ve come in such a short space of time.

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The Premier League club had waited 12 years to get back in European competition, and St Mary’s was packed to the rafters as they beat Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem 3-0 with goals from Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Shane Long sealing their first European win in 34 years. Southampton’s manager Ronald Koeman has won the UEFA Champions League as a player and has coached in the UCL and Europa League as a manager. He has vast experience of European soccer, but as for his players and his club, it’s all new to them.

“It makes it easier for the players if our fans our coming with those numbers to support the team.” Koeman said. “For everyone in the club it is a new situation and they don’t have that experience. We enjoyed that. We will do everything to reach the group stage of the Europa League.”

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For Southampton, qualifying for the Europa League represents the beginning of a new adventure, one their owners always dreamed of, but just over six years ago you’d scarcely believe they’d be in this position. I remember visiting St Mary’s Stadium in 2009 as the club still searched for an owner to save it. The lights were out in the reception area. One lonely receptionist sat wistfully behind a desk as hopes of another takeover attempt were talked of longingly. That takeover bid would fail in the coming days. Those were dark times in Southampton’s 129-year history.

On Thursday, all of the lights were on at St Mary’s. And then some. The game against Vitesse Arnhem was a sell out as over 32,000 took in the first European game in the city since 2003. Four years after being in English soccer’s third-tier, it was a marquee moment for the South Coast club. As the sun beat down on St Mary’s on a late July evening, two first half goals made sure the mood of the home fans matched the weather.

“It is a very good feeling,” Koeman said. “We had a great atmosphere in the stadium. The fans were looking forward to this game tonight and maybe it was one of the reasons we had a bit of a difficult start in the first 10, 15 minutes. After that we controlled the game well.”

The last time Southampton qualified for Europe it was in the old UEFA Cup format of straight knockout in each round. They were paired with Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest, the toughest team they could have faced, and lost 2-1 on aggregate. After 19 years of waiting to play in Europe, Saints’ fans got two games, and that was it. Speaking to club officials before the match — who have been with the team throughout the double relegation’s and back up to the PL again — they were delighted with the return to Europe after 12 years away and this time, unlike their brief fling in 2003, it felt like Saints belong on this stage. Southampton did qualify for Europe three out of four years throughout the early 1980s, and one man who traveled to Norrkoping and Hamburg during those brief flirtations with the European continent was taxi driver and lifelong Saints fan, Steve Rolfe.

“This is a momentous evening. It sounds cliche but this is League One to the Europa League. It’s the end of a five-year plan we were told about at the start, and we’ve actually done it,” Rolfe said. “The idea now is to move on again. Whether that happens now or some time in the future, we will have to wait and see. I went away to Norrkoping in Sweden and Hamburg in Germany. So technically I haven’t missed one of Saints’ European game for over 30 years! But obviously there hasn’t been too many of them. It’s a chance for the away games to go to places you haven’t been, cities you haven’t been, stadiums you haven’t been and it’s a different style of football. It’s all good.”

Before kick off “one Markus Liebherr” was sung by the home fans to thank the businessman who saved them from extinction in 2009. Looking back six years, Saints had just exited administration, were floundering near the bottom of League One (English soccer’s third-tier) and were trying to piece everything together with new players, a new manager and new owners. After back-to-back promotions in 2011 and 2012, Saints returned to the promise land of the Premier League two years ahead of the initial “five-year plan” set out by their ambitious owners. Sadly, Liebherr passed away in 2010 and hasn’t been around for much of their rise but his daughter Katharina has continued to run the club the way her father would have wanted. But returning to the top flight was only the start. Survival wasn’t good enough. Next stop: Europe.

Southampton v Vitesse - UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st Leg
Southampton v Vitesse – UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st LegJordan Mansfield/Getty Images

“It was amazing, as always. It is nice to grow up as a team and also with the fans. Last year we had a record number of points in the Premier League and we are reaching the Europe League group stages, hopefully,” striker Pelle said after his goal set Saints on their way. “Today the atmosphere was amazing, a full stadium always behind us and it is what we want. We have to always please them with great performances.”

As I drove into the center of Southampton for the game, kids playing on the street kicked around the official UEFA ball. Tales trickled through to me of Vitesse Arnhem fans in the city for two days in advance of the match, as they mixed and drank in pubs with locals. Walking to the stadium, the home fans mingled with away fans and there were plenty of wistful looks from the locals. Emotions were running high and a European night on the south coast was a big deal.

Other cities in England regularly host Europa League and UEFA Champions League matches. For a bustling port city that is used to welcoming visitors from around the world, Sotonians are desperate for their club to have European nights like this regularly down by the River Itchen. A local band had even produced a song called “Southampton in Europa” to fire everyone up, and it had as many techno-beats as you’d expect as they performed outside the stadium before kick off. But what about the grand dreams of bringing the Champions League to the city? Saints flirted with the top four for most of last season to try and make that a reality. Will the Europa League be a steeping stone?

“I’d rather my club was in the Europa League than the Champions League, largely because the size of our club,” Rolfe said. “We wouldn’t get very far in the Champions League, it would be good fun, but we are more suited to the Europa League as things stand.”

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The fact that Europa League qualification is seen as a reward and is embraced by the people of Southampton, the entire playing and coaching staff and everyone else behind the scenes, is a breath of fresh air. For too long teams have treated the Europa League as an afterthought. It’s the poor man’s Champions League that sees you travel to far flung corners of Europe on a Thursday. For the bigger clubs in European soccer, it’s a nuisance. But for ambitious clubs like Saints, it’s a stepping stone to success and a chance to evaluate their progress against like-minded teams in Europe. The Europa League is scoffed at by many, but it’s a big deal in Southampton.

It was a sell out at St Mary’s as European soccer returned, but one Saints fan, Matt Saunders, didn’t have a ticket. When I caught up with him, he was lingering outside the ticket office before kick off to see if any last minute tickets went on sale

“When we were in League One, I don’t think many people believed we’d make it back to the Premier League, let alone Europe,” Saunders said. “It is phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. If you look around, you can see what it means to the city, the atmosphere. It’s wonderful.”

In terms of Premier League clubs in the Europa League in recent seasons, Chelsea were the last team to win it in 2013 after being knocked out of the Champions League and “demoted” to the Europa. Before them the likes of Middlesbrough and Fulham reached the final against all the odds. I’m not saying Saints will get that far, but clubs of a similar stature who have embraced the competition in the past have reaped the benefits.

“We have come a long way from League One but since 2010 we have been on an amazing journey and today was one of the proudest moments of my career leading the team out in Europe,” said Saints’ skipper, Jose Fonte. “This is a competition we take very seriously and this is a chance for us do well, We are an ambitious group. There will probably be new arrivals. This is a great club with great staff, great players and great fans so it is easy to adapt and fit in.”

There is, of course, a negative side many harp on about when it comes to the Europa League. The travelling and extra games impacts clubs like Saints who have smaller squads and their league form subsequently nosedives. Case in point: Swansea City in 2014, Everton last season and Newcastle in 2013. But is that a myth? Will 8-10 extra games — if Saints get through the final two qualifying rounds and reach the group stages — in the fall tip Koeman’s squad to its breaking point?

Southampton v Vitesse - UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st Leg
Southampton v Vitesse – UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st LegJordan Mansfield/Getty Images

It will stretch them to the limits, that’s for sure, but why wouldn’t a team like Southampton go for it and embrace a chance to grow their brand and take their style of play to Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe?

The lingering doubts of PL form faltering and suddenly being sucked into a relegation battle remain, with every club wary of losing the riches being a PL club brings it. It’s a tricky situation for Saints, and other teams in the PL such as West Ham, Swansea and Stoke, who all aspire to compete in Europe regularly but the threat of relegation would see those teams plunge into a downward spiral.

“We are not in a position to think that the Europa League is not important,” Koeman said. “You look to the crowd, you look at the atmosphere tonight. Everybody likes to be part of Europe and we will do the maximum to reach the Europa League group stage.”

Whatever happens in the rest of Southampton’s Europa League campaign this season, a European dream is being realized and the ambitious club is eager to dine at Europe’s top table. For now the Saints are marching on to Europe, and they’re embracing the new challenge one step at a time.

Red Bulls fall again, on the road at New England

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The defending champions are struggling under new management, and so are the defending Supporters Shield winners.

New York remains with just five points on the season after falling at Eastern Conference rivals New England 1-0 on Saturday. On a rainy night in Gillette Stadium, there was just enough offense for the hosts to squeak by, while the visitors had no end product on a forgettable evening.

After a listless first half that featured little for fans to savor, New England bagged the winning moment with 17 minutes to go. On the break, substitute Cristian Penilla blasted a right-footed shot past Luis Robles in somewhat innocuous fashion. It’s one the goalkeeper will want back, and given the 21 total shots on the night, not exactly the best chance of the evening.

With the loss, New York remains in 10th on just five points through the first seven games of the season, the same amount defending champions Atlanta United has sitting one position lower. Neither side has been able to repeat the form they had in last year’s award-winning season. Chris Armas has seen the team perform in spurts at best, and while the -1 goal differential maybe suggests the points total will improve, it’s still a far cry from what last year provided.

While the defense has lost its way at times, the Red Bulls attack has been the biggest culprit to this point, and that reared its head again tonight. The Red Bulls created 10 chances, but only one of those was a big chance, and they struggled in one-on-one situations, successful in just five of their 18 attempted take-ons. Bradley Wright-Phillips was isolated up front and while Armas clearly set the build-up so he would be a factor in the air, BWP struggled mightily in that department, winning just five of 18 aerial duels.

Timbers off the mark at Columbus with first win of the season

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The Portland Timbers are finally off the scheid in the 2019 season, earning a road win at a quality opponent, downing Columbus 2-0 at MAPFRE Stadium.

It took a half-hour for the breakthrough but in the 31st minute Larrys Mabiala got his head to a set-piece delivery and powered it in past the near post. Zack Steffan got his hands to the ball but it was from close enough range that he couldn’t muster the power to stop the effort.

That wasn’t it for the Timbers before halftime as they doubled the lead four minutes later. Sebastian Blanco sent in a low, slicing cross from the left flank into the center of the box, and with Artur slow on the close out, Jeremy Ebobisse latched on and buried it into the back of the net.

After the break, Pedro Santos brought Columbus back within one in the 69th minute with an ambitious chip that caught Jeff Attinella way off his line, but it wasn’t enough. Jorge Moreira finished things off in injury time, blasting a howitzer into the top of the net for a 3-1 lead and all three points. The win lifted Portland off the bottom of the Western Conference, on four points to push them to 10th. Columbus, meanwhile, fails to take the opportunity to move top of the Eastern Conference, still sitting fourth, level with three other teams on 13 points.

Premier League Sunday preview: Arsenal, Man United, Liverpool all in play

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The battles at the summit of the Premier League table continue as three of the top six teams take the field on Sunday.

The title race is still white hot, with both Manchester City and Liverpool swinging back and forth with every positive result. City jumped back into the lead with the win on Saturday over Tottenham, a point in front with four matches remaining on both the dockets.

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The fight for the Champions League places also looks a good one, with four teams battling for just two places. Tottenham sits precariously in third on 67 points, while Arsenal and Chelsea are level on 66 with the Gunners holding the goal differential tiebreaker by five. Manchester United is in sixth on 64 points, still in the mix.


Everton v. Manchester United — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Red Devils are the first of the Champions League contenders to take the field as they visit Goodison Park. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s honeymoon period in charge of Manchester United is over and it’s time for him to prove he belongs. The Norwegian boss was given the permanent position after a record start to his interim tenure, but the timing was still odd and as the season winds down, the Red Devils could be left out of the mix for Europe’s biggest competition. Luke Shaw is suspended for the match for yellow card accumulation, but otherwise the injury news is good with Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, and Alexis Sanchez all reportedly available.

Everton, meanwhile, sits in a similar position as Manchester United, battling for a European place but bringing up the rear. The Toffees sit in 10th, back of the pack among a crowded fight for the last Europa League place. Everton is still just three points back of Watford who currently holds that spot, and while they can break everyone’s hearts by upsetting Manchester City in the FA Cup final, a loss would give the Europa League position to whoever finishes seventh.

INJURIES: Everton —  OUT: Yerry Mina (hamstring), Andre Gomes (suspension). | Manchester United — OUT: Luke Shaw (suspension).


Cardiff City v. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Liverpool yet again has to put pressure on Manchester City to have any hope in the Premier League title race. Ahead of the midweek Manchester derby, the Reds have the opportunity not just to take the lead but to stay there should City slip up at all against the Red Devils with their game in hand.

They’ll need a result against a team fighting for its life. Cardiff City is in 17th in the Premier League table, three points shy of safety. A shocking win would put Cardiff in much better position, while a loss would see them potentially fall two games out. They’ve lost three straight and haven’t scored in their last two, so Liverpool will be licking its chops.

INJURIES: Cardiff City —  OUT: Souleymane Bamba (knee), Callum Paterson (ankle), Matthew Connolly (ankle), Harry Arter (calf), . QUESTIONABLE: Aron Gunnarsson (back). | Liverpool — OUT: none. QUESTIONABLE: Dejan Lovren (illness), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee).


Arsenal v. Crystal Palace — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold and NBCSports.com

The Gunners will know Manchester United’s result before taking the field, to see whether they will be looking to strengthen their Champions League position or hoping to recapture it. Arsenal is currently in fourth, clinging barely to its spot in the top European competition, but they have been strong of late and have a soft schedule to finish the season, so there is no reason not to lock the spot down. Still, the injuries are rampant and there are fears that Aaron Ramsey‘s Arsenal career will end with the thigh injury he picked up midweek in Europa League play. Coupled with the three long-term injuries to Bellerin, Welbeck, and Holding plus Sokratis’ suspension, the Gunners are thin.

Crystal Palace has little to play for at this point, sitting in 14th on 39 points but unlikely to be sucked into the relegation battle. Roy Hodgson has led the squad to five wins since the start of February, good enough form to keep them out of the maelstrom at the bottom of the table. They put up a decent fight against title leaders Manchester City last time out, and kept two straight clean sheets in the matches before that. However, they lost two important players recently in James Tomkins and Jeffrey Schlupp who both will miss the rest of the season after long-term injuries.

INJURIES: Arsenal —  OUT: Aaron Ramsey (thigh), Hector Bellerin (knee), Rob Holding (knee), Danny Welbeck (ankle), Sokratis (suspended). QUESTIONABLE: Granit Xhaka (groin). | Crystal Palace — OUT: James Tomkins (groin), Jeffrey Schlupp (ankle), Mamadou Sakho (knee).

Tenacious 2-1 Dallas victory at Atlanta deepens Frank de Boer’s woes

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Jesus Ferreira scored just six minutes into the match and that was enough to top a disjointed and sputtering Atlanta United side 2-1 at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Atlanta held nearly 70% possession and outshot Dallas 16-6, but the final product was far from polished yet again, and they were unable to find a breakthrough at the venue they devoured opponents in just last season. The hosts connected on just one of 18 attempted crosses and created nine chances but only one labeled as a big chance by Opta statistics.

On the other end, Dallas picked its spots to perfection, connecting on five of its seven shots, the first of which provided the key moment of the match. Michael Barrios stole the ball near midfield and broke two-on-two, beating Brek Shea with his dribble before feeding a perfect ball to Jesus Ferreira at the far post for the finish.

FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez was big the rest of the way, making a big save in the 79th minute to deny Josef Martinez to keep him off the scoresheet yet this season, up to over 400 minutes of scoreless play. Again he denied Martinez in the 82nd minute off a set-piece as he dove down to stop a shot at the near post. Overall, Gonzalez made seven saves to preserve the clean sheet.

The visitors put the game away in the 84th minute on the break as Atlanta had committed the team forward to find an equalizer. Michael Barrios broke on a turnover and received the ball deep in the attacking half, pausing for a moment before finding substitute Bryan Acosta who was streaking down the middle. Acosta had beaten Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on the counter, and with one touch he poked the ball past Brad Guzan to seal the victory.

Martinez had a chance moments later to make things interesting late and give Atlanta a chance, but completely botched the opportunity after a wonderful touch got him behind the Dallas defense in the 89th minute. That miss was a perfect encapsulation of Atlanta’s start to the 2019 season, a chance that would have unquestionably found the back of the net had Martinez been in last year’s form.

Atlanta gained a consolation at the death as VAR caught a tackle by Carlos Gruezo on Brek Shea at the edge of the area in the 76th minute. That finally saw Martinez put the ball in the back of the net for his first goal of the MLS season, but it only served to compound his earlier miss that would have brought Atlanta back into the match with time to spare.

The loss leaves Atlanta in 10th in the Eastern Conference with just five points thus far. They are without a win at home in three tries this season in MLS play, a place they dropped just 14 points all season last year. It is just the fourth home loss at Mercedes Benz Stadium in club history, and increases pressure on Frank De Boer who has only won a single game through his opening six league fixtures in charge of the defending champions.