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David Villa discusses MLS playoffs, Guardiola’s sustained success and more

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In only the club’s second season in Major League Soccer, New York City FC is on the verge of making its first playoff appearance in club history.

Pro Soccer Talk recently had the opportunity to catch up with the club’s captain, David Villa, as he and his team prepare for the remainder of the 2016 regular season and gear up for the postseason.

On Wednesday, Villa sat down with PST at Tavern on Third in New York City as the former Spanish national team star helps promote Go90 — a mobile application that allows fans to live-stream some of the world’s biggest soccer leagues and matches, including La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1.

While Villa was focused on the various television screens in the restaurant —all of which were playing Barcelona’s 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid — the 34-year-old discussed his team’s aspirations with the MLS season winding down.

“It’s our moment now,” Villa told PST. “We need three points to go through to the playoffs. The playoffs is different because it’s a fight for one day or two days. Our goal is make the postseason and then to be better every series we play in.

“We don’t have a spot yet in the playoffs,” Villa said. “If we win on Friday then we’re in but it’s the first goal for us. We need to fight in the rest of the games because it’s not the same to be the sixth spot versus the second or first spot. We need to fight for the last few games before the playoffs so we get a good position.

“It’s only our second season so I think the fans see the team and don’t think they always see it’s our second year. Some teams have been working for over 20 years and it’s different for them. NYCFC is still growing and we’re very proud of that. Of course the objective for our club is to win the trophy at the end. We’re close to reaching the playoffs but we’re still fighting with every other team to get wins and keep up our form.”

With NYCFC holding its playoff fate in its own hands, Patrick Vieira’s group has the opportunity to qualify for the postseason on Friday night against the Chicago Fire, who currently sit in last place in the Eastern Conference.

Villa was quick to give his head coach a lot of the credit for New York City’s success this season, citing his demanding training regiment and tactics as some of the critical reasons why the team is in prime position to not only make the playoffs but make a deep run when the side reaches that stage.

“Patrick is a very good coach,” Villa said. “The most important thing is that he’s come in and had a very clear plan from the first day. Day by day we work in training to accomplish our goals and it’s good for us. For me, I like the style Patrick wants us to play and of course you always need to get the results. So far this year we are doing good because we’re in a good position. We need to finish out strong though going into the playoffs.

USA Today Sports/Vincent Carchietta
USA Today Sports/Vincent Carchietta

While the club’s defensive struggles have at times overshadowed the team’s success in 2016, one of the biggest differences from NYCFC’s inaugural season is the support that Villa has received up front in helping the Spaniard contribute finishing.

The former La Liga star leads the squad for the second consecutive season, with 17 goals in 29 appearances, but the emergence of players like rookie Jack Harrison and ex-Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard have taken the burden off of Villa.

“Of course we are happy to have players playing close to me like Jack [Harrison], like Khiry [Shelton], like Tommy [McNamara] and Tony Taylor sometimes,” Villa explained. “Steven Mendoza is another player as well. Every player that plays up front with me wants to help the team and of course for the attacking players we’re all trying to make good contributions on the pitch.”

While Villa’s focus on his new club is evident, the former Barcelona man took the time to discuss several other topics, including how Pep Guardiola‘s influence has brought Manchester City (NYCFC’s parent club) immediate success.

“It’s good,” Villa said with a smile on his face. “Guardiola has done this at different clubs which is amazing. When I was at Barcelona he was tremendous, going to Bayern he was excellent and now at Manchester City he’s gotten off to a great start as well. He’s good. He’s very good and I’m very proud to have worked with one of the best coaches in the history of soccer and to see him putting up some great results.

“He’s brought great tactics to all the clubs he’s been at and the players really like playing for him. I think City’s start has shown how good of a manager he is. I think they’ll be one of the best clubs for as long as he’s there because he’s very smart and always looking to get better.”

Benfica loanee Parks readies for playoffs with NYCFC

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Keaton Parks plays the kind of hard-to-quantify midfield role that sends both stat nerds and eye test takers to a very good place.

Barely 22, the New York City FC midfielder doesn’t stand out in any one particular area. Since arriving on loan from Benfica, the American shuttler (of sorts) ranks near the top of the club rankings in pass percentage and aerials won while chipping in tackles and successful dribbles.

[ MORE: PST talks public pitches, youth development with NYCFC director Reyna ]

He’s averaging near one key pass per game but has just a goal and an assist, due more to his responsibility in Dome Torrent’s system than a particular skill set (He has eight goals and seven assists across two-plus seasons between Varzim and Benfica B).

“In the midfield it really helps to play both sides of the ball,” Parks told ProSoccerTalk. “I take pride in doing that, and I love to make a tackle as much as getting in the attack and assisting or scoring goals. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not scoring or making all of the assists. I like to be the solid player who keeps the balance on the team.”

(Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)

Parks has been an enigma to American soccer fans for some time in that he’s been in a celebrated club in Benfica but playing in a developmental role that’s near impossible to track without single-minded dedication to Portuguese football (Dramatic? Sure, but you try to catch every Liga Pro game).

But in moving to New York City FC to play under Dome Torrent, he’s had an easier transition than most due to his upbringing with Benfica, which annually ranks amongst the top possession teams in Portugal. Torrent, of course, left his last managerial gig at Girona in Spain to spent a decade-plus on Pep Guardiola‘s staff at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City.

“Dome likes to play a possession style, a confident style,” Parks said. “I still have to fight for my spot on the team but the playing style I was used to right away.

“You can see the experience Dome has, and he mirrors a little bit of what Pep does, so it’s been amazing to be able to learn from him and see the experiences of the players he’s been able to coach in his career.”

NYCFC begins its playoff run on Wednesday against Toronto FC at Citi Field in Queens, and Parks says he’s feeling better after missing three matches with injury.

And while he’s focused on the playoffs — “We want to win the Cup and be at the top” — there is a question of what’s next for him, still on the books at a perennial UEFA Champions League club but very important with a CONCACAF Champions League club.

[ MORE: MLS Playoffs preview/predictions ]

“I’m just going to be looking forward to whatever club I’m at next, whether here or back at Benfica or wherever I am and also with the U-23s going into Tokyo next summer.”

He’ll, in theory, be an imperative part to Jason Kreis, ironically a former NYCFC man himself, and the Yanks bid for a first Olympic run in three cycles. The team should be powerful, and Parks is happy.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “We have so much talent on the team with guys playing first division all over the world. I believe we can make a run all the way to these Olympics.”
NYCFC and Toronto FC kick off 7 p.m. ET Wednesday at Citi Field.

MLS conference semifinal preview and predictions

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We’re not sure we should be allowed to make Major League Soccer playoff predictions after getting two upset bids wrong in the first round, but we go again anyway.

No, DC United did not outlast Toronto FC at BMO Field nor were the Portland Timbers able to get a win over Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto but… we got the other four right?

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

It gets trickier at midweek for the conference semifinals, as two of those six victors from the weekend face well-rested one seeds (We suppose they could be rusty, not just well-rested).

NYCFC v. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
TFC 4-0 NYCFC (April 29)
NYCFC 1-1 TFC (Sept. 11)

Toronto hasn’t lost since Aug. 3 (5W-6D) and is well-equipped to deal NYCFC’s possession system on a postage stamp pitch. NYC’s only loss in its last 11 was a throwaway loss to a desperate Revolution side in New England. TFC has a lot of experience in spots like this, but Dome Torrent’s done an incredible job with City. It’s a coin toss, but ultimately it feels like that coin lands TFC side up. 2-1 aet.

Seattle v. Real Salt Lake  — 10 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
Seattle 1-0 RSL (April 6)
RSL 3-0 Seattle (Aug. 14)

This one’s also close, as RSL has a number of players who won’t be bothered by the pressure but man is this home field advantage a real one. The Sounders only lost two home matches this season, and haven’t lost a home playoff match under Brian Schmetzer. Call it 2-0 for Seattle.

Atlanta United v. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
ATL 1-1 Philly (March 17)
Philly 3-1 ATL (Aug. 31)

The Union are resilient, and Jim Curtin seeing success is an absolute joy. So deserved, but Frank De Boer is showing his mettle in making the tough decisions and Ezequiel Barco looks a terror. A side that is able to bring Tito Villalba and Pity Martinez off the bench is unfair. Atlanta, 3-1.

LAFC v. LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
Galaxy 3-2 LAFC (July 19)
LAFC 3-3 Galaxy (Aug. 25)

Can hardly wait for this one. Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela look to send Zlatan Ibrahimovic packing after a riotous summer competition. LAFC is so, so good, and the lack of rest for the Galaxy is a problem. Still, betting against Zlatan seems borderline insane, and Jonathan dos Santos has big game mettle of his own. We’ll call it 2-2 and a place in penalty kicks, where David Bingham’s the difference for the Galaxy in a history-writing upset that takes El Trafico to the next level. Yes, we are predicting for storylines now.

Champions League preview: Chelsea, Liverpool hit the road

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Frank Lampard has a selection headache amongst his wingers as he tries to figure out Chelsea’s best avenue to break down Ajax on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League.

Youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic starred in the Blues’ weekend win, and Lampard also has Pedro and Willian available at Johan Cruyff Arena before a weekend visit to Burnley.

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

From ChelseaFC.com:

“Callum gave me that in his display from the start and Christian gave me that in his display coming on, and in terms of the wingers I have, Willian gave me that, Pedro gives me that so I have good selection problems when people come on and make a difference. That is what we are all about.

“The extra level that is the Champions League, the detail, the focus, concentration for 90 minutes, making the most of tiny moments, will be a test for all the young players, not just Callum.”

The good news for Pulisic in his bid to match wits with fellow USMNT (for now) player Sergino Dest is that he’s had experience on the UCL stage with Borussia Dortmund.

The other PL side in action is Liverpool, and the Reds will be expecting to get all three points in Belgium against Genk.

But Genk drew Napoli 0-0 at home on the second match day and the Reds will be wary of a slip-up.

“It’s a really good football-playing team,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “They are organized and brave in their positioning. They don’t play with the pressing line too much but go for second balls, have speed and good midfielders and very active full-backs.”

Klopp will not have Trent Alexander-Arnold (illness) and Joel Matip (knee).

Other highlights…

— American manager Jesse Marsch hopes to lead Red Bull Salzburg to a home win over Napoli when he matches wits with Carlo Ancelotti.

Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan could really use a result against tricky Borussia Dortmund in Italy.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Ajax v. Chelsea
RB Leipzig v. Zenit Saint-Petersburg

3 p.m. ET
Slavia Prague v. Barcelona
Red Bull Salzburg v. Napoli
Genk v. Liverpool
Inter Milan v. Borussia Dortmund
Lille v. Valencia
Benfica v. Lyon

Man City’s Guardiola issues Rodri update; Zinchenko also injured

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola expects to be without Rodri for at least a couple of matches after his heavily relied-on midfielder hurt his hamstring on Tuesday.

Rodri was removed from the match after 40 minutes, having partnered with Fernandinho at center back for the second-straight match.

[ MORE: Man City 5-1 Atalanta ]

A center mid and a fine one by trade, Rodri’s absence coupled with the still-hurt Aymeric Laporte leaves City significantly weaker in its heart.

“I think tomorrow we will know and hopefully it will be between 10 days if it is not broken,” Guardiola said. “If it is broken, it will be three weeks or one month.”

The club also announced before the match that Oleksandr Zinchenko had suffered a knee injury and will undergo tests.

City visits Aston Villa this weekend and then hosts Southampton in the League Cup and the Premier League before a visit to Atalanta in the Champions League.

That’s when Liverpool at Anfield arrives on the schedule, and the absence of Rodri would take some of the luster off of it for sure.