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Pontius has Philadelphia aiming for playoffs: “Squad knows that”

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Chris Pontius’ move to Philadelphia is going so well that he’s fallen in love with the city’s food without even trying a cheesesteak.

“That’ll be a postgame celebration thing,” Pontius said. “Probably won’t be a Friday night before a game thing. The food’s been great here. I’m looking forward to having a cheesesteak.”

Things are looking up for the 28-year-old midfielder, who was traded from DC United to Philadelphia on Dec. 7, the first big move in Earnie Stewart’s tenure as Union boss.

[ MORE: 2016 MLS Eastern Conference preview ]

When the Union open up their MLS slate come Sunday in Texas against FC Dallas, it’ll be the first time Pontius has pulled on a jersey that didn’t say DC United since 2008 when he graduated from UC Santa Barbara. On the way, he made 185 appearances for the Black-and-Red, scored 35 goals, was an MLS Best XI member and won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

So, yeah, things are going to be different.

@ChrisPontius13
@ChrisPontius13

“I was looking for a breath of fresh air, and that’s exactly what I’ve gotten,” Pontius said. “Very professional feel, both on and off the field. It’s a different formation than DC, so learning kind of a different role I guess you could say, figuring out which way that suits the team for me to play.

“I’ve gotta keep doing some of the stuff that made me successful in my career but also how can I help my teammates around me within this new system. It’s been fun here.”

Which isn’t to say leaving DC was an easy call. Pontius had battled injuries before and after his 31-game, 12-goal season in 2012, but the California man had grown comfortable in Washington. And comfort wasn’t something that was suiting him.

“When you’re making the decision whether to re-sign or to leave, to basically uproot what I had known for seven years, it’s very difficult,” he said. “Everyone around DC had treated me well. For me personally, I felt it was time to go. It had nothing to do with the fans. You fall into a comfort zone when you’re in a place for so long. You know what every day is going to be like. Some people may like that and it can be beneficial, but for me at this point in my career I needed something to push me a bit more. That’s when I realized it was time to go.”

[ MORE: PST’s MLS writer roundtable ]

And, so, a fresh start. While he has his first DC jersey from framed in his home, Pontius distributed his DC gear to friends, family and Goodwill (meaning there’s a legit chance some folks in the Beltway region may’ve picked up a Chris Pontius shirt worn by Chris Pontius).

SANDY, UT - OCTOBER 1: Chris Pontius #13 of D.C. United kicks the ball away from Nat Borchers #6 of Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium October 1, 2013 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

Amongst DC midfielders who played more than a quarter of the team’s games last season, Pontius was tops in total performance score per 90 minutes from advanced stats site Squawka. He’s high-motor player with a strong sense for space and a good pair of finishing boots.

Pontius loves what’s being asked of him in Philadelphia under coach Jim Curtin: make things happen while helping to rebuild a culture that’s only seen playoff soccer once in six seasons.

“They brought me in to be one of the leaders of the team,” Pontius said. “They’ve missed the playoffs quite a few years now and that’s the goal for this squad. I thought it would take longer for me to settle in for a team, and I felt fairly settled in right away with these guys. I’m getting a little bit louder every day in practice.

“We’re here to win and get into the playoffs. There’s no doubt about that. Squad knows that.”

One of the players on that squad is one who may score the goal or deliver the assist that helps Pontius find that first victory cheesesteak, and that’s former Shakhtar Donetsk wizard Ilsinho, who is drawing rave reviews around the Union.

[ MORE: Men in Blazers chat with Morris, Lampard, Porter ]

“He’s a pretty special player on the dribble, very very talented,” Pontius said. “His ability to beat people — I’ve seen a couple times in preseason he’s beaten a couple people with one movee. It forces defense on their heels a bit more, it creates space and time for the players around him. It’s nice to play with a player like that who can create and see things a little bit differently.”

Pontius is seeing things a bit differently, too, albeit in a different fashion. It’s a two-hour drive up the I-95 to get from Washington to Philadelphia, and Pontius has a heck of a change in view.

Watch Live: Man City v. West Ham

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Manchester City looks for a reaction in its first match after the UEFA sanctions were announced as they host West Ham at the Etihad on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Citizens will want to finish this season strong given the future uncertainty surrounding the club, and with Leicester City nipping at their heels, a strong performance will be imperative. Man City sits just a single point above the third-placed Foxes and a poor result could leave them vulnerable for when the two meet on Saturday.

[ STREAM LIVE: Man City v. West Ham ]

Man City’s lineup sees John Stones, Ilkay Gundogan, and Fernandinho all sat on the bench. Nicolas Otamendi partners with Aymeric Laporte at the back with Rodri covering them in midfield. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva start in the middle with Bernardo Silva in the attacking midfield role, while Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero both start up front.

The match is massively important for West Ham as well, with the Hammers sitting 18th in the Premier League table a point off safety. The Hammers counter Man City’s attacking lineup with three at the back as Declan Rice provides cover per usual and captain Mark Noble partners with Tomas Soucek in midfield.

LINEUPS

Man City: Ederson; Walker, Otamendi, Laporte, Mendy; Rodri, De Bruyne, Silva; Bernardo, Jesus, Aguero.

West Ham: Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell, Masuaku; Rice, Soucek, Noble; Snodgrass, Antonio.

Solskjaer admits Rashford’s season may be over, Euros in jeopardy

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted Wednesday that Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford suffered a setback in his recovery from a stress fracture in his back, and that he may not return before the end of the Premier League season. In addition, Solskjaer admitted there is a chance that Rashford’s availability for England in this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament could be in jeopardy.

Speaking ahead of United’s visit tomorrow to Club Brugge in Europa League action, Solskjaer said that he hopes Rashford can make a return, but that it’s certainly in question as he will be out “another few months definitely.”

[ MORE: McTominay, Lindelof back fit ]

“It will just be touch and go towards the end [of the season],” Solskjaer said. “Hopefully we can get through this tournament and prolong the season. It takes time, I’m not a doctor. I was hoping he would recover quicker than what it looks like he’s going to be out for.”

When asked about his potential availability for selection at the Euros this summer, Solskjaer said, “If he’s not fit enough he won’t go.”

It seems that Manchester United expected Rashford to be back “He had a scan and it was maybe more severe, that fracture, than what we hoped for and expected, he felt fine the few days before that. And I’ve never had anatomy in school, so I didn’t know it just takes that time to recover.”

[ MORE: Neymar upset with PSG for extra rest ]

News of a potential injury to Rashford cropped up during the Premier League match against Norwich City game on January 11, when he was withdrawn after 59 minutes. Solskjaer admitted later that Rashford needed rest, but decided to risk the 22-year-old England international anyways against Wolverhampton Wanderers in an FA Cup replay four days later, a decision he later came to publicly regret. Rashford came off after just 16 minutes and it was later announced that he had aggravated his injury from a single stress fracture to a double stress fracture.

After the Wolves match, Manchester United announced a 2-3 month timetable for Rashford’s return, meaning he could be back by late March or early April. Now it seems he could be done for the year, and England’s Euro adventure may suffer as well.

Braithwaite to Barcelona imminent, could debut Saturday

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Barcelona is taking the controversial step of signing Leganes striker Martin Braithwaite outside the January transfer window, reportedly set to trigger his $19.4 million release clause. According to a report by ESPN, Braithwaite has already agreed to terms and will join the club immediately, possibly soon enough to make his debut on Saturday against Eibar.

The Catalan club was given an exception by La Liga after Ousmane Dembele was ruled out for the season, leaving the squad with just three healthy first-team forwards in Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and 17-year-old Ansu Fati. The injury to Dembele, which follows a long-term injury spell for Luis Suarez, led La Liga to allow Barcelona 15 days to sign a forward outside the window, provided it was either a free agent or a player already registered in the Spanish top flight.

Reports from all over Europe state that Barcelona attempted to negotiate with Leganes, but they held out for Braithwaite’s full release clause and Barcelona had little choice but to relent. The ESPN report states that Barcelona had come to an agreement with Getafe for Angel Rodriguez but Barcelona manager Quique Setien stepped in with a preference for Braithwaite due to his positional flexibility.

The controversial part of the situation is that Barcelona somewhat put itself in this spot by offloading forwards Abel Ruiz and Carles Perez in the January window without replacing them, and now have been saddled with an injury crisis. Many are upset that a big club like Barcelona is being bailed out by La Liga while Leganes suffers the loss of its leading scorer having already seen  Youssef En-Nesyri depart in the January window. Guillem Ballague reports that Leganes will appeal to La Liga for its own exception to sign an emergency player but as the rules stand, they cannot add a replacement for Braithwaite. The league office can authorize exceptions on a case-by-case basis, which they did for Barcelona, although policy has been to grant exceptions for long-term injuries.

The 28-year-old has scored eight goals across all competitions this season while Leganes has struggled at the bottom of the table all year long. They currently sit 19th in the La Liga table, two points clear of safety.

McTominay, Lindelof return to Man United training

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Off the heels of a statement win at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United has more good news coming its way as both Scott McTominay and Victor Lindelof returned to Red Devils training on Wednesday.

Ahead of Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 matchup against Club Brugge in Belgium, McTominay’s return represents a massive boost for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who has been forced to piece together a makeshift midfield for the last two months. McTominay has been missing since suffering a knee injury on Boxing Day.

The 23-year-old has been one of the Premier League’s most improved players this season, anchoring the Red Devils midfield both with and without the aid of Paul Pogba. In the seven Premier League matches without McTominay, Manchester United has lost three games and been shut out four times, although a number of other injuries to key players have likely contributed to that as well.

Lindelof missed the Chelsea win through illness but is set to make his return as well. The 25-year-old Swede is considered Manchester United’s best defender and was absent for the disappointing 2-0 loss to Burnley in late January through illness as well, but is reportedly fully recovered by now.

United has struggled with injuries all season, with the likes of Pogba, Marcus Rashford, and Mason Greenwood all sidelined at the moment. No reason was given for the latter’s absence, with Greenwood an unused substitute at Stamford Bridge over the weekend.