AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

MLS Rewind: Goals galore, Magic Mike, irreplaceable Espinoza + TotW & PotW

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DEFENDING OPTIONAL AS OFFENSES RUN WILD

Over the last few years, MLS has been trending in this direction — as the financial investment in players has increased year by year, most of the league’s teams have chosen to spend that additional cash on quality attacking talent, which means the amount of money spent on defenders has either remained unchanged or gone backwards in some cases. Why? Well, in short, scoring sells, and MLS needs to sell itself, both on TV and at the box office.

Major League Soccer – Week 1

Result Recap & Highlights
RBNY 0-2 Toronto FC Recap, watch here
Chicago 3-4 NYCFC Recap, watch here
Orlando 2-2 RSL Recap, watch here
Houston 3-3 NE Revs Recap, watch here
FC Dallas 2-0 Philly Recap, watch here
Quakes 1-0 Rapids Recap, watch here
Timbers 2-1 Crew SC Recap, watch here
Whitecaps 2-3 Impact Recap, watch here
Sounders 0-1 SKC Recap, watch here
Galaxy 4-1 DCU Recap, watch here

It’s undoubtedly made the league abundantly more entertaining year over year, even if you could construct a really strong argument that the overall quality of soccer remains largely unchanged (I would help you build this case). The likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri, Mauro Diaz, Robbie Keane, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Magee, Cristian Maidana Pedro Morales have entered the league and each taken it by storm within their first six months in North America.

Sunday’s 2016 season-opening onslaught was a culmination of that trend, as 36 goals were poured in across 10 games — in part due to the immense quality the league now possesses in the final third, but also due in part to the severe lack of quality (see: Chicago 3-4 NYCFC) many of the league’s teams now possess in defense. From an entertainment perspective, it’s brilliant, and as a full-time MLS viewer, that’s just fine by me.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


IT’S LIKE YOU NEVER LEFT LA, MAGIC MIKE

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Mike Magee, center, kicks the ball past D.C. United goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, right, for a goal as defender Sean Franklin defends during the second half of an Major League Soccer match, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Carson, Calif. The Galaxy won 4-1. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mike Magee’s final partial season in LA saw him score six goals in the Galaxy’s first 10 games of 2013 before being traded to the Chicago Fire in late May as part of the deal that landed Robbie Rogers in his hometown upon returning to action as the first openly gay athlete in top-tier American team sports. Magee went on to score 15 goals in 22 games for his hometown Fire and was named the 2013 MLS MVP in a landslide voting process.

Long-term injuries reduced Magee to just 29 games and seven goals in his final two seasons with the Fire, thus his still-fresh pay raise ($400,000 against the salary cap) became too heavy a burden to bear and he was allowed to walk away as a free agent this winter. So it only made sense that Magee headed back to LA, where he won back-to-back MLS Cups (2011, 2012) and back-to-back Supporters’ Shields (2010, 2011). Sure, he’d be coming off the bench and without a true positional home again, but he’d have an important part to play at some point in 2016, given Robbie Keane’s advanced age and participation in the European Championship, and potential U.S. and Mexican national team call-ups for Gyasi Zardes and Giovani dos Santos this summer.

No one thought he’d be the star and savior for the Galaxy on opening night, dragging them back from a thoroughly despondent first-half performance against D.C. United and engineering a four-goal second-half rampage, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Dos Santos was forced off through injury at halftime, at which point Magee made in 45 minutes the kind of impact GdS has been unable to make in his first six months with the Galaxy — not only was he a constant threat in the final third (two goals, one assist in 45 minutes) because of the dangerous areas he occupied and his quick circulation of the ball, but his work rate defensively gave the Galaxy midfield and defense the kind of stability they lacked down the stretch in 2015 and in the first half against D.C.

It’s still too early to definitively say, “Magee should be starting over GdS,” but I will be keeping a watchful eye on the two of them and mentally pitting them against one another in their every appearance for the next month.

[ MORE: MLS roundup — A few late-night thoughts after First Kick 2016 ]


ESPINOZA PROVEN SKC’S IRREPLACEABLE FIGURE

Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza (27) breaks away from Real Salt Lake midfielder Luke Mulholland, back, during the first half of an MLS soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

When Roger Espinoza went down for the remainder of the 2015 season with a broken foot in August, it was the beginning of the end of Sporting Kansas City’s season. Sure, they would go on to win the U.S. Open two months later, but they were never close to the same team without the Honduran patrolling the midfield and wreaking havoc on some of the league’s top attacking talent (see: a handful of names from the above list). With Espinoza in the lineup: 18 goals conceded in 17 games (1.06 per game) last year; without Espinoza in the lineup: 26 goals conceded in 17 games (1.53 per game). They also scored fewer without him (22) than they did with him (25).

Those are the numbers. This is an observation based on the eye test: the lives of every one else in the Sporting KC lineup is easier with Espinoza on the field. Through an immense work rate, through intelligent and controlled pressing that’s criminally underrated, through a directness on the ball that puts opponents on their back foot… the Sporting machine hums along with Espinoza roaming box to box.

Espinoza’s numbers remain unspectacular throughout his career (3 goals, 15 assists in nearly 10,000 minutes). Even some of the more finite numbers (2 tackles, 1 interception, 0 clearances) don’t tell the story of how he’s the irreplaceable figure in one of MLS’s top midfield trios (Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber and Soni Mustivar), but Espinoza’s impact was on display in Sunday’s 1-0 away win over the Seattle Sounders, evident as ever through the marked improvement of everyone around him in comparison to those final three months of 2015.


TEAM OF THE WEEK

Goalkeeper: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)

MLS Goalkeeper

Defenders: Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Daniel Steres (LA Galaxy)

MLS Defenders

Midfielders: Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas), Mike Magee (LA Galaxy)

MLS Midfielders

Forwards: Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake), Cyle Larin (Orlando City SC)

MLS Forwards


PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Ignacio Piatti was the only MLS player to receive a match rating of 10.0 on soccer stats website WhoScored.com, which is great, because this is one of the increasingly rare instances where the stats match up perfectly with the eye test.

In short, Piatti was unplayable against on Sunday, and it was clear for all to see. His opening goal — the one where he skated past four defenders and curled his eventual striker inside the far post — was pure class. On his day, when healthy, when fully engaged mentally — yes, that’s a lot of qualifiers — Piatti’s one of the top-five most terrifying players in MLS. Sunday was his day, he was fit and he was up for it. In part because of Piatti, Montreal are MLS Cup contenders with or without Didier Drogba.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Brighton’s Potter joins Howe in taking voluntary pay cut

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Brighton and Hove Albion boss Graham Potter has joined club chief executive Paul Barber and technical director Dan Ashworth in taking a voluntary pay cut for the next three months.

The trio said the decision was made to support chairman Tony Bloom’s “significant efforts to protect all jobs at our club and charity.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Clubs all over the world have been furloughing workers if not laying them off altogether as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on club finances.

On Thursday, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe became the first Premier League manager to take a voluntary pay cut. The clubs were also together in a prior initiative to reward medical workers.

Here’s Potter, via  BrightonandHoveAlbion.com:

“I spoke with Tony Bloom a couple of weeks ago, and I just felt like a normal thing to offer him because he has been good to me. I know the pressure he is under as a chairman and the challenges he faces. It is a small thing we can do but I think it was an important offer.

“Tony being Tony said, ‘Thank you very much but, at the moment we are working through things.’ As things have moved forward, I think we have come to the right decision to do what we have done.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola donated $1 million to fight coronavirus in Catalonia. Whether donations or pay cuts, surely more will come.

Brazil, Argentina league soccer players seek full pay amid coronavirus

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SAO PAULO (AP) As soccer players around Europe accept pay cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of their less-well-compensated South American counterparts are fighting for every penny.

In Brazil and Argentina, players aren’t budging during the league shutdown despite forced cuts to staffing and wages in other leagues around the continent.

Negotiations in Brazil between an association of clubs and the players’ union have failed to reach a deal on pay and early vacations. Team captains and executives are now trying to reach individual decisions, but those could end up in court.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Brazil’s top clubs, fearing a loss of sponsors and rising debts, wanted to cut player salaries by 25% until the pandemic ends. But some players – including those who have been paid late in the past – have asked for the Brazilian soccer confederation to step in. So far it hasn’t, but the union did give some ground on the issue of vacations.

Former players, executives and coaches said they were inspired by the example set by Lionel Messi, who took a 70% cut in pay to help Barcelona keep its staffers during the pandemic. But the voices in Brazil sound more like that of Atlético Mineiro defender Guilherme Arana.

“I don’t think there is a reason (to cut). We are stopping because we need to,” the 22-year-old Arana told Fox Sports. “It is the world that is stopping.”

Atlético, however, said Sunday it will cut salaries by 25%, except for staff members on lower wages.

In Argentina, which has about 4,000 male and female professional soccer players, clubs have not cut salaries and the country’s national federation has not made any recommendations on the issue.

Players’ union leader Sérgio Marchi was, unsurprisingly, against any cuts. He insisted in a radio interview that “it is fundamental” to respect the salaries of soccer players because it would allow the league to resume “without any sort of conflict after this contingency is over.”

“Some (officials) are seeking excuses or mitigating factors for their bad management or to their flawed behavior at the time they are setting up a budget,” he said.

[ MORE: Serie A could return in late May ]

Players in Colombia asked for full pay, but clubs acted swiftly to start saving money.

Jaguares suspended the contracts of 13 members of its squad, Millionarios reduced wages without much debate and Santa Fé pitched fans against players on Twitter by asking them if salaries should be cut. The query ended with 62% of fans voting yes.

Colombian league organizers are also asking the government to broaden some economic policies to help clubs, including those that have suspended players’ contracts so they wouldn’t go bankrupt.

“We don’t want taxpayer money to deal with the financial difficulties during this mandatory stop,” Jorge Enrique Vélez, the head of the league, said in an interview with Radio Caracol. “We are asking for policies that the government has already set for tourism and aviation industries. We also had to stop 100%, and we have no revenues during this time.”

In Uruguay, some players are now claiming unemployment benefits after several clubs, including Montevideo powerhouse Peñarol, suspended their contracts. The country’s soccer association has also cut pay for staff, including 73-year-old national team coach Oscar Tabárez.

The biggest exception is in Peru, where Alianza Lima players openly suggested they should be paid less so the club can afford to keep all its workers. Goalkeeper Leao Butrón said the decision was “easy to make.”

“Yes, the offer actually came from us. We wanted to give the club a break,” Butrón said in a radio interview. “They told us that it is not necessary for now. But we don’t know when this will end. We are still willing. Beyond being an economic problem, it is a liquidity issue. A financial issue. We can give a hand if extreme measures are needed.”

Associated Press writers Debora Rey in Buenos Aires and Eric Nuñez in New York contributed to this report.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Serie A could resume training May 2, games late in month

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Blanket testing for players and a 14-day quarantine for foreign players are on the menu as Serie A reportedly looks to resume in May.

Football Italia cites a report from Italian news outlet Adnkronos that discusses a May 2 return to training with matches resuming late in the month.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Vincenzo Spadafora is Italy’s minister for sport, and is hopeful that the worst of the coronavirus is behind the country.

According to the report, any player returning to Italy from abroad would be quarantined for two weeks before returning to training.

After an initial round of testing for all players, more would follow:

More tests would be made weekly to maintain that level of certainty all the way to the end of the season. Clubs are believed to be stocking up on COVID-19 tests, in accordance with medical structures in their cities, ensuring everyone has enough to go around.

The plan may be met with resistance, as combustible Brescia owner Massimo Cellino says his club will not play and has accepted that it earned relegation.

European bodies implore member associations to wait to abandon seasons

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UEFA is speaking up regarding its hope to finish club seasons once the environment is safer.

Sky Sports reports that UEFA has sent a letter to its 55 members associations imploring them not to cancel their competitions early and that they exhaust all options “until the last possibility exists.”

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The letter is signed by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli and European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson.

The report comes as the Belgian Super League reportedly prepares to award its league title to Club Brugge on April 15. The league would be the first to see its season abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

From Sky Sports:

“We are confident that football can restart in the months to come – with conditions that will be dictated by public authorities – and believe that any decision of abandoning domestic competitions is, at this stage, premature and not justified.”

Many leagues, such as the Premier League, continue to suspend their seasons indefinitely as they wait for improvements with the coronavirus pandemic.

Although UEFA have relaxed their previous stance that domestic seasons should be finished by June 30, it is looking more likely that the 2019-20 season would need until August or September.