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Kyle Martino: Leicester City, Claudio Ranieri let us believe in romance again

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A week after Leicester City decided to part ways with Claudio Ranieri, ProSoccerTalk spoke with Kyle Martino about Ranieri’s sacking and how the manager will be remembered at Leicester.

Q: How does Ranieri’s firing affect his legacy and the legacy of Leicester City?

Kyle Martino: I don’t think it affects his legacy negatively at all and I think that’s been the biggest misconception fueling the outrage in the aftermath of what was the biggest decision these owners have had to make since they took over Leicester Football Club. What he did last season, as Jose Mourinho said can’t be deleted, but in a way the mess and the potential of relegation that they were headed toward was really the only thing that could dent his legacy. An equal and opposite accomplishment, maybe just a bit less because it’s happened one time before, would have been the title winner getting relegated the season after they won the title, which happened to Manchester City in the 30s. So the 5,000-1 odds to win, the accomplishment was absolutely spectacular, will probably never be matched in Premier League history, but a close second in terms of incredible feats would have been getting the team relegated this season.

I argue in a way the owners have protected him from the stigma and pardoned him from this incredible mess that no one can wrap their head around right now. Was he entirely responsible for the tailspin that Leicester are in right now? No, but definitely culpable and although one game isn’t going to tell us everything, the Liverpool game confirmed what the small minority who thought this was a good decision expected. What the small minority of us who were looking at the evidence of this season and the downturn wondered was would the team perform without him and it’s clear that they did. Not only clear that they performed better without him, but went back to being the team before Ranieri even got there.

Q: Do you think the team’s struggles this season say anything about their accomplishment last year and the role Ranieri played in it?

KM: I don’t think they could have won the title without Ranieri. Ranieri was a piece of it, he was an important part of it and I think it would be wrong to not give him credit and make arguments that there shouldn’t be a statue of him at some point and that this all could have happened without him. That being said, I think one of the most important things Ranieri did in the season, which is atypical if you look over the balance of his entire career, is he stepped out of the way a little bit. He really did, I think the smartest thing Ranieri did was recognize that in the ‘great escape’ and even going back to the team getting promoted, there was a brotherhood, there was a bond, there was a momentum and something special built under Nigel Pearson that he knew just needed tiny, little tweaks.

[ MORE: Ranieri returns to say final goodbyes ]

The humility he showed in sort of getting out of the way a bit. There were reports that players came to him initially and said you know this is who we are, this is what we’ve done, don’t change it and Ranieri respected that and then added his little sprinkles in. So I think that’s his greatest accomplishment. It’s like when they say what makes an amazing jazz musician isn’t the notes he plays, but the ones that he doesn’t, the times that he rests for a beat and stays out and doesn’t try to fill it all with notes.

[ WATCH: Kasper Schmeichel talks Ranieri  ]

In a way, Ranieri, for the first time in his career, was able to win a title by kind of not coaching. That could be looked at as a negative and this could be twisted to mean I’m insulting him when in reality I think he just accepted and realized that the team had something special and he just needed to make, as I said before, minor tweaks which I think alludes to what has gone wrong this season.

Q: In the aftermath of Ranieri’s firing we saw a pretty unprecedented outpouring of support from the soccer world, but it appears that Leicester’s players didn’t fully support Ranieri. Why do you think that is?

KM: Well, let’s start with the outpouring of support for him and the outrage. I think the bigger sort of 30,000-foot picture is with the modern game strangling the romance out of the game, you know whether it be players turning in transfer requests or managers fielding weakened teams for the FA Cup or these gigantic salaries, all of these things have slowly contributed to this modernization of the game that everyone’s been fighting against. I’ve seen some articles saying the soul of the game is dead and Ranieri’s sacking confirms that. So I think the outrage is that the Leicester story let us believe in romance again. It was such a fairytale, it was such a romantic experience and it was anachronistic in the sense that it was a throwback. It took us to a time before all those things that I just mentioned and I think some people have used words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘disgraceful’ and ‘classless’ because they got drunk on this fairytale and they forgot that this is the modern game, this is nothing new. This is nothing new not only in the last 10 years, this is nothing new in the last 30 years. This cut-throat, results-based business is what the modern game is.

So many people expected Ranieri to have complete immunity based on last season’s miracle but that’s so incongruent with the way the game works now and in a weird way I think it’s incredibly hypocritical because that sentiment dispels another very romantic, ancient idea of the game which is no one person is bigger than the club. If Ranieri gets to keep his job even though it’s clear the players aren’t playing for him and the results are leading toward relegation, isn’t that more disrespectful to the game than firing someone based off of merit because any argument to keep him in his job was based off of a very sentimental look at last season.

Q: How will Ranieri be remembered at Leicester City?

KM: Very fondly. Very fondly, because you know here’s the reality, they still have a job to do and they still could get relegated. If they were to get relegated, because they’ve done this so early, Ranieri for me will be completely pardoned from that mess. They have enough time to get out of this, they have a good enough team to get out of this and they should get out of this. So if they don’t, all of the speculation on whose fault this is I think falls entirely on the players and that obviously will excuse Ranieri of the negative consequences of relegation. If they stay up, all the supporters will still argue that they would of under Ranieri anyway.

[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies on Ranieri sacking ]

So it’s sort of a win-win for him at this point, but I still think regardless of the outcome, the owners made the right decision because this grows his legend more than any other scenario. Let’s say they stayed up and finished 10th, it would have been a pretty eventless finish to his tenure there. Ranieri said that his dream died because he wanted to coach Leicester forever, but obviously we know people are mortal and coaches don’t last very long so this dream was going to die at some point. The owners firing him turned him into this martyr where Jose Mourinho is putting his initials on his shirt at press conferences and people all over the world are speaking out in support of him so his legacy is intact. His legacy will always be about the amazing, humble and gracious gentleman he was in his time there, but the title will always be how he is remembered.

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova