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Southampton’s victory made sweeter after Liverpool’s cherry-picking

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LIVERPOOL — Southampton’s fans were ecstatic to reach their first final of a major competition since 2003.

Reaching the 2016-17 final of the EFL Cup tasted even sweeter because it came at the expense of Liverpool.

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In the last three seasons Southampton have sold five star players to Liverpool, racking up $115 million in transfer fees. Although that has obviously boosted Saints’ finances considerably and they chose to sell the players, the fact the likes of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and now Sadio Mane all left for Anfield left a sour taste in the mouth for Southampton’s fans.

Liverpool have been nicknamed “Liverhampton” by many Saints fans such has been the level of their pilfering in recent seasons. Players and managers have left Saints for Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, but the way Liverpool cherry-picks Saints’ top talent each summer leaves many of their fans sick to the stomach.

On Wednesday Saints showed they’d not only plugged the gaps after selling stars but they’d beaten Liverpool fair and square over two legs, reaching the League Cup final for just the second time in their history and securing another long-stated goal of reaching the final of a domestic cup competition.

“It’s not bad, eh?” manager Claude Puel joked post-game. “It’s fantastic. I am happy for all the squad because they work very hard since the beginning of the season and play all these games every three days which is very difficult. Often they can do fantastic work on the pitch without the good reward and today I think it’s fantastic to win this game, to see the qualify for Wembley and to have all this for the staff, the player and our fans.

“We have fantastic fans, Inter Milan away with 8,000 fans was fantastic and every time and every game they come and it’s a fantastic reward for all the good work. It’s not finished now. It’s interesting of course to go to Wembley and it’s not just to participate but to win this game. We have time to prepare this game.”

Puel will go down in folklore for leading Saints to a final and they put in the perfect gameplan against a Liverpool side renowned for their pressing and harrying. Yet, they’ve done very well against Liverpool since Klopp arrived, losing just one of their six games against the German coach with a 3-1-2 record.

It’s like they have something extra to prove…

Over the two legs Saints sat back, soaked up pressure and hit Liverpool on the counter. They did it so well their manager Jurgen Klopp congratulated them for their victory, then questioned why they don’t play on the counter all the time. He’s got a point.

Puel’s tactics usually see Saints dominant possession and then spurn chances. Their inconsistent form in the Premier League and early exit from the UEFA Europa League attest to the struggles they’ve had adapting to the Frenchman’s tactics in his first season in England.

However, he is just the third manager since 1976 to lead Saints to a major final. The man they called “the dog” in his playing days for his rugged style of play has transferred that spirit to his team as they’ve now kept clean sheets in all five of their EFL Cup games on the road to Wembley, knocking off Premier League opponents Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Arsenal and now Liverpool. Oriol Romeu was a warrior in midfield and Shane Long delivered the hammer blow in stoppage time by finishing off one final devastating counter attack.

As for Liverpool, those who switched St Mary’s for Anfield probably won’t be regretting their move. They left for one of the most famous clubs on the planet plus their bank balances have swelled considerably. Yet, just a part of them may have been a little jealous to not help Saints complete their remarkable journey from winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley in 2010 as a third-tier club to reaching the famous arch for the EFL Cup final in 2017.

After a shaky start to the 2016-17 season, Saints are in the ascendancy once again. Having to rebuild time and time again will eventually catch up with you and arguably that has happened to Saints this season as goals have dried up. Their young team came of age at Anfield and this was a significant moment in their development.

Meanwhile Liverpool’s slump of one win in seven games in January is indicative of Klopp’s methods wearing his players down. The pressure of slipping up in the title race (they could trail Chelsea by 13 points if they lose to them at Anfield on Tuesday) is weighing heavy on their shoulders and although they managed to create chances, they never looked like getting in-behind a makeshift Saints backline.

With young Jack Stephens stepping in for the injured talisman Virgil Van Dijk, he put in a fine display to show that Saints’ academy is still churning out stars. Whenever a Saints youngster comes through the ranks now and plays well, the first joke you see emanate on social media is something along the lines of “Welcome to Liverpool, Josh Sims/Sam McQueen/Jack Stephens.”

The conveyor belt from St Mary’s to Anfield may carry on.

Southampton’s fans won’t care about that too much right now after the magical night at Anfield. They celebrated wildly at the full time whistle and so did their players on the pitch and in the dressing room.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk if reaching the final not only presented a chance to win a trophy but also get back to Europe, Puel admitted the motivation to make up for their early European exit this season is strong.

“Yes. It’s an important big game, not just to play this final but perhaps to see another qualification for the European games,” Puel said. “It will be important for the squad to continue the work, to improve, and know the possibilities to play European games. All the information when they improve it’s important to put all this experience for next year in European games. It will be important to qualify.”

For now, Saints’ fans will savor a special night for everyone connected with the club.

Their march goes on. Without the stars who left for Liverpool.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

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It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.