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Chatting with NASL commissioner Bill Peterson as league kicks off sixth season on Saturday

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The North American Soccer League begins its sixth season on Saturday with new teams, big-name imports and plenty of momentum.

The lone Division II league in the American Soccer Pyramid — USL Pro has applied for D-II status but is currently third — the NASL now boasts more than 55 players from 27 countries with appearances on the international stage, including Greece national team striker Georgios Samaras and Premier League veteran Niko Kranjcar of Croatia.

[ MORE: NASL announces San Francisco Deltas ]

With new teams starting play in Oklahoma City and Miami, and two more announced in Puerto Rico and San Francisco, PST caught up with NASL commissioner Bill Peterson to talk about what’s next in the league.

Rangers' Carlos Bocanegra challenges Celtic's Georgios Samaras during their Scottish Premier League 'Old Firm' derby soccer match
Samaras playing for Celtic in the Old Firm Derby. He will suit up for Rayo OKC this season in the NASL (Reuters)
You have three new teams starting play in 2016, and they’ve made some interesting roster moves. What’s your take on the new boys?
“What I’m most excited about is the approach on the field. Miami and Oklahoma City very quickly ramped up with their coaching and technical sides. They’ve gone after very high-caliber players. I believe that they are going to hit the ground and be pretty competitive. That’s a little bit different from what we saw with Ottawa and Jacksonville in their first years, I think because in general they were building their teams off the season they just watched instead of the changes that were made to existing teams rosters.

“Puerto Rico is not too far behind them. They’re on a little bit different calendar. They’ll have their own unique challenges in signing players and finding meaningful matches before they start. We expect them to be pretty competitive right out of the box.”

What’re the plans for expansion moving forward?
“The plan is to go to 20 teams and maintain the two seasons (The NASL plays Spring and Fall seasons with a break in between). It’ll look differently after we cross over 2016. We’re exploring some other things we may or may not be able to do it. With 20 we can keep the single table, get all the games in the weather window and keep an exciting competition.

“We’ll have announcements of at least one and maybe more teams over the next couple months. We just can’t talk about it because we’ve seen a million reasons for an ownership group to change their mind or to take longer than anyone expected. The real key is that everything is in place now. This is a much bigger league than a few years ago. There’s more at stake. We’re going to get to 20, and we’re going to continue to grow.”

A massive challenge for any nascent league is navigating the massiveness of our country and continent (The NASL has added San Francisco since PST spoke with Peterson). How does this affect your vision and business?
“It’s a very unique challenge and many times those who follow leagues in other parts of the world lose the fact that we’ve got some unique geographical challenges and they do keep you up at night. It takes longer to build a fan base when they can’t hop on us a bus and go see a team play a visiting site, or the media can’t afford to fly across the country to cover a team that’s playing a big match.

“Those are big obstacles and they aren’t going away. We have to continually overcome them, or at least reduce the impact on what we’re trying to do. In the early days it’s tougher than hopefully it will be later down the road. It’s hard enough to find the right ownership group in the right cities. It makes it even more difficult when you try to get a national footprint in a territory that’s so big.”

The New York Cosmos have beaten the Red Bulls in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup but last year was a tough year for the league in that important tournament. What’s your take on it?

New York Cosmos player Lucky Mkosana (R) greets teammate Spanish Raul Gonzalez (L) during a Cuba vs New York Cosmos friendly soccer match on June 2, 2015 at Pedro Marrero stadium in Havana. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
New York Cosmos player Lucky Mkosana (R) greets teammate Spanish Raul Gonzalez (YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
“It’s sort of organic how this comes about, but if you talk to our coaches and owners right now they’ll tell you that the Open Cup is a real priority for them. They understand the competition now, the history, they understand what it means to participate in that competition.

“Last year was a wake-up call. There was a little bit of mentality with some clubs that they maybe didn’t put the effort into it, rested some players and guess what? They lost. That was not a good feeling that day and all of them remember that. There have been discussions between ownerships and technical staff that it’s important to win Open Cup matches. You’ll see an all-out effort from our clubs this year because it’s just so fun to play. Those are cool opportunities for our players and our fans. It’s a great competition.”

It does seem like the league has grown in reputation fairly quickly. Obviously, the Cosmos help this, but why do you think its leapt in rep?
“We have an advantage in the fact that this is the NASL and it had this incredible history here in the late 60s and 70s. There are still people I meet every week whose father took them to an NASL match. Having those clubs come back has stirred up interest in those who were there the first time around. It’s disappointing that they’ve been left behind.

“We try to keep it as pure as possible. The players and the game on the field is the first priority in everything we do. The fans are second, and everything we do, any decisions we make throughout this league, it has to have a positive effect on those two groups or we don’t do it because it’s a waste of time and money. Our clubs have done a great job of promoting themselves.”

NASL Fast Facts

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@QPRFC
Teams in Spring 2016 season: Jacksonville Armada, Carolina Railhawks, FC Edmonton, Indy Eleven, Minnesota United FC, Ottawa Fury, New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Rayo OKC, Miami FC

Coming in Fall 2016: Puerto Rico FC (owned by Carmelo Anthony)

Coming in 2017: San Francisco Deltas

Players you know:
Wilson Palacios and Dane Richards (Miami FC)
Samaras, Kosuke Kimura, Robbie Findley (Rayo OKC)
Juan Arango, Yasmani Duk, Kranjcar (NY Cosmos)
Jon Busch and Lovel Palmer (Indy Eleven)
Marcel de Jong and Julian de Guzman (Ottawa Fury)
Jeb Brovsky and Bernardo Anor (Minnesota United)
Darwin Espinal, Eric Avila and Freddy Adu (Tampa Bay)
Kleberson and Aurelio Saco Vertiz (Fort Lauderdale)
Nik Ledgerwood and Sainey Nyassi (FC Edmonton)

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

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

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”

WATCH: Luis Suarez delivers one-of-a-kind back-heel goal

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At 32 years of age and with a 15-year career behind him, Luis Suarez has scored some emphatic goals.

On Saturday, however, he painted a fine piece of art, a goal that became an instant classic the moment the ball came off of his backheel. With Barcelona already up 3-1 against RCD Mallorca, Ernesto Valverde’s men continued to push forward, comfortably and strategically ping-ponging the ball around the defensive-oriented visitors.

And then Frenkie de Jong found the ball at the top of the box.

The Dutch international smoothly placed a through ball, finding Suarez, who with precision and expertise that only he has, belted the ball into the bottom-right corner of Manolo Reina’s goal.

It’s only December, but the Uruguayan’s goal is an automatic La Liga goal of the season contender: