Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Big in Texas: Stellar back Hedges continues to fly under radar

Leave a comment

A half-decade into his tenure with FC Dallas, Matt Hedges is nearing the title of Honorary Texan.

“Yeah, I’ve got the hat, I’ve got the boots, I love it here.,” Hedges told ProSoccerTalk, breaking into a laugh while adding, “I’ve got the guns, all that kind of stuff. I consider myself a Texan now. I just need the pickup truck then I’ll be all set.”

Whether a North Texas dealership sees this as a chance to make Hedges full-on Texan or not, the towering 26-year-old back from Indiana has already added something shiny to FCD headquarters this week when he and the Toros claimed the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title.

[ MORE: Who leads MLS Awards races? ]

It took 164 games in an FC Dallas uniform for Hedges to claim his first bit of silverware, a wait beaten in length by the club’s 19 years since earning it as the Dallas Burn in 1997.

So it’s a bit fitting that their 6-foot-4 center back’s diving header of a Mauro Diaz cross gave FCD a lead it would not relinquish on Wednesday in Frisco as the Toros claimed their second USOC title.

“Seeing us win a trophy, and knowing we went through a whole tournament without losing, how we did it with coming back, overtime games, or winning late, knowing no matter the circumstances, that we can get it done, I can’t feel any better,” Hedges said.

FC Dallas celebrates its 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup soccer final, Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
FC Dallas celebrates its 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup soccer final, Tuesday Sept. 13, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Hedges may be the most undercover flat-out star in MLS, and this season has been no different for the big man. He’s been in Texas since being chosen with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, but he’s rarely seen a season like this one: FCD is in the driver’s seat for the Supporters’ Shield with five regular season matches left on the docket.

That’s in no small part thanks to the captain and his center back mate Walker Zimmerman, who has come into his own. Another first rounder from the SuperDraft (No. 7 in 2013), the 23-year-old Zimmerman may put a pair of FCD backs on the Defender of the Year ballot.

[ MORE: Martino to be named Atlanta United’s first coach ]

Before going any further, credit to the FCD technical department for making those picks. Some clubs haven’t utilized the SuperDraft well twice in the last decade; FCD found big, strong, starting quality center backs in consecutive years.

According to advanced statistics site Squawka, here’s how the pair ranks amongst peers this year.

Ranks amongst MLS defenders, 2016 season
Defensive performance score:  Zimmerman 1st, Hedges 3rd
Interceptions per game: Hedges 3rd, Zimmerman 5th
Pass accuracy: Hedges 6th, Zimmerman 12th
Aerial duels per game: Zimmerman 2nd, Hedges 17th

FRISCO, TX - MARCH 06: Walker Zimmerman #25 of FC Dallas dribbles the ball against C.J. Sapong #17 of Philadelphia Union in the second half at Toyota Stadium on March 6, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Zimmerman (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“We’ve definitely developed a good partnership this season,” said the 6-foot-3 Zimmerman, who added that he entered this year with more determination than any other season.

“This is our fourth year together and our first one starting together. Our chemistry has definitely translated onto the field.”

Hedges has been a top-end MLS defender in essentially every season he’s started for the club, and he credits the partnership for raising his profile this year.

“(Zimmerman’s) evolution has made my job a lot easier,” Hedges said. “He wins a ton of balls. It makes me not have to do as much, basically. The best part of the partnership is making each other’s job easier, if that makes sense.”

[ MORE: Three things from Liverpool’s win over Chelsea ]

Their manager’s willingness to play youngsters helps, too. Oscar Pareja has championed the Academy set-up, and hasn’t shied away on the topic of playing the best Americans as soon as they are ready to roll.

“(Pareja) showing that respect and playing Americans gives them a lot of confidence,” Hedges said. “The Academy guys know if they work hard, they’ll get a shot. So in training games, they’re going hard and trying to get better because they know if they impress, they’ll get a shot on the field. I think that’s a huge thing. That’s why we’re doing so well because those young guys have that confidence.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Luis Pereira #4 of Panama vies for position to the ball against Matt Hedges #3 of the USA in the second half of their international men's friendly match at StubHub Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. The play resulted in a goal by Dempsey. The USA defeated Panama 2-0. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
In his only cap to date, Hedges vies with Panama’s Luis Pereira on Feb. 8, 2015 (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Come January, we’d love to see both Hedges and Zimmerman together in USMNT camp. After all, pairing an international duo who play together for club is certainly ideal, Hedges has a cap under his belt, and Zimmerman has donned the red, white, and blue at the U-18, U-20, and U-23 level.

The USMNT’s center back corps is a bit deeper than usual with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron thriving, the MLS duo of Matt Besler and Steve Birnbaum, and prospects Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga playing overseas.

[ MORE: Pochettino says Carter-Vickers deserves to start ]

Hedges admits he thinks about Cap No. 2 sometimes, while Zimmerman has the idea in his mind a bit more often.

“Always,” Zimmerman said. “You’re always thinking about it when you’re at this level. The next step is striving to play for the full national team.”

But there’s a treble (or triple) to sort out first. Dallas has a tough run-in, with the Galaxy home and away, trips to Real Salt Lake and NYCFC, and a visit from Seattle. But FCD has a four-point lead on LA, and a five-point lead on Colorado (The Rapids have played two fewer games.

“We want to win every trophy,” Hedges said. “The Cup and Supporters Shield are right there. We’ve put ourselves in a great spot. We try not to think about it, and our mantra is one day at a time. If we could win two more trophies, I don’t know if I could be happier.”

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool, Chelsea through to UCL knockouts

Photo by BARBARA GINDL/APA/AFP via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle on Liverpool’s nervy 2-0 win against Red Bull Salzburg to take first place in Group E of the Champions League (1:55), Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Lille to secure a place in the Round of 16 (13:15) and who is the current favorite to win it all (20:45).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Plus, what Arsenal’s come-from-behind 3-1 win at West Ham means for both London clubs (29:10) and the Robbies discuss what they’re looking forward to most at the next Live Premier League Mornings Fan Fest in Miami Beach (46:05).

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 16

Leave a comment

The Premier League didn’t issue too many surprises at the bottom of the table this week, but two top-tier sides didn’t behave as such and shook up our rankings.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Chelsea and Man City have dipped low, and Bournemouth’s skid doesn’t have it sinking lower (yet) because of the teams beneath it.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Watford — Liverpool and Manchester United are next, and it’s looking a long way back to safety.
Last week: 20
Season high: 17
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 0-0 v. Crystal Palace
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Liverpool

19. Norwich City — Outshot, out-passed, our possessed Sheffield United at home and still lost. Bad vibes, man.
Last week: 18
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Leicester City

18. West Ham United — Just feels like there’s something lurking below the surface here. Doesn’t smell right given the Irons talent.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-1 v. Arsenal
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Southampton

17. Bournemouth — Losing to Liverpool is no shame, but it’s almost officially time to worry.
Last week: 16
Season high: 6
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 3-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

16. Aston Villa — Tom Heaton is a heck of a goalkeeper but he can’t be expected to save four A-plus danger chances per game.
Last week: 14
Season high: 8
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 4-1 v. Leicester City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Sheffield United

15. Southampton — West Ham and Villa back-to-back have to provide four points if Saints revival is to be believed.
Last week: 15
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Newcastle United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. West Ham United

14. Everton — Duncan Ferguson gives the Toffees board reason enough to be patient with their managerial hire, and then Napoli goes and fires Carlo Ancelotti.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

13. Burnley — The defending against Spurs — we know, Spurs are good — was enough to drop them far lower than four spots. Abject stuff from a Sean Dyche side.
Last week: 9
Season high: 5
Season low: 15
Last match: Lost 5-0 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Newcastle

12. Arsenal — Freddie Ljungberg started Nicolas Pepe, and Nicholas Pepe was his best player. Stunning stuff, really. Look at the assist below.
Last week: 13
Season high: 4
Season low: 12
Last match: Won 3-1 at West Ham
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Man City

11. Crystal Palace — I want to believe, but am holding out for something more. A derby win versus Brighton would suffice.
Last week: 7
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 0-0 at Watford
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Monday v. Brighton

10. Newcastle United — Again, Steve Bruce‘s men are getting tremendous Fortune and he’s pushing almost all the right buttons (It takes guts to start Andy Carroll over the struggling record signing Joelinton). This could be a sign of the Geordie Apocalypse.
Last week: 11
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

9. Sheffield United — A little wobbly lately, but still a good comeback at Carrow Road.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Norwich City
Up next: 10 a.m ET Saturday v. Aston Villa

8. Brighton and Hove Albion — Doesn’t it say something that a country who starves for young, strong English coaches had one sitting in Sweden for eight years? Graham Potter is legit.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 2-1 at Arsenal
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

7. Chelsea — Some of those young guys who’ve played so well, so early, are looking a little ragged. It’s a shame Frank Lampard is still waiting on Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who will really help things take another step.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

6. Manchester City — It probably has nothing to do with the system, and a lot to do with not having Aymeric Laporte, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane… Still, it needs to be better than a home derby loss to a Paul Pogba-less United.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Manchester United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday at Arsenal

5. Tottenham Hotspur — We’re gonna need multiple screens on Sunday morning, as Wolves-Spurs and Man Utd-Everton are both must-monitor.
Last week: 8
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 5-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Wolves

4. Manchester United — Ole’s at the wheel, and still doesn’t feel like Lewis Hamilton or anything but we’re not worried about heading off a cliff.
Last week: 6
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 2-1 at Man City
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton

3. Wolves — Beat Spurs on Sunday and I’ll go ahead and bet on them as a Top Four finisher, even after the Brighton draw failed to deliver the goods.
Last week: 3
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Brighton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Spurs

2. Leicester City — Wow.
Last week: 2
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Norwich City

1. Liverpool — Wow, only atop the table.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 3-0 at Bournemouth
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Watford

Champions League Weds. preview: Two spots remain

Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Only two spots remain in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, and those will be settled Wednesday afternoon.

In Group C, hosts Shakhtar Donetsk need to beat Atalanta to go through, while the visitors can also go through with a win if Dinamo Zagreb fails to defeat Man City.

[ MORE: Ancelotti reportedly speaking w/ Everton ]

In Group D, Atletico Madrid is through with a win over Lokomotiv Moscow, though Bayer Leverkusen can complete a remarkable comeback from an 0-3 start to the group stage if they beat already-qualified Juve and Atleti loses to their Russian visitors.

You certainly wouldn’t be against Diego Simeone there, though.

“Tomorrow is a great opportunity, every day that you wear the Atletico shirt is,” Simeone said, via Marca. “I believe in my team, in the humility that they have at the moment. The results will come based on what they are demonstrating on the field.”

Premier League sides Man City and Tottenham Hotspur both have their fortunes settled, with City having won Group C and Spurs settled into Group B’s second spot, but they still have plenty to figure out on Tuesday.

Jose Mourinho’s Spurs are going up against a Bayern team that walloped them at home, while City is living an unusual 2W-3D-2L lull in form.

Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League action

12:55 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Atalanta
Dinamo Zagreb v. Man City

3 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen v. Juventus
Paris Saint-Germain v. Galatasaray
Olympiacos v. Red Star Belgrade
Bayern Munich v. Tottenham Hotspur

Ancelotti fired by Napoli as Everton, Arsenal lurk

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Carlo Ancelotti won a place in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, then lost his job.

The Napoli’s boss strained relationship with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis came to a head, with the Neapolitan side advancing in Europe to end a nine-match winless run.

[ MORE: Sporting KC adds Liga MX top scorer ]

That run may’ve included seven draws, but it also saw Napoli dip into seventh on the Serie A table. They are seven points back of sixth and 17 points behind leaders Juventus.

A strained relationship got worse when Ancelotti refused to take the team on a De Laurentiis-ordered “team retreat” following a draw against Salzburg in early November.

Gennaro Gattuso is rumored as Ancelotti’s replacement, and the fired coach himself is being mentioned as an immediate target for Arsenal and Everton.

In fact, the Toffees are in discussions with the Italian legend already, according to Sky Sports. Football Italia claims Arsenal is in on the action, too.

Ancelotti has won the Champions League with AC Milan twice and a third time with Real Madrid. He’s claimed domestic titles in five of Europe’s top leagues, with silverware at Chelsea, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid.