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MLS Rewind: Bruce’s big dilemma, refs (again) + TotW & PotW

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“BETTER” WITHOUT KEANE?

“Better” in sports is an unbelievably misleading word. The LA Galaxy aren’t “better” without 2013 MLS MVP and scorer of 75 goals (to go along with 43 assists) in 111 career MLS games. Of course they’re not. (Same goes for Nigel de Jong as well, probably.)

But there’s no denying that over the last four games — and the last two in particular — in which Keane hasn’t played a single minute due to knee surgery, have seen Bruce Arena’s side strike a much healthier balance between their attack and their defense, resulting in two of the best overall performances we’ve seen in MLS 2016 thus far.

[ MORE: Check out previous editions in the MLS Rewind archive ]

Three tactical adjustments have been made in Keane’s absence. In no particular order, they are: 1) Giovani dos Santos has taken up Keane’s free-roaming, play-making role which suits him much more than being shunted out wide as a winger; 2) Mike Magee’s place in the starting lineup offers the kind of defensive cover that Dos Santos isn’t capable of providing, whether on the left or right; 3) Gyasi Zardes’s deployment through the center has shown that he’s more productive as a striker than as a winger. As a result, the Galaxy are humming right along with near-perfect, best evidenced in Saturday’s 5-2 dismantling of previously-unbeaten Real Salt Lake.

On point no. 2, below is the combined passing-and-defensive-actions diagrams for Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez and Demar Phillips (left), and that of left back Chris Wingert (right), who combined to play all 90 minutes up and down RSL’s left wing, where Magee was ever-present in assisting right back A.J. DeLaGarza. You’ll notice that they 1) are all three pushed extremely wide, and 2) combine to complete all of one pass into the Galaxy’s penalty area. The left wing is a total non-starter for RSL in this one, though the absence of Joao Plata and his ability to operate in the space between the full back and center back on either side was undoubtedly a big miss.

RSL

Keane’s return from injury is approaching (he was originally pegged with an early-to-mid-May return date), at which point the Galaxy will undoubtedly be a more talented side on paper, but not necessarily one that fits together and functions at its very best.

Someone from the above list of attackers is headed to the bench upon Keane’s return — not even Arena could get away with sitting a player with more goals and assists combined than games played in his MLS career. It’s easiest to say, “well, Magee is the ‘worst’ player of the bunch, so it should obviously be him,” but it should be one of Zardes or Dos Santos instead.


REFEREEING GAFFES AT CRITICAL MASS

Let’s talk about MLS’s gigantic, growing refereeing problem, because that seems to be what MLS and the Professional Referee Organization want us to do at the end of every MLS weekend.

MLS’s mandate for its referees to officiate games in a stricter manner in an attempt to rid the game of dangerous challenges, thus seeing the number of red cards handed out increase a fair bit over the first month of the season, has been met with plenty of opposition and disdain thus far in 2016. In defense of the league and PRO, though, whether you believe it to be a necessary venture, at least it indicates the two organizations, which work together hand in hand, have considered a course of action to improve the league’s standard of play and protect its players.

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Being proactive is typically a good thing, and this instance is no different. What’s not so great, however, were a pair of blown calls on Sunday that saw the league’s two nationally televised games decided (to varying degrees) by something out of the hands of the 22 players on the field.

Major League Soccer – Week 7

Result Recap & Highlights
Impact 0-2 Toronto Recap, watch here
Union 2-0 NYCFC Recap, watch here
DCU 3-0 NE Revs Recap, watch here
Rapids 3-1 Sounders Recap, watch here
Crew SC 1-0 Dynamo Recap, watch here
Whitecaps 3-0 FCD Recap, watch here
Galaxy 5-2 RSL Recap, watch here
Quakes 1-0 SKC Recap, watch here
Red Bulls 3-2 Orlando Recap, watch here

Referee Jair Marrufo failed to simultaneously award Sporting Kansas City a penalty and show San Jose Earthquakes defender Andres Imperiale a red card when he quite clearly slid through the legs of Dom Dwyer, coming nowhere near the ball in his last-ditch challenge (WATCH HERE). Less than five minutes later, Marrufo (correctly) awarded the Earthquakes a penalty when Tim Melia brought Simon Dawkins down with with contact that was no greater and no less than occurred on the other end of the field. Chris Wondolowski converted the spot kick, and the ‘Quakes won the game 1-0.

Not even four hours later, Hilario Grajeda failed to show Karl Ouimette a red card of his own after the New York Red Bulls defender swiped the legs of Orlando City SC striker Cyle Larin right out from under him with the two racing into the Red Bulls’ penalty area, and an obvious goal-scoring opportunity upon them (WATCH HERE). Orlando City held a 1-0 lead at the time and would have enjoyed a man advantage for the game’s final 27 minutes. Instead, Ouimette stayed on the field (he later scored an inconsequential own goal), the Red Bulls equalized two minutes later, scored again four minutes after that, and went on to win the game 3-2.

After each game’s final whistle, neither referee had any desire to explain their calls — or, non-calls, as it were — that drastically changed the course of two otherwise enjoyable games of soccer (UPDATE).

No accountability for their shortcomings, which is perhaps MLS’s greatest shortcoming with regard to its referees: Marrufo and Grajeda, along with every other ref who erred in costly fashion this weekend and last weekend and the weekend before that and so on, will be right back out there (mis-)managing MLS game next weekend and the weekend after that and so on. PRO general manager Peter Walton will do a controlled interview with some online or television outlet in the coming days or weeks, insist the organization is committed to raising its standard, and we’ll all go back to living our everyday lives.

Expect to see the exact same mistakes in the coming weeks and months, though, and to find yourself wondering yet again, “why did I commit that much of my afternoon/evening/weekend to watching MLS when the guys with the whistles are always the stars of the show?” For a league that’s incredibly brand- and market-conscious, you’d think MLS would move quickly to fix something that’s bound to cost it viewers — and ultimately dollars — if unchanged.

If it’s a solution to the problem that you’re looking for, Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath offered up a pretty good one last week: instead of signing aging foreign players at the end of their playing careers, commit some of that money to recruiting quality refs who have called games at the highest level in order to increase the standard of refereeing, because the quality of play has improved leaps and bounds while the men in the middle of the field seem to have stagnated and/or regressed badly.


TEAM OF THE WEEK

Goalkeeper: David Ousted (Vancouver Whitecaps)

MLS GK

Defenders: Ashley Cole (LA Galaxy), Drew Moor (Toronto FC), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps)

MLS DF

Midfielders: Emmanuel Boateng (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC) Will Johnson (Toronto FC)

MLS MF

Forwards: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

MLS FW


PLAYER OF THE WEEK

No single player in MLS can take over a game the way that Sebastian Giovinco can do, and so regularly does. With his 22-goal, 16-assist 2015 season still fresh in everyone’s memory, Giovinco is the focal point of every opposition’s defensive gameplan (this was the case last year as well, to little avail), which limits the number of touches, space and chances that come the Atomic Ant’s way during a given game.

So what, the 29-year-old Italian said this week, as he carved up the Montreal Impact for two goals, three massive road points and a bit of revenge for last season’s playoff elimination and embarrassment. A sign of a truly great player is the ability to do a lot with very little, and Giovinco continues to do that week in and week out. His 81st-minute insurance goal was as ruthless as it was comforting for TFC fans.

Ranking the Ballon d’Or finalists

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The Ballon d’Or finalists for 2019 were announced by France Football on Monday, and there has been plenty of discussion not only about players included in the shortlist or those that missed out, but who deserves to win the highest award in the game.

So, who does?

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With seven players from Liverpool, five from Man City and the usual suspects in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi all nominated, some stars left out include Harry Kane, Neymar and N’Golo Kante to name a few.

Below we rank the finalists, 30-1, in terms of who we think are the best players.

Feel free to do the same in the comments section below.


30. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
29. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham)
28. Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
27. Marquinhos (PSG)
26. Donny van de Beek (Ajax)
25. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham)
24. Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona)
23. Riyad Mahrez (Man City)
22. Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)
21. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
20. Antoine Griezmann (Barcelona)
19. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
18. Sergio Aguero (Man City)
17. Dusan Tadic (Ajax)
16. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
15. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
14. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
13. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
12. Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus)
11. Bernardo Silva (Man City)
10. Alisson (Liverpool)
9. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
8. Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
7. Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona)
6. Kylian Mbappe (PSG)
5. Raheem Sterling (Man City)
4. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
1. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool)

Xhaka slams “bulls***” criticism of Arsenal

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Arsenal have been targets for a lot of criticism recently.

Granit Xhaka is usually at the center of it.

The Gunners captain came out all guns blazing after they lost 1-0 at Sheffield United on Monday, as he addressed Patrice Evra‘s comments that Arsenal are “babies” and always will be due to their mentality.

“We have to stop about mental [strength] bulls*** like this. For me, it is the same whether you play home or away – you have to win and show big character and a good game and not to always find the same excuse,” Xhaka said. “A lot of people they speak too much. It is not the first time he has spoken something about us. I have a lot of respect for him as he was a great player but you have to be careful what you say. But it is not only him – a lot of people speak a lot of bulls*** about us. It’s always the same.

“For me it is strange as they were in the same situation as us, they were players as well. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not always good but every week they speak bulls*** like this every week. I tell you the honest truth, I’m not interested in what people say and speak. We have to speak in our group to improve things and work hard and not listen to these people.”

Xhaka and Arsenal have only lost twice this season, 3-1 at Liverpool and 1-0 at Sheffield United.

But aside from being fifth in the table and two points outside the top four, pressure is being placed on Unai Emery and his squad as they’ve narrowly beaten Bournemouth, Burnley, Newcastle and Aston Villa so far. Their performances aren’t instilling confidence in anyone that they can seriously push for a top four finish this season.

Has much changed under Emery in the past 15 months? Nope. This is pretty much the same Arsenal team making the same old mistakes and looking vulnerable away from home. Nothing new here. Sure, some new players have arrived, but David Luiz, Pepe and Sokratis have all been hit and miss so far and it has been left to Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to try and rescue the Gunners each and every week.

Emery was supposed to change their style of play, develop them into a stronger team defensively and improve their chances of challenging for trophies once again.

None of that has happened, and it doesn’t look closer to happening. That is why the critics are circling around the Gunners. Monday was the perfect opportunity to prove their mentality had changed and they are a stronger, more balanced team under Emery. They aren’t and something drastic will have to change for them if Emery is going to win over the fans, and pundits, once again.

Ronaldo not ready for retirement: ‘Age is just a number’

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Cristiano Ronaldo reassured Juventus supporters and his legions of fans worldwide that at 34 he’s not ready for retirement yet.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule

“Age is just a number. It does not mean that at 34, 35, 36 you are at the end of your career,” Ronaldo said at a news conference ahead of Juventus’ Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday. “I can show that with my performances, how I play, the way I play, the way I still feel good, sharp, thinking about the game, more mature. This makes the difference.”

In the second season of a four-year deal at Juventus, Ronaldo had sparked concern among his fans when he said in an interview published a few weeks ago that he was starting to enjoy seeing himself “outside of football, so who knows what will happen in the next year or two?”

Ronaldo recently scored his 700th goal as a professional while on international duty with Portugal and has been nominated for a record sixth Ballon d’Or award – which would break his tie of five with Lionel Messi.

But Ronaldo said he’s more interested in winning a treble with Juventus.

“We want to win Serie A, we want to win the Cup, the Champions League,” he said. “Juventus should think big. … We are going to try to win all the trophies, we know it will be difficult, especially the league and the Champions League, but I think it is possible. Everything is possible.

“In terms of individual, I have nothing to say as this is individual. It is not the most important thing,” Ronaldo added. “The most important is the collective awards. If you win the collective awards you have more chance to win the individual awards. … The Golden Ball is for me in second place.”

While retirement may not be on Ronaldo’s mind yet, family time is a big part of his life now.

“To win games, to score goals, to enjoy myself, to arrive home and see my kids happy and say, `Congratulations daddy for scoring a goal.’ That makes me happy,” he said. “This is my motivation to come to train, for the games, to entertain people and the fans with my passion.”

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Carragher apologizes to Evra over Suarez t-shirts

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Jamie Carragher has apologized to Patrice Evra after Liverpool wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez in 2011.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The day after Suarez was banned for eight games by the English Football Association, who found him guilty of racially abusing Evra, Liverpool’s players put on t-shirts with Suarez on the front and back during their warm up in a Premier League game against Wigan Athletic.

Carragher and Evra were both analysts for our partners at Sky Sports in the UK on Monday Night Football for the clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal, and discussed the current problems with racism in the game.

“There is no doubt we made a massive mistake; that was obvious,” Carragher said.

Liverpool’s former vice-captain asked Evra how he felt regarding the situation with Suarez, and the former Man United, Juventus and Monaco left back revealed his disgust at the way the situation was handled.

“When I saw it I was like, this is ridiculous. This is unbelievable,” Evra said. You put your own club in danger when you do those things. You always have to support your player because he is from your team but this was after the ban. If it was before and we were waiting for the sanction, I would understand. What message do you send to the world? Supporting someone being banned because he used some racist words.”

Click play on the video above for the full discussion between Carragher and Evra.