Sporting KC on new DP search, Everton talk, 2015 review and more

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Sporting Kansas City’s 2015 season may have ended prematurely with a penalty shootout defeat to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference playoff round, but that’s given them the opportunity to get the ball rolling for the 2016 season.

[ MORE: Behind-the-scenes at Wembley

Speaking exclusively to ProSoccerTalk, Sporting KC’s CEO Robb Heineman revealed that SKC’s coaches have been scouting in Europe as plans to add new Designated Players are well under way for the 2015 U.S. Open Cup champs.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage

In a wide-ranging interview Heineman also chatted about the Sporting Club ownership group being interested in buying Everton, or any other Premier League club which may come on the market for that matter, plus touched on Peter Vermes’ future at Sporting Park and the development of the U.S. Soccer training facility in KC.

With respect to new DPs arriving in the foreseeable future, Heineman believes that heading to Eastern Europe in particular will bear considerable fruit for the club.

“Two of our coaches have been in Europe already and that is probably going to be our focus,” Heineman confirmed. “We are going to look more at Eastern Europe, Portugal and Spain. We will probably do less in South America this year. Historically we have probably been more South American heavy but I think having brought in Kristzian Nemeth last year and he did such a nice job for us, I think we are going to go back to that well a little bit in Eastern Europe and find a player there. We have a nice relationship with Barcelona B over team and I think we are going to see if there’s some other players in Spain that we can bring in.

“That will be our strategy and I feel like this is an important offseason for us. We tried to make more moves than we made during the summer window and honestly we weren’t able to finalize the deals. That was a little troublesome for us. It is not like we are going to break up our team because we have a good group of core players but I do feel like we have got to reinvigorate that core with a couple of pieces and it is important to go get them this offseason.”

Will those players from Europe be DP players or will Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) come in to play to sign them?

“My expectation would be that a couple of the players we are interested in would qualify as Designated Players from a salary persepective,” Heineman said. “We are not signing [Andrea] Pirlo, we are not signing [Steven] Gerrard, that is never going to be our deal in the current cap structure of MLS where we are going to be signing $5 million annual salary guys. That is just not our formula but these are guys where there will be sizeble transfer fees and they will be Designated Players in terms of their salary. They will be either guys who are either TAM players or Designated Players and we will have to use TAM as a mechanism to work through our current roster cost structure.”

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 14: Sporting KC prepare to take on the Philadelphia Union at Sporting Park on May 14, 2014 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

On the subject of new additions, Heineman confirmed that the ownership group he is part of discussed buying Premier League outfit Everton and, despite saying it’s not upcoming, he wouldn’t rule out seeing them try to invest in or buy a PL club in the future.

“It is not anything that we are actively pursuing and I think part of what we did with the Everton exploration was that we really wanted to learn a lot more about the league and how teams operated. We spent a good amount of time there,” Heineman revealed. “I’m not sure we were ever really close to getting anything today and I don’t sit here today and say ‘gosh, we’ve got to go and find an opportunity in the English Premier League’ and that’s the way the other majority owners feel about it as well. I think we will always be opportunistic. If the right opportunity came our way and the timing made sense then I could see us doing something. It is not something I would say we are striving to do every day but it is also nothing we would turn our back on, for sure.”

With Sunderland, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa all currently owned by Americans and the likes of Bournemouth now having U.S. investors and Crystal Palace close to a takeover fronted by Josh Harris, why is owning a PL club so attractive to Americans in particular?

“There is tons of American interest but in relation to Everton specifically I never necessarily knew who else it was, I just knew that there were other parties with whom they were speaking,” Heineman said. “There is a huge trend of American owners getting involved and I could see another two to three American owners jumping in there over the next couple of years, for sure. It is the top league in the world and it is just like any other sports league. You always want to invest in the top opportunity available and I think the Premier League is that in the world of football. That is something that will always be attractive. I think with the increasing content and television rights you see around the Premier League it feels likes that is an investment which will exponentially grow over time. It is one that there are lots of people looking into.”

After confirming that Mike and Cliff Illig who are part of the Sporting Club group and the Illig’s are the main investors, are not individually in the running to buy Everton, Heineman stated that he felt the Sporting Club ownership group would stay together if an opportunity to buy one of the 20 PL clubs arose in the future. He also confirmed they would not be interested in partnering with any PL clubs if the opportunity arose, unless it was a two-way street. 

LIVERPOOOL - AUGUST 28: General view of Goodison Park taken during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Everton and Birmingham City played at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England on August 28, 2002. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Speaking of the future, helping SKC’s core group go further than they did in 2015 is crucial but overall Heineman was happy with how the 2013 MLS Cup champs performed this season, even if a familiar slump occurred towards the second half of the campaign.

“We had a good year and going into the season we had expectations to win it all, so to win the Open Cup was obviously for us organizationally, it is a big mantra of ours that we want to win championships, so to have a year we win that championship is important for us,” Heineman said. “The end of the season was disappointing in the fact that we went out the same way we went out last year with our results tailing off towards the end of the year and not advancing in the playoffs. We all look back on it and feel like it was a bit of an opportunity missed. We had a team where if we would have positioned ourselves better with home-field advantage we could have made a deep run in the playoffs. I don’t think I am saying anything every one of our players doesn’t feel, which is that we feel like we could have gone further in the playoffs.”

Heineman admitted that if SKC had finished the season stronger and secured home-field advantage in the playoffs then “the rest of the playoffs set up pretty well for us” and “we really felt like if we beat Portland we were going to play in MLS Cup.” Alas, a gut-wrenching 7-6 shootout loss to Portland ended the season and some questions were raised about the strength of Vermes’ squad which struggled to cope with defensive injuries.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sporting Kansas City celebrates with the Lamar Hunt trophy after defeating the Philadelphia Union in penalty kicks on September 30, 2015 at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

SKC have earmarked two areas where they feel they must strengthen during the offseason and Heineman admitted the maybe a lack of experience played a part in their downfall in 2015.

“It is interesting because we had depth this season in the respect that we had three rookies who probably overachieved and played a lot of minutes and played quite well for us. At the end of the season those are guys whose engine just are not built to play as many games as they had played,” Heineman said. “There were some games there when we needed to bring a dynamic sub on and we just didn’t necessarily have that available to us. So [in the offseason] we are looking for some depth in the attacking third and obviously we had some injuries tear us up in the back last season so bringing in another high-quality central defender is going to make some sense for us.”

NAPLES, FL - APRIL 04: Robb Heineman of Sporting Club poses with award at the 2013 Forty Under 40 Awards on April 4, 2013 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

With the Sporting Club group seeing their USL franchise making its debut in 2016, the Swope Park Rangers are, in Heineman’s words,  something “we definitely think of it first as a player development tool” and will use it to bridge the gap between their academy and first team while bringing soccer to other communities of KC. Heineman also revealed that a coaching staff “which has been coaching in a domestic league in the U.S.” will be announced on Friday for the Rangers.

“Although we’ve been successful with both Orlando City and Oklahoma City  it hasn’t been a pure player development opportunity for us. Now having the ability for the Rangers and Sporting Kansas City to train at the same time side-by-side on the training field, it will allow us to have a completely different opportunity,” Heineman said. “If you looked over the course over the past few years, it would have been great to have the Rangers for some rehab stints for guys like Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and Ike Opara trying to make their way back into the squad. We didn’t feel like it was the right thing to send those guys to Orlando or Oklahoma. We are really excited because we have the academy from ages 12-18 but we have had that gap from 19-23 so to have USL there as a reasonably effective development tool, we are feeling very good about that.”

HARRISON, NJ - SEPTEMBER 19: Head Coach Peter Vermes call out from the sidelines during tyhe fgame against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on September 19, 2012 in Harrison, New Jersey. Sporting Kansas City defeated New York Red Bulls 2-0. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

Something which has been pretty good over the past few years is the coaching at SKC. Asked about Vermes’ future with many touting him to be the next boss of the U.S. national team, Heineman revealed he’s a fan of what Jurgen Klinsmann is currently doing with the USMNT and pointed towards the fact that the $80 million new U.S. Soccer training complex opening up in Kansas City in 2017 is a big reason for Vermes to stay with Sporting.

“Peter over the course of his career is going to have every opportunity in the world. We have had some teams in Europe who have inquired about him over the course of the last year and some teams in our league, but what has always worked well with Peter and Kansas City is that his approach has always been long-term in nature,” Heineman said. “He has never been a guy who feels like he needs to force a player move in the season because if he doesn’t then he feels like it will cost him his job. We have a good relationship with Peter and feel like he has achieved a good amount here at SKC but he has a good amount in front of him. With the addition of us building this new training facility for the senior team as well as a U.S. Soccer training center, I think he feels that his resources here will allow him to continue to have success. We are proud of the job he has done and we are content that he will continue with us for the long-term.”

With MLS continuing to grow and the re-branding of the Kansas City franchise one of the major success stories of MLS 2.0, Heineman is keen for David Beckham’s potential franchise in Miami to get more time to find a suitable stadium option and is excited about where MLS is heading, long-term.

“David Beckham specifically has been a really important person for our league so us continuing to work with him so he has a long-term standing in our league makes a lot of sense,” Heineman said. “Hopefully everything works out there and his partner, Marcelo Claure, is a friend of ours in Kansas City and we would love to see that group come together. In relation to expansion, there are a number of different cities interested which is fantastic for us as a league but I will let the expansion committee run with that and see what happens.”

3 things learned: Man City v. Real Madrid

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Manchester City – Real Madrid was a fairly straightforward win for the hosts, as they reached the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals by beating the 13-time European champions 2-1 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

Raheem Sterling opened the scoring for Man City after a bad mistake from Raphael Varane was ruthlessly punished. Real’s Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema combined well at times and although Ederson denied them early on, Benzema pulled one back in the first half as Rodrygo’s cross was nodded home by the French striker.

Benzema and Jesus both went close for either team in the second half and the latter made the most of another big mistake from Varane to make it 2-1 and seal Man City’s spot in the quarterfinals for the third-straight season with relative ease.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Etihad, as Manchester City – Real Madrid was an open affair but the hosts always looked in control.


CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DREAM ALIVE FOR MAN CITY

Pep Guardiola is like Indiana Jones entering the desert on his way to reaching the holy grail. Lisbon is now his ‘Canyon of the Crescent Moon’ as Man City have a quarterfinal, semifinal and final between them and footballing immortality. Man City have longed for Champions League glory and given their successful appeal against their two-season UEFA ban, they will now stride into Lisbon, Portugal as the favorites to be crowned champions of Europe. They strolled past Real Madrid and even without the injured Sergio Aguero, you’d fancy them to sweep all before them to reach the promised land. Man City have always found a way to mess things up in the Champions League but this season feels different. They gave up their Premier League trophy easily to Liverpool but it seemed like the Champions League was always the main focus this season. They now face Lyon in the quarterfinals and then their toughest test, likely either Barcelona or Napoli in the semifinals. Guardiola knows the holy grail is within reach as he is closer than ever to finally delivering the trophy Man City’s Abu Dhabi owners have built this whole project to win.


SLOPPY REAL MADRID EXIT WITH A WHIMPER

Missing captain and legendary Sergio Ramos through suspension from the first leg, Real Madrid needed young defender Edgar Militao to step up in is place. They did not need silky smooth defender Raphael Varane to give the ball away early on to give up a cheap and avoidable goal. Although Real recovered from that early error, they failed to get Luka Modric on the ball as much as they wanted to and Eden Hazard and Benzema only showed flashes of promise. Just when it seemed like Real would push hard for a second goal which would have taken the game to extra time, Varane made another big mistake. And that was that. After impressing in La Liga since the restart and winning the Spanish title, Real Madrid looked remarkably subdued as perhaps a few weeks off before this game impacted them. The Kings of Europe will have to wait another year to add another crown to their collection. Manchester City – Real Madrid was historic, as it marked the first time Zinedine Zidane has ever lost a Champions League game in the knockout rounds. The way his team limped out of Europe was surprising and disappointing for Real Madrid.


PEP BEATS ZIZOU, BUT FALSE NINE FAILS

It was a surprise to see Phil Foden start ahead of David Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva in a game of this magnitude but there’s always a method to Pep’s madness. And it isn’t madness, is it? It’s genius. Just like he did in the first leg at Real Madrid, Pep raised eyebrows as he started a central midfielder (Foden this time, Kevin de Bruyne in the first leg) as a false nine. Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling were rampant from each flank early on, putting defenders under pressure in their own box, and that was how they opened the scoring. But Man City then failed to build on that lead and let Real back into the game. Pep changed things around at half time and Jesus looked more comfortable centrally and so too did Foden. It was a small tweak but it got Man City back on track and Guardiola’s tactical nous made the difference, even though Man City were handed the win on a platter thanks to Real Madrid’s shaky defensive display.

Chelsea reveal Pulisic injury update

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The latest Christian Pulisic injury news has arrived and it is not as bad as it could have been, but not great either.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

In the FA Cup final last Saturday, Pulisic, 21, scored a superb opener at Wembley as he dazzled for Chelsea early on but right at the start of the second half he raced clear of the Arsenal defense, again, but injured his right hamstring and was in agony before he took a shot.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg game at Bayern Munich on Saturday (they trail 3-0 from the first leg), Lampard confirmed that the latest Pulisic news is that he’s expected to be out for six weeks with his hamstring injury.

“We will get him fit and ready, if he misses the first one or two games, then we can wait for a firing Christian like he was from restart,” Lampard told reporters.

The latest Pulisic injury news means he will likely miss the whole of preseason and the opening few weeks of the 2020-21 Premier League season, as the new season kicks off on Sept. 12 due to the quick turnaround and the delays following the coronavirus pandemic.

When Pulisic came off injured against Arsenal, Chelsea missed him badly as they ended up losing the FA Cup final and the USMNT star being injured was a big reason for that defeat.

Right now Christian Pulisic is the first name on the team sheet for Chelsea and he was named as one of the nominees for the Premier League young player of the season during his debut campaign in England, plus he was one of the best players in the league since the restart.

It is good to hear Lampard said he will not rush Pulisic back, as it was clear for all to see how much more impactful and dynamic he was after having a few months rest. Before joining Chelsea he had played for many years straight as he played for the USMNT during the summers and with Borussia Dortmund.

Chelsea need Pulisic to be fit and firing if they’re going to improve on their fourth-place Premier League finish this season.

Sarri sacked: Juventus fire manager after one season

Sarri sacked
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Sarri sacked: Maurizio Sarri has been fired by Juventus after just one season in charge following the Bianconeri‘s shocking exit from the UEFA Champions League round of 16 on Friday.

[ MORE: Man City knock out Real Madrid ]

Juventus claimed its ninth straight Serie A title on the final day of the season last week, but bowing out of the one trophy which has eluded the Italian giants during their decade of dominance, at the hands of Lyon no less, was simply too much for chairman Andrea Agnelli to stomach.

The players struggled a great deal to adapt to Sarri’s tactical system and demands, as did Sarri to being back in Serie A, and things never seemed to click in the already-imperfect marriage. Star midfielder Miralem Pjanic summed up the differences between the sides rather succinctly after the loss to Lyon.

[ MORE: Guardiola: “We’re here to win the Champions League” ]

Juve thanked Sarri for his service in a brief statement on the club’s website.

The club would like to thank the coach for having written a new page in Juventus’ history with the victory of the ninth-consecutive championship, the culmination of a personal journey that led him to climb all the divisions of Italian football.

Mauricio Pochettino is the first, and biggest name, currently being bandied about in connection with the Allianz Stadium job. The Argentine has been out of work since he was sacked by Tottenham Hotspur in November, but it stands to reason he did enough at Tottenham to have earned a chance at a club like Juve.

Outside of Cristiano Ronaldo’s mammoth contract, the majority of the squad could be turned over and refreshed with little to no trouble. Juve have never been shy to spend big money for big stars — a luxury Pochettino didn’t exactly enjoy at Spurs — so if they are interested in Pochettino, the prospect of a project on the scale of Juventus will almost certainly grab his attention.

Champions League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League resume this week and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City and Chelsea still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League Round of 16 second legs will take place before mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea trail Bayern 3-0 as they head to Germany for the return game. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Round of 16 at home venues; Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Round of 16 (August 7-8)
Friday, August 7: Manchester City 1-1 Real Madrid (2-1)
Friday, August 7: Juventus 2-1 Lyon (0-1)
Saturday, August 8: Barcelona 3-1 Napoli (1-1)
Saturday, August 8: Bayern Munich 2-1 Chelsea (3-0)


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Round of 16 (August 5-6)
Copenhagen 1-2 Istanbul Basaksehir
Wolves 2-0 Olympiakos
Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Rangers
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-3 Wolfsburg
Basel 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Manchester United 3-1 LASK
Inter Milan 3-0 Getafe
Sevilla 1-3 Roma


Champions League betting odds

Round of 16 (August 7-8)
(-139) Manchester City v. Real Madrid (+320). Tie: +340
(-230) Juventus v. Lyon (+650). Tie: +340
(-150) Barcelona v. Napoli (+400). Tie: +300
(-250) Bayern Munich v. Chelsea (+650). Tie: +410

Quarterfinals (August 12-13)
(+200) Atalanta v. Paris Saint-Germain (+120). Tie: +285
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+133). Tie: 220

Outright winner
Manchester City (+350)
Bayern Munich (+365)
Paris Saint-Germain (+450)
Atletico Madrid (+700)
Atalanta (+950)
Barcelona (+1100)
RB Leipzig (+1500)
Juventus (+1700)


Europa League betting odds

Round of 16 (August 5-6)
(+155) Copenhagen v. Istanbul Basaksehir (+180). Tie: +235
(-134) Wolves v. Olympiakos (+390). Tie: +260
(-162) Bayer Leverkusen v. Rangers (+410). Tie: +310
(+135) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Wolfsburg (+185). Tie: +265
(+155) Basel v. Eintracht Frankfurt (+155). Tie: +275
(-455) Manchester United v. LASK (+1200). Tie: +550
(-143) Inter Milan v. Getafe (+385). Tie: +285
(+110) Sevilla v. Roma (+270). Tie: +230

Outright winner
Manchester United (+160)
Inter Milan (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+700)
Wolves (+800)
Sevilla (+900)