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PST and the ultimate Leicester City roundtable: How did we get here?

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No one’s catching the Foxes, and their story hasn’t ruined anything about this special Premier League campaign (aside from the dreams of Spurs and Arsenal fans).

Leicester City’s run often gets the label of “fairytale” thanks to its marvelous manager and a trio of afterthought superstars in N'Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

[ EUROPA: Villarreal 1-0 Liverpool | Shakhtar 2-2 Sevilla ]

Barring the most ridiculous finish in ages, one more absurd than the Foxes’ run to get here, Leicester will be the Premier League champions. From Ted Lasso quip to the UEFA Champions League… what is going on here?

PST’s staff discusses.


Nick Mendola: Obviously this Leicester City run is very difficult to describe and even harder to put in perspective. So let’s start here: What is your favorite thing about this remarkable Foxes season?

Joe Prince-Wright: My favorite thing about this season has to be seeing the looks on the faces of Leicester’s fans. Having been at the KP and in and around the city on a match day, it is electric. Everyone is smiling, the team has given them so much joy and to me, that’s what sport and football is about. The fans. The atmosphere they generate leaves the stadium shaking, mini earthquakes have been recorded nearby and the players have all responded to the incredible support.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: A beer called 'Vardy's Volley' on sale in a city center pub. General views in and around Leicester on April 26, 2016 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

[ PL DOWNLOAD: The Leicester City story ]

Although it’s been wonderful to see the gentleman that is Claudio Ranieri work his magic with a squad many had pegged for relegation at the start of the season, seeing the overjoyed reaction of Leicester fans young and old has been my favorite thing. You can tell they are in dreamland.

Kyle Bonn: I can’t get enough of Claudio. Let’s not kid ourselves, Leicester has been the beneficiary of a cannibalistic league season and a spotless bill of health (which can’t be understated). But the way Ranieri has brought a band of professional athletes together to fight for one another is unparalleled in this profession. Jose Mourinho was often hailed as an expert in manipulating the media to his benefit. Ranieri instead has proven a mastermind in player psychology. His tactics have also been world-class this season, but seeing him bring this squad together through plenty of adversity is marvelous.

[ EUROPA FALLOUT: Klopp reacts | No Sturridge? ]

NM: I’ve stopped worrying about the American sports equivalent of Leicester, because salary caps sure stop the comparison from being interesting at all. But I do wonder who is the U.S. sports version of Claudio Ranieri, N’Golo Kante, and Jamie Vardy? Which coach over here could say some of the things Ranieri did — think “Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong” — and not be laughed out of the room as “not serious enough”? Culture clash, sure, but this guy is a special breed.

Leicester City's Claudio Ranieri takes to the touchline before his team's English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Saturday Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
(AP Photo/Jon Super)

Matt Reed: I think it’s interesting how people have tried to compare Leicester’s improbable run to other sports, but realistically I love their story because we’ve never seen a Leicester before. You’re talking about a team that has only two multi-goal losses all season. Even in what some may consider a down season in the PL, that is still something to tip your hat to. Then, there’s obviously the players. You have guys like Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who all wear their heart on their sleeve and you can truly see their raw emotions when they play. What’s not to like about this team?

NM: The thing about a new ‘power’ is that there isn’t a lot of real emotional tumult when they win, especially when you consider that rivals in Nottingham Forest and Derby County aren’t even in the Premier League. And the marvelous thing for other teams’ supporters, aside from Arsenal and Spurs, is that they can take this sort of pride in Leicester’s story like, “My club didn’t win this year, but a mostly inoffensive side has done it! Take that, other teams I hate.”
And aside from some referee’s decisions and Jamie Vardy’s unfortunate casino incident, there’s such little controversy.
KB: Well, Claudio Ranieri reminds me a lot of Lon Kruger. Maybe not with some of the funny stuff he says, because Kruger isn’t known for that, but think about it. Lon is a player’s coach who is loved by every fan base he’s touched. He’s come close to championships (2 Final Fours, 1 Elite 8) but has never won one. And he’s always wearing a smile. They’re very similar to me. I hope Lon wins a title someday because he deserves it, and Ranieri deserves this one this year.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri congratulates Daniel Drinkwater, right, and Ngolo Kante, left, after the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Newcastle United at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, March 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

As far as the players, it’s hard to say. Kurt Warner comes to mind when thinking of Vardy’s improbable rise, but their personalities don’t really line up. Kante can be likened to a guy like Howard Griffith. A 9th round draft pick, Griffith ended up as a bruiser out of the backfield, a guy who wasn’t a big name given that he was lining up behind future Hall of Famer John Elway and lead blocking for Broncos superstar Terrell Davis, but he was a crucial part of that offense in the trenches and ended up scoring 2 touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXII, one of 2 Super Bowls he’d win.

KB: I have a question for everyone that I also think makes for a fascinating topic:
Will Leicester have staying power at the top of the league, or will they suffer a quick demise?
I hate that I’m saying this, but I think their time at the top is short-lived. Countless teams new to the top have found the fixture congestion with European play impossible to navigate, and Leicester’s bill of health this season was practically unparalleled. Nobody got hurt. There’s no way their fortune remains that high through next year. Depth is nearly impossible for many smaller clubs to attain, so I think they may be doomed. I hope I’m wrong.
MR: I think you bring up a great point, Kyle. I’ve been asking myself this all season long, and I think this also plays into how special their season is. They could very well be a one hit wonder considering the coaching additions of Conte and Guardiola at Chelsea and City. You’d imagine there will be retooling jobs with Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool as well.
WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Jamie Vardy of Leicester City (R) with Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City (L) celebrates scoring the third goal with team mates during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City at The Hawthorns on April 11, 2015 in West Bromwich, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
In most cases, outside of Messi and Ronaldo, one or two players don’t make a team but in Leicester’s case I think Vardy and Mahrez do. You can throw Kante in there as well. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to keep all these guys, but if they don’t this has been one heck of a ride.

JPW: I was with you on this theory for quite some time, Kyle. And although I don’t think Leicester will repeat this season or even finish in the top four again… I think they have the financial muscle of their Thai-based owners to really go out and spend big and potentially make it out of the UCL group stage next season. After all, with the way the tournament seeds are now picked, Leicester will be a top seed. In theory, they should make it to the last 16. Should be some memorable European nights at the KP.

The biggest concern is adding too many players this summer. They have to get the balance right. Throwing this out there to the group: what if they sold Mahrez, Kante and Vardy this summer? How disappointing would that be? Or is that the harsh reality of the big boys having more cash? For me, I can’t understand why they’d pass up the opportunity to see this through and stay one more season to play in the Champions League with Leicester. I know money talks… But come on!

NM: There are similarities to a sophomore slump in other sports here. On top of Leicester’s issues dealing with the European schedule, the Foxes also have to negotiate the opposition spending all summer learning what worked best against them.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02: Ngolo Kante of Leicester City and Roberto Firmino of Liverpool compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 2, 2016 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Kante is their MVP, and he’s going to fetch Leicester a load of dough. I have concerns whether he can go at his breakneck pace and physical play without facing injury woes (long-term). They should cash in on a 29-year-old Vardy to be honest and do whatever they can to hold onto Mahrez. Then find someone to slot in next to Drinkwater — maybe Idrissa Gueye, who’s been massively overlooked because Aston Villa has been a trash tornado — and find a pair of hard-working strikers to help adapt and stay in the top half.

It will be very difficult, but it won’t be hard for the club to stay in the mix for European qualification. In a way, though, that makes the story even better. This is a perfect storm, a force of nature, not a manufactured storm like Blackburn in the mid-1990s.

Kyle Lynch: I think you also have to remember how poor the rest of the league was this season. Teams dropped a lot of points you wouldn’t expect, and it’s hard to imagine things don’t shift a little bit back to “normal” next year.

With the money coming in this summer, you know the top teams are going to spend big, and Leicester shouldn’t be afraid to either. But what makes Leicester so great is their spirit and togetherness as a team, so the ownership has to be careful not to disrupt that. With Champions League matches and the uncertainty of injuries, I don’t know if they’ll be playing in Europe for more than one season.

NM: The rub on Kyle’s point here has two big points.

1) Leicester will need to start well and pile up points before the Champions League group stage begins, and they’ll likely have to do it while integrating new players. It’s easy to forget that the Foxes didn’t find their true title form until Ranieri found Kante’s spot on the pitch (He started on the left, and also played a bit more advance before settling alongside Drinkwater).

during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Southampton at Goodison Park on April 16, 2016 in Liverpool, England.

2) It’s not just the big boys seeing that influx of money. Clubs like Swansea, Stoke, Southampton and Everton all have zero reason not to spend more than their usual. That’s also why being one of the 20 clubs in the league next season is so critical for all the Championship promotion chasers, and the three teams hoping to avoid one of the final two relegation spot.

But now we’re talking way too much about the future. The title’s not even clinched yet! What a year… and what could still remain in the Leicester City tale?

Pearson: ‘I was semi-retired’ before Watford came calling

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Nigel Pearson had come to terms with the fact he would never again manage in the Premier League — or any league, perhaps — before Watford came calling out of sheer desperation last month.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Lampard prepared to go without January signings ]

“I was semi-retired, more or less,” Pearson admitted on Friday. He had been out of work for nearly 10 months following an 18-month spell at Belgian side Leuven. That came on the heels of a disastrous five months at EFL Championship side Derby, where he compiled a win percentage of just 21.4 percent — quotes from the Guardian:

“I wouldn’t have been thinking it was possible, of course I wouldn’t. It really is a situation that’s come out of nothing. I was semi-retired, more or less.”

“I’ve been asked whether I was worried about getting a reputation as a ‘firefighter’ and it doesn’t bother me. If that’s how people want to look at it, fine. From my own perspective, coming into a situation like this, it’s just a good opportunity to work back in a league I didn’t think I’d be working in again. In terms of risk to my reputation or anything like that, I’m not bothered about those things. I wouldn’t have taken on the challenge if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of succeeding.

“It’s just one of those situations where clearly there was a need for something different. So far it’s going OK. I’m pleased with how we’ve started to turn things around but I’m also experienced enough to know that it’s still going to be a tough job to maintain the standards we’ve set and push on again.”

Now at Watford, and back in the PL for the first time since 2015 (Leicester City), Pearson has guided the Hornets to four wins in his first seven games, including five straight without a defeat, and a 17th-place standing ahead of the weekend’s round of fixtures. When he took over, Watford sat 20th out of 20 teams with eight points from 15 games. Less than a month later, they sit a point outside the relegation zone with 22 to their name.

USWNT: Olympic qualifying roster minus five from World Cup team

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The United States’ roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament will look very similar to the one that won the Women’s World Cup in France, with notable exceptions.

Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Allie Long, Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson were on the title team but were left off the 20-player CONCACAF tournament roster announced Friday.

Morgan is expecting her first child with husband Servando Carrasco. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said that Davidson is still recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined her during January camp.

Pugh, a young forward who has shown promise, was one of the most surprising omissions. Andonovski said she has been invited to train with the team even though she didn’t make the roster.

“It was competitive and she did well,” Andonovski said. “But there were other players that I believe that performed better than Mal. Now, I just want to be clear that she is very good, very talented player and she performed well. She has a big future in front of her. So I’m really sure that if she keeps on developing going forward, she will be on this roster.”

The roster includes 18 players who were on the World Cup squad. Newcomers include midfielder Andi Sullivan and forward Lynn Williams.

Sullivan, a former standout at Stanford who plays for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, has 13 appearances with the national team. Williams, who plays for reigning NWSL champion North Carolina, has made 21 appearances with the national team since 2016, scoring six goals.

Carli Lloyd, who will turn 38 before the Tokyo Games, is the oldest player on the roster. Lloyd scored three goals in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan, but last year in France started in just one game as she took on more of a reserve role.

Andonovski, who was named coach of the team last October after Jill Ellis stepped down, praised Lloyd’s work ethic and said that if she continues to play well, he sees “no reason for her not to be a starter.”

Andonovski said Megan Rapinoe, the Ballon d’Or winner who scored six goals in the World Cup, was also nursing minor injuries during January camp.

“In the end, the ones that I believe will give it the best chance to be successful, that will give us the best chance to win the games and qualify for the Olympics, are the ones that made the roster,” he said.

The United States opens qualifying on Jan. 28 in Houston with a match against Haiti. The top two finishers in the eight-team tournament’s two groups advance to the semifinals in Carson, California, on Feb. 7. The final is in Carson on Feb. 9.

Two berths in the Tokyo Games this summer are up for grabs. The United States has made the field for every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was added to the Games in 1996 and has won four gold medals.

FULL USWNT ROSTER

Goalkeepers: Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars).

Defenders: Abby Dahlkemper (North Carolina Courage), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Emily Sonnett (Orlando Pride).

Midfielders: Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Samantha Mewis (North Carolina Courage), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit).

Forwards: Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue), Jessica McDonald (North Carolina Courage), Christen Press (Utah Royals), Megan Rapinoe (Reign), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage).

Bundesliga: Schalke spoils Gladbach’s chance to go top

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GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (AP) Michael Gregoritsch scored one goal and set up another as Schalke dealt a blow to Borussia Monchengladbach’s Bundesliga title hopes in a 2-0 win on Friday.

In the Bundesliga’s first game of 2020 after the winter break, Gladbach’s defense was frequently overwhelmed by host Schalke’s rapid team moves, especially on the counterattack.

After a string of first-half saves by Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer kept the score 0-0 at the break, Schalke scored twice early in the second half to secure the win.

Gregoritsch took the ball out to the left flank in the 48th minute, stretching the Gladbach defense and opening up space in the middle. He then passed for Suat Serdar to charge through the gap in Gladbach’s back line and score from the edge of the penalty area.

Ten minutes later it was Gregoritsch’s turn to score, finishing off a counterattack which ran almost the length of the field, with a lay-off pass from Benito Raman.

“We had trouble the whole game with Schalke’s movement. They put a lot of pressure on us and it was hard to play the ball out too. We gave them too much room,” Sommer said in televised comments. “We had chances in the first half when we could have scored a goal, but in general we were not good enough today.”

As well as his key role in attack, Gregoritsch also made a key intervention in defense, clearing Marcus Thuram’s header off the line in the 38th in what proved to be one of Gladbach’s best chances.

“When it works like this, it’s really great,” Gregoritsch said, crediting Schalke’s home crowd for the win. “We’re at home and we can hit the gas pedal a bit more with the 12th man here.”

Starting in goal for Schalke due to a suspension for first-choice Alexander Nubel, Markus Schubert made a good reaction stop to deny Gladbach’s Patrick Herrmann just before the break.

Gladbach stays two points behind leader Leipzig and can be overtaken by third-place Bayern Munich on Sunday if Bayern beats Hertha Berlin.

Gladbach was the surprise leader earlier in the season as its fans started to dream of a first German title since 1977, but it’s started to stall, having won just one of its last five games in all competitions.

Schalke moves up one place to fourth, overtaking its fierce rival Borussia Dortmund, which visits Augsburg on Saturday.

Chelsea’s Lampard prepared to go without January signings

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Frank Lampard is not only prepared for, but almost seems to prefer that, Chelsea make no new signings this month despite the club’s transfer ban being reduced to allow the Blues to sign players in January.

[ MORE: Report: Bruno Fernandes to Man United after Lisbon Derby ]

It’s not that Lampard believes he has the perfect squad, but he fears upsetting the balance and good vibes for a young group of players who have performed admirably thus far. Signing players for the sake of signing players would be “a knee-jerk reaction,” according to Lampard — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t want to comment on those deals because I think it’s easy with hindsight. … I think the idea of January being a time to buy players, it’s difficult for everybody: for players coming in — especially if they’re coming from a different league — for the club and for the settlement of the group. I think that’s why we have to think ultra-carefully.

“I don’t want to make some knee-jerk reaction to say: ‘Here’s my first big signing’ because we couldn’t sign anyone in the summer. No, I want to do the right thing for the club. That’s why if I do it I’ll try to consider all things. Hopefully it’s the best thing for us. Whether that’s more of a short-term option or a long-term option, we’ll also have to consider.”

As for potential outgoing players, West Ham United reportedly made a bid to take midfielder Ross Barkley on loan, but Chelsea rejected the offer and have no intention of letting the player leave Stamford Bridge this month.