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Grateful and geared up: Nyarko, DC United take aim at MLS Cup

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On Thursday, Patrick Nyarko will hit the RFK Stadium pitch with DC United for just his second playoff game of this decade, and he’s going to make sure no member of the Black-and-Red takes the opportunity for granted.

“I walked into the locker room after we clinched a spot and the guys were like, ‘Whatever’. DC had been in the playoffs the last few years,” Nyarko said with a laugh in a Tuesday conversation with ProSoccerTalk.

“I was like, ‘Guys! I’m excited, man. I haven’t been here in a while. I’m overly ecstatic.’ Hopefully we can get it together, make a run, and create something special.”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

The 30-year-old Ghanaian international with one cap was once one of those who took team success as a given. Nyarko walked off the College Cup pitch for Virginia Tech in 2007 and was picked 7th overall by the Chicago Fire. He promptly appeared in the MLS Cup semifinals in each of his first two seasons in Chicago.

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - SEPTEMBER 22: Patrick Nyarko #14 of the Chicago Fire advances the ball on the Columbus Crew during their MLS soccer match at Toyota Park on September 22, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated the Crew 2-1. (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)

“I thought this was how things went. With the teams we had, I thought it was going to be an eternal thing and we would always enjoy these things,” Nyarko said.

It turns out postseason success isn’t as simple as that. Aside from a 2012 knockout round loss to Houston, the longtime Fire man didn’t see playoff action.

So Thursday, yeah, you can bet it’s special. After 222 regular season MLS games and 23 goals — all but 26 of them with Chicago — Nyarko is back for just his fourth playoff campaign.

“It makes the decision to move on from Chicago kinda worth it,” Nyarko said. “Being in Chicago for that long, through the good through the bad, I finally decided to leave. If it had not resulted in a successful year and the playoffs, it would’ve been for nothing. I couldn’t have justified that.”

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Now DC is a sneaky, if not chic, pick to surprise in the East. The Black-and-Red have lost just once in their last seven games, and that was a Decision Day loss in which head coach Ben Olsen sat the vast majority of his starters in order to rest for Thursday. In the past six weeks, the No. 4 seed earned results against the trio of teams ahead of it in the Eastern Conference standings.

In other words, no one wants to see DC on their schedule right now. PST made the case for each team’s championship chances on Monday, and Nyarko is convinced that DC can make a long, long run to the final.

“We are high in confidence right now, and the way we’ve closed out the season we discovered our identity,” Nyarko said. “Everyone works for each other, covers each other, we attack together, and we keep up that intensity.”

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Nyarko’s traditional stats aren’t going to jump out at you; His four goals match his career-high, and his eight assists are second to Luciano Acosta, but Nyarko brings a different level of savvy to the squad.

On a team with United States men’s national team center back Steve Birnbaum, you could argue that midfielder Nyarko is the team’s best defensive asset. He does the dirty things and is fouled more than anyone else on the team, but has also completed the second-most key passes on the team (to Acosta).

And the advanced stats say he’s getting the job done, too. Squawka has him in pretty good company as a Top Five midfielder when it comes to defensive performance score per game.

Nyarko DC MLS

“It’s unfortunate how the stats are usually what’s preached out to the fans,” Nyarko said. “I look for people who can make their team better. I’m ecstatic when the teams wins, and shattered when the team loses. I won’t necessarily be the last person to touch the ball before someone scores, but before that, the double teams, the division, that’s what I pride myself on. I know what I bring to a team.”

Which isn’t to say he wasn’t scratching his head when DC started the season winless through five matches, especially when he was the new guy.

[ MORE: Three MLS sides advance to Champions League knockout rounds ]

April 23 2016: D.C. United forward Patrick Nyarko (12) makes a long pass during a MLS match at RFK Stadium, in Washington D.C. DC United defeated the New England Revolution 3-0. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Iconsportswire)
(Photo by Tony Quinn/Iconsportswire)

“This year, making the change was the hardest, not knowing what to expect, getting into a new team that had been in the playoffs the last few years,” Nyarko said. “When things weren’t going well, especially early in the year when I was inconsistent, I took a lot of the blame. Am I messing up the chemistry? I knew I was playing well, but you can’t help but think that.”

The midfielder credits Olsen and the veteran locker room for bringing the team together this season, calling Olsen the “ultimate player’s coach”. Nyarko only needs two fingers to count the times Olsen has lost his cool this season, and learned that his coach was a different breed when he approached him early in the season to talk about the offense.

“Usually I try not to get into coaches, but we weren’t scoring as many goals,” Nyarko said. “He wasn’t worried about it. He made a comment like, ‘I’m not gonna get on you guys, the chances are there, it’s just not going in. I’m not going to yell. It’s not like you’re deciding not to finish.’ I was like, ‘Woah, this guy thinks like a player’. The freedom he gives you, he knows everyone’s ability, and he doesn’t restrict you. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.”

Nyarko also points to a player as an emblem of DC’s success, and that’s Lamar Neagle. The ex-Seattle Sounders man has been in on 15 goals but hasn’t complained that he’s been used off the bench in his 10 of his 31 appearances.

“This guy’s leading us in goals and he doesn’t start and he’s mentally strong enough to want to help our team,” Nyarko said. “This is an exciting team that came along at the last part of the season and we hope to continue our push toward MLS Cup.”

 

Champions League: PSG ruin Atalanta fairytale with stoppage-time comeback

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Atalanta were within five minutes of knocking off PSG and reaching the Champions League semifinals, but those final five minutes were to be played after the proverbial midnight, and their carriage turned to a rotten pumpkin so very close to the final whistle.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

Paris Saint-Germain’s stoppage-time comeback brought about the harsh end to a fairytale run which had captured the hearts and minds of neutral fans the world over.

The three-time reigning Ligue 1 champions were quickest out of the starting blocks and jumped all over Atalanta with a flurry of early chances. They were, however, wasteful to an alarming degree — none more egregious and disappointing than Neymar’s one-on-one chance in the third minute.

Atalanta treaded water in those opening 25 minutes before hitting PSG with a blindside haymaker in the 26th. With three defenders surrounding — and winning — the ball atop their own penalty area, PSG were a bit unlucky to see it pinball into a patch of open space where Mario Pasalic was lurking completely unmarked. He still had plenty to do, though, and he left no doubt whatsoever with the left-footed finish.

Unfortunately for Neymar and PSG, his earlier blunder wasn’t his only shocking moment of the game. On most any other day, he scores one or two — maybe even all three — of these chances. It wasn’t his day, clearly.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Kylian Mbappe (ankle) was introduced as a substitute right on the hour mark, and the 21-year-old instantly threatened and gave PSG energy and life. His first great scoring chance — and PSG’s best chance since Neymar’s early miss — came in the 74th minute, but Marco Sportiello was up to the task of denying one of the world’s most expensive signing.

Six minutes later, it was the exact same story.

Finally, with 89:35 on the clock, Marquinhos broke through Atalanta’s stout defense and drew level. It was anything but pretty, which made it all the more painful for Atalanta.

Two minuets after drawing level, Mbappe teed up Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for the close-range winner that PSG largely deserved on the whole of their dominant performance.

Up next for Thomas Tuchel’s side is a semifinal clash with the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal between Atletico Madrid and RB Leipzig.

Thiago to Liverpool: Bayern boss urges Premier League move

Thiago to Liverpool
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Thiago-to-Liverpool gaining momentum: Bayern munich manager Hansi Flick has taken the unexpected step of not only endorsing, but seemingly urging, Thiago Alcantara’s rumored transfer to Premier League champions Liverpool this summer.

[ MORE: Paul Pogba contract talks to begin after Man United season ends ]

Contract negotiations have stalled and perhaps reached an impasse with just 12 months remaining on Thiago’s contract, therefore the logical expectation is that he will leave the club in the coming weeks. Flick is fully understand, and accepting, of the situation — both from the standpoint of the club and that of the player — quotes from the Metro:

“As a person and as an athlete, I can understand him. Thiago played for Barcelona, and seven years for Bayern. Now he wants a new challenge, which in my opinion must be the Premier League.”

It has previously been reported that Liverpool had agreed personal terms with Thiago, but the two clubs are yet to agree a transfer fee as of yet.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Promes to Arsenal ]

PST’s Joe Prince-Wright, on how Thiago-to-Liverpool might look on the field, from last week:

The deep-lying playmaker is a totally different central midfielder to what Liverpool currently have as Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are all hard-working more defensive minded players. And then there’s Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who provide a bit more attacking intent with forward runs from central midfield.

Thiago Alcantara would help Liverpool control games better when opponents sit back and don’t allow them space to operate in-behind. He is a silky pass-master who is wanted by PSG, Liverpool, Manchester United and others, but it appears he will be heading to Anfield to give Liverpool a totally new dimension to their play. If this happens, it will make an already strong Liverpool side stronger.

Pogba contract talks to begin after season ends

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Pogba contract update: For all the talk of Paul Pogba leaving Manchester United this summer, last summer and the summer before that one, the 27-year-old midfielder now appears ready to commit to the Red Devils for the foreseeable future.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Promes to Arsenal ]

According to a report from Sky Sports, not only is Pogba happy at Man United these days, but he also expects negotiations over a new contract to begin after the club’s Europa League run ends. United are set to face Sevilla in the quarterfinals on Sunday, with the final looming large next Friday, Aug. 21.

“Pogba is happy at United and he’s expecting them to open contract talks once their Europa League campaign is over.

“His current deal runs out next summer but United always insert this year option so they don’t get caught out with free transfers.

“It should be said United are in a better position to negotiate with Pogba and the returning Dean Henderson, as it stands from Sheffield United, following the departure of Alexis Sanchez and all of the money his wages have now freed.

“There appears to be a willingness from all parties to get around the table as far as Pogba is concerned.”

The part of the report referring to Sanchez’s now-offloaded contract is of the utmost importance. Not only was the transfer itself — and the Chilean’s time at Old Trafford — an incredible flop, but his massive (reported) $500,000-per-week contract was a huge obstacle for the club when it came time to sign new players and/or negotiate new contracts with players already at the club.

[ MORE: Ranking new Premier League kits: 2020-21 ]

It’s not just the Pogba contract which needs resolving in the coming months, but budding superstar Mason Greenwood is almost certain to get another pay rise following his standout performances over the second half of the 2019-20 season. The 18-year-old signed a new contract back in October, but he will likely be rewarded — and locked down — with the longest possible terms as United move to fend off any interest from other clubs in the Premier League and around Europe. Without the Sanchez money off the books, taking care of such business would have been that much more difficult.

Key battles in Champions League quarterfinals

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The UEFA Champions League quarterfinals take center stage this week and we’re going to select one key battle which should determine the outcome of all four games.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

With Manchester City the favorites against Lyon, a massive clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, plus intriguing ties between Atalanta and PSG, plus RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid, the final few games in the 2019-20 Champions League campaign will be so tight to call.

[ MORE: Man City beat Real Madrid ]

In the next few days the Champions League quarterfinals will excite as the mini tournament in Portugal begins.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate to reach the last eight and Pep Guardiola’s boys will be confident but wary after Lyon dumped out Juventus in the Round of 16. Bayern v. Barcelona should be all-out attack, while Atletico v. Leipzig will be full of grit and Atalanta and PSG could end up 6-5 to either team as two free-flowing attacks collide.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, and there will be one heck of a show over the next few days.

Below is a look at the key battles, as well as how to watch and follow all of the Champions League quarterfinal fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League quarterfinals

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


Key battles

Atalanta – PSG: Marten de Roon v. Ander Herrera

Yes, that Marten de Roon from Middlesbrough. The Dutch midfielder has been a sensation at Atalanta and does most of the dirty work for Gomez, Zapata et al. to score boat loads of goals. His battle in the engine room against Ander Herrera will be crucial. Marco Verratti is out injured and that is a big blow, especially with Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria out too for PSG. Neymar and Icardi will be looking for the midfield to give them the ball as much as possible and if that happens, PSG could run riot. That said, if De Roon can win that battle with Herrera, Atalanta’s attackers can cause PSG’s defense big problems. Whoever wins the midfield battle will win this game. It should be tight and full of goals. Enjoy.

RB Leipzig – Atletico Madrid: Dayot Upamecano v.Diego Costa

This should be an epic head-to-head. Costa loves the one-on-one scraps and Upamecano is among the finest center backs in Europe right now. The young Frenchman doesn’t get bullied often but Costa will have a good go. Costa has hardly been prolific in his second spell at Atletico but he so often sets the tone for their scrappy displays under Diego Simeone. Leipzig like to play a back three at times and that could leave space for Costa to run at Upamecano. This will be intriguing. Watch out for Costa to put down his marker early on with elbows and everything else flying at Upamecano.

Barcelona – Bayern Munich: Lionel Messi v. David Alaba

Barcelona - Bayern
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Okay, so, we know how Jerome Boateng v. Lionel Messi went before. Somewhere, somebody is still using that gif of Boateng tangling his own legs like spaghetti as Messi bamboozled him to score at the Nou Camp. So it’s probably best if versatile Austrian star David Alaba goes up against Messi. It’s likely that Alaba will play at the back but he should basically mark Messi, and when (or if, because this is Messi) he gets the ball back he has the quality to start attacks. Bayern and Barcelona both score plenty of goals but defensively they have to improve if they’re going to win the Champions League this season.

Manchester City – Lyon: Aymeric Laporte v. Memphis Depay

Everyone is tipping Man City to beat Lyon easily, but that’s what everyone said about Lyon against Juventus. Memphis Depay is a real threat up top and Lyon usually do very well against Man City. Pep Guardiola needs Aymeric Laporte to be at his very best and it is likely he and Fernandinho will again line up together at center back. Laporte will line up on the left and Memphis will start on the right side of Lyon’s central strikers, so this will be a battle to look out for. Laporte has class but his pace is sometimes questioned and if City leave him exposed on the break, Memphis can take advantage of those situations.