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Barefoot to Big Time: MLS prospect’s 10,403-mile journey

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If pangaea never broke, Kentucky would still be a long ways from Lesotho.

Even a cursory look at globe is daunting, especially for a 15-year-old kid making the 9,000 mile trek from Southern Africa to Midwest America on his own.

This is at the heart of the story of University of Kentucky star midfielder and MLS Combine participant Napo Mastoso, who hasn’t seen his mother or father since moving to the United States almost seven-and-a-half years ago.

[ MORE: Harkes wins Hermann Trophy ]

Matsoso grew up in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital city, awed by his father Thato’s skills on the ball as a member of the country’s national team and local club Arsenal FC.

Napo darted barefoot through the youth soccer landscape in Lesotho, figuratively cutting his teeth on the opposition while physically cutting up his legs on the dirt pitches of Maseru.

Barefoot.

“The dirt hurts your body pretty bad,” Matsoso said. “When you slide or someone trips you. … I played barefoot until I was 12 or 13 years old. My father bought me cleats, they were not like labeled, they were just random cleats.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

Napo Matsoso hasn’t seen his parents since he was 15 years old, encouraged by them to leave the 145th most populous nation in the world for a chance on the schools and youth soccer fields of Louisville, Kent. Moreover, he said they haven’t seen him play a minute since he left the country.

[ MORE: Monmouth GK trials with Everton ]

His father’s professional teammate at Lesotho’s Arsenal, goalkeeper Thabane Sutu, had gone on to play in Egypt and coach in Turkey before settling into an opportunity in America with Louisville club United 1996 FC.

Sutu — now the GK coach at Louisville City FC — became friends with Marc Maguire, a father of two United players. Conversations on Sutu’s dreams to bring young Lesotho talent to the U.S. turned to action when Maguire welcomed two young players who he’d later adopt: Sunny Jane and Lepe Seetane.

It was an incredible experience for both. Maguire, now Jane and Seetane’s “American parent”, had two exceptional sons.

“They wouldn’t just clean their room,” said Maguire, a car dealer in Louisville. “We’d come home and find them cleaning the whole house.”

Both earned D-1 scholarships, with Seetane playing 78 games for Northwestern between 2010-13 and Jane earning All-ACC second team status at Maryland en route to a pro career with Wilmington Hammerheads and, currently, Richmond Kickers.

[ MORE: USL gets D-2 status ]

Four years after Jane and Seetane arrived, Maguire welcomed Matsoso. The experience followed suit, though Matsoso was understandably reserved at first.

“He’s a great kid,” Maguire said. “As we got to know him better, we discovered he’s quite hilarious, maybe the funniest person I know. He’s conscientious, he’s a hard worker.”

He had to be, moving from a world of hard pitches and harder tackles to the artificial turf and expensive cleats.

Some transitions were easy enough, like the on-field. Matsoso scored 29 goals and added 19 assists as a freshman at St. Francis High School in Louisville.

“It took me a long time to play on turf then on natural grass,” Matsoso said. “It also took me a long time get used to the cleats.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

The soccer part was easier than the myriad emotional issues that would seem to come with leaving everything behind to pursue a goal. Picture this teenager, uprooted. He was fortunately to have a loving new family here, and was at least able to update his Lesotho parents via phone.

But this was a rare opportunity.

“It was pretty hard but I knew it was going to be better for me, and my parents knew it was going to be better for me,” Matsoso said.

“They knew if I didn’t make the decision, things would’ve been different because not many people go to school. People will stay in the street, or rob people, do all the bad things. They knew at the end of the day that I’d be happy.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

Now Matsoso has hope that his hard work and electric gifts could bring about a reunion. He’s excitedly told his family about the MLS Combine, trying to explain the standard of the league and his chances to succeed.

Jane has been capped 7 times by the Lesotho national team and has assured Matsoso that he can contribute at the national team level. That means Matsoso may be on the verge of a reunion with the loved ones he left to pursue this worldwide sport.

“The head coach from Lesotho has contacted me asking how I feel, if I’m ready to play on the national team, and I’ve told him that I think I’m ready whenever I get the call-up,” said Matsoso, who is in the process of obtaining an American green card.

Matsoso was fantastic at Kentucky, first called to our attention by coach Johan Cedergren last Fall. Cedergren said Matsoso keeps teams off-balance, and the attacking midfielder can go box-to-box as well. He scored 19 goals and 20 assists in his four years at UK, thrice named First Team Conference USA after an All-Freshman Team campaign in 2013.

[ MORE: Ozil will stay at Arsenal if Wenger does ]

“I like to get my teammates involved and make sure everyone is on the same page and involved in everything that the team is doing,” he said. “I’m trying to be a leader.”

Now comes the Combine in Carson, California. It’s 10,403 miles from Lesotho’s capital to the home of the LA Galaxy.

“I’ve always wanted to take it to the next level,” Matsoso said. “My dad when I was young he would take me to his professional soccer games and I just saw how much fun he had and how excited people were to watch him play. I was like, ‘I want to be like him, and I want to make the fans happy to come watch soccer’.”

That next step comes when he hears his name called Friday.

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Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

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

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
Photo credit: Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

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

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
Photo byJacques Feeney/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+