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)

Bulgaria, England both sanctioned by UEFA

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UEFA have dished out sanctions to both Bulgaria and England after their EURO 2020 qualifier on Monday.

The game was halted twice in the first half due to racist chants from the home fans.

UEFA’s anti-racism protocol was put into place as the racist abuse was reported to officials who then stopped the game and an announcement was made over the stadium speakers threatening to abandon the game.

European Soccer’s governing body announce on Tuesday they have sanctioned the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) for racist chanting, Nazi salutes, disrupting the national anthems and throwing objects among other charges.

The English Football Association have been hit with charges which include not having enough travelling stewards and also for disrupting the national anthem.

UEFA are said to be thoroughly investigating the racist abuse of England’s players from Bulgaria’s fans.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov asked for the president of their football association, Borislav Mihaylov, to resign following the racist abuse of England’s players in Sofia’s Vasil Levski stadium on Monday.

And on Tuesday Mihaylov handed in his resignation as Bulgaria, who has previously been charged for racist chants against Kosovo and the Czech Republic, were at the center of the truly disgusting racist abuse.

Bulgaria goalkeeper, coach on racist abuse: “England overreacted”

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Bulgaria’s goalkeeper Plamen Iliev believes their fans ‘behaved well’ in Sofia on Monday, despite the game being halted twice in the first half due to racist chants from the home fans.

UEFA’s anti-racism protocol was put into place as the racist abuse was reported to officials who then stopped the game and an announcement was made over the stadium speakers threatening to abandon the game.

Bulgaria’s prime minister has condemned the incidents of racism and called for the Bulgarian FA president, Borislav Mihaylov, to resign with immediate effect.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Iliev praised Bulgaria’s fans and said that England’s complaints were an overreaction.

“If I am honest, I believe they [the fans] behaved well today,” Iliev said. “There wasn’t any abuse [as far as I could hear] and I think they [the England players] overreacted a bit. The public was on a good level – I didn’t hear any bad language used towards their or our players.”

Despite England’s players, fans and staff all hearing the abuse, plus television microphones picking up monkey chants during the game, the fact Iliev has uttered these words is truly shocking.

His manager echoed the same views, while saying that the reason Bulgaria’s captain Ivelin Popov went over to speak to home fans at half time was probably because they weren’t playing well…

During a press conference with both managers after the game, local journalists shouted “exaggeration” when questions about the racist abuse were asked.

Bulgaria’s manager, Krasimir Balakov, said he heard nothing and he was shown having a heated exchange with Jordan Henderson on the pitch during the second stoppage as he’d shown signs of frustration that the game was paused.

“I personally did not hear the chanting,” Balakov said. “I saw the referee stopped the game but I also have to say the behavior was also not only on behalf of the Bulgarian fans but also the English fans, who were whistling and shouting during the Bulgarian national anthem. During the second half they used words against our fans which I find unacceptable.”

With UEFA launching a full investigation into the chants and England making a formal complaint, Bulgaria can expect a hefty punishment for their latest incident of racist abuse of opposition players. A section of the stadium in Sofia was shut on Monday due to racist abuse of players from both Kosovo and the Czech Republic during EURO 2020 qualifying.

We can only hope that Iliev and Balakov apologize for these comments in the coming days and weeks ahead.

Golden Boy shortlist revealed

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The top 20 players under the age of 21 in European soccer have been announced, as the famous Golden Boy award nominees for 2019 will raise a few eyebrows.

An award dished out by Italian outlet Tuttosport, previous stars to be named Golden Boy include Raheem Sterling, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba, as Matthijs de Ligt was the winner in 2018 and is nominated once again.

Nominees must be under the age of 21 and play in one of Europe’s top-flight leagues.

Four of the 20 finalists play in the Premier League with Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Matteo Guendouzi and Moise Kean all named on the shortlist.

Alongside de Ligt, the likes of Joao Felix, Jadon Sancho and Kai Havertz are all expected to be among the favorites for the award. Felix’s rise to stardom at Benfica and Atletico Madrid will likely see him win this award.

Canada’s Alphonso Davies is a finalist as the former Vancouver Whitecaps star continues to develop at Bayern Munich.

Below is the full list of nominees for 2019, with the winner announced on December 16 as media outlets across Europe vote for the winner.


Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Matthijs de Light (Juventus)
Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)
Ansu Fati (Barcelona)
Phil Foden (Manchester City)
Matteo Guendouzi (Arsenal)
Erling Braut Haland (RB Salzburg)
Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen)
Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
Dejan Joveljic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Moise Kean (Everton)
Kang-in Lee (Valencia)
Andriy Oleksiyovych Lunin (Real Valladolid)
Donyell Malen (PSV)
Mason Mount (Chelsea)
Rodrygo (Real Madrid)
Jadon Sancho (BVB)
Ferran Torres (Valencia)
Vinicius Jr (Real Madrid)
Nicolo Zaniolo (AS Roma)

UEFA wants to “wage war on racists”

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UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has reacted strongly to the racist abuse of England’s players in Bulgaria on Monday.

[ MORE: England’s players react ]

During the EURO 2020 qualifier monkey chants were heard from sections of the home crowds at Sofia’s Vasil Levski stadium, while Nazi salutes were also made and the officials stopped the game twice in the first half and then followed step one of UEFA’s anti-racism protocol as a message was broadcast over the speakers that the game was in danger of being abandoned.

A section of home supporters were seen leaving their seats just before half time, covering their faces with hoods and some had shirts which said “UEFA No Respect” written on them.

UEFA will investigate the incidents in Sofia after England made a formal complaint, and this comes after section of the stadium in Sofia was shut on Monday due to the racist abuse of players from both Kosovo and the Czech Republic during previous EURO 2020 qualifiers.

Ceferin called on governments and other organizations to work with them to “wage war” on racists as incidents continue to crop up across Europe.

“There were times, not long ago, when the football family thought that the scourge of racism was a distant memory. The last couple of years have taught us that such thinking was, at best, complacent. The rise of nationalism across the continent has fuelled some unacceptable behaviour and some have taken it upon themselves to think that a football crowd is the right place to give voice to their appalling views.

“As a governing body, I know we are not going to win any popularity contests. But some of the views expressed about UEFA’s approach to fighting racism have been a long way off the mark. UEFA, in close cooperation with the FARE network (Football Against Racism Europe), instituted the three-stage protocol for identifying and tackling racist behaviour during games.

“UEFA’s sanctions are among the toughest in sport for clubs and associations whose supporters are racist at our matches. The minimum sanction is a partial closure of the stadium – a move which costs the hosts at least hundreds of thousands in lost revenue and attaches a stigma to their supporters.

“UEFA is the only football body to ban a player for ten matches for racist behaviour – the most severe punishment level in the game. Believe me, UEFA is committed to doing everything it can to eliminate this disease from football. We cannot afford to be content with this; we must always strive to strengthen our resolve.

“More broadly, the football family – everyone from administrators to players, coaches and fans – needs to work with governments and NGOs to wage war on the racists and to marginalise their abhorrent views to the fringes of society. Football associations themselves cannot solve this problem. Governments too need to do more in this area. Only by working together in the name of decency and honour will we make progress.”