MLS preview: Galaxy vs. FC Dallas, Crew vs. Timbers

Leave a comment

Week 30 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is upon us, and believe it or not, we’re finally starting to figure this whole playoff picture out. By the end of the weekend, any of four teams could have their respective conference’s top seed all but sewn up, while it’s time to kick one of these Western Conference wannabes to the curb. Who’s with me?

Predictions record through Week 29: 41-54

So, if you’re to watch just three MLS games this weekend — who am I to tell you to watch only three games? — might I suggest the following three:

LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas (Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Something pretty interesting has been going on with the Galaxy, and it’s pretty much exactly what we predicted would happen months before the arrival of Steven Gerrard: they’ve got worse — much worse — and it’s all to do with the midfield balance. See, Gerrard isn’t 25 anymore. He’s not even 28, or 30, or 32. He’s 35, and an old 35 at that. To preserve his $6-million-per-year investment, Bruce Arena can’t play Gerrard in a role at all resembling a box-to-box midfielder, which is precisely what the Galaxy need.

Juninho is an elite defensive midfielder who sits in front of the back line, cleans up messes before they’re ever made, and sprays brilliant long balls into both channels and out to the wings. Problem is, that’s now Gerrard’s position, because, legs. So Juninho’s wandering further up the field, turning the ball over because he’s under a lot more pressure in the attacking half, and the Galaxy midfield and defense are suddenly under lots of pressure… with a 35-year-old attacking-midfielder-turned-d-mid charged with protecting an already frail defensive unit. Guess what. They’ve given up four goals in three games and haven’t scored a league goal since their five-goal dismantling of New York City more than a month ago. Oh, and maybe nobody in MLS attacks space and makes you pay on the counter like FCD and Fabian Castillo.

Prediction: Galaxy 2-2 FCD

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Columbus Crew SC vs. Portland Timbers (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live)

Can someone confirm for me that Crew SC and the Timbers aren’t, in fact, the same team? Let’s run down the list really quickly: Great on set pieces — check; terrible at defending set pieces — check; midfield three that holds its own with any unit in the league — check; overlapping full backs like whoa — check; exciting, dynamic wingers — check; enigmatic center forwards who see plenty of chances each game — check.

OK, that settles it, Crew SC and the Timbers are the same group of guys who just fly across the country and place twice every weekend. A win could push Crew SC all the way into the Eastern Conference’s top spot, while the Timbers need to win and overcome nine goals’ worth of goal differential to leave behind the sixth spot in the West.

Prediction: Crew SC 4-2 Timbers

[ MORE: Week 29 Team of the Week | Player of the Week ]

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Real Salt Lake (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Can we agree to one thing, for the sake of my sanity? Whichever of these teams walks out of Avaya Stadium with zero points Sunday night, we make them go away until March. Can we agree to that? Because, man, I am so done with these two teams and their yoyo-ing “we’re alive,” “we’re dead,” “we’re alive,” “we’re dead” schtick of the last two months.

How’s anybody supposed to have a correct take on a team if every time you buy into them, they fall flat on their face; and every time you say they’re finally dead, they hammer one of the league’s best teams? Naturally, they’ll play to the most exciting draw of the season, leaving us once again scratching our heads, still unsure what to make of either side’s postseason chances. They’ve currently both out of the playoff places, and pretty likely to still be there come Oct. 25.

Prediction: Earthquakes 1-1 RSL

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

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?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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’

Leave a comment

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.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

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.