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STL voters to decide on stadium funding, future of MLS expansion

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ST. LOUIS (AP) A year after the NFL’s Rams abandoned St. Louis for Los Angeles, the city has a chance to again become a three-sport town if voters agree to help pay for a stadium for a new Major League Soccer franchise.

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Voters will decide Tuesday whether to designate $60 million from an existing business use tax for the construction of a 22,000-seat soccer stadium in downtown St. Louis. The ownership group SC STL would invest $95 million in the project and cover the league’s $150 million expansion fee, and they have asked the state to donate 24 acres of unused land.

The league is expected to announce two new expansion teams in the fall that would begin play in 2020. St. Louis would be a favorite among the 12 applicants if the stadium funding is approved.

At a rally in St. Louis on Monday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber talked about the city’s historical ties to the world’s most popular sport. The region has long been a hotbed for youth and collegiate soccer, and many members of the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that beat England 1-0 in one of the sports’ biggest upsets were from The Hill area of St. Louis. St. Louis University won 10 NCAA men’s soccer championships from the 1950s through the 1970s.

[ MORE: Bastian Schweinsteiger scored 17 minutes into his MLS debut ]

Garber said the departure of the NFL’s Rams to Los Angeles was a blow to St. Louis, but it helped open the door to an MLS team.

“Where there was a void left by the Rams leaving, it clearly put more energy behind this,” he said.

But Garber made it clear that the project rests with voters.

“Without that vote being positive, this project’s not going forward,” he said.

SC STL chairman Paul Edgerley said soccer is a good fit for the growing number of young people working in the St. Louis area’s burgeoning tech industry. An MLS team would add to “this positive momentum in the community that St. Louis has already started,” he said.

There is plenty of opposition to the proposal, too. St. Louis’ schools and police force are underfunded and its streets and infrastructure are in disrepair, and many city leaders believe it would be wrong to spend money on a stadium when basic needs aren’t being met.

[ MORE: Sporting KC rookie got GOT by Vermes, teammates’ April Fools’ prank ]

“These types of deals are never good economic development strategies for cities,” said Alderwoman Megan Green, one of many members of the board of aldermen who oppose the ballot measure.

St. Louis, she said, has “much greater needs than a soccer stadium.”

The city’s biggest newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, also opposes the use of public funds to pay for a stadium. In a recent editorial, it wrote that a city of 311,000 with a 90,000 people living at or below the federal poverty line “can’t carry the burden of a sports facility that would benefit surrounding county residents who aren’t being asked to pay their fair share.”

It took months of negotiations before aldermen agreed to put the measure up for a vote. Funding would come from a half-cent increase in a use tax on out-of-town purchases by St. Louis businesses. Residential taxes would be unaffected.

Public funding for stadiums has increasingly become a difficult sell in many places. Still, St. Louis aldermen agreed in late 2015 to provide up to $400 million toward a $1 billion stadium for the Rams. The NFL said the project and the funding were inadequate. League owners in January 2016 approved Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s request to move.

Portland beats Orlando to win MLS is Back championship

MLS is Back
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) Soaked in sweat and doused in water, the Portland Timbers hoisted the MLS is Back trophy at midfield and then headed toward a giant TV screen filled with fans cheering from afar.

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It was a huge Zoom party. It might just be the way to celebrate championships in 2020.

Dario Zuparic’s first goal of the season gave Portland a 2-1 victory against Orlando in Major League Soccer’s return tournament finale Tuesday night, capping a month-long event that showed sports can be played safely inside a bubble.

“I always think the more difficult the fight is the more beautiful the victory is at the end,” said Portland’s Larrys Mabiala, who scored the game’s first goal.

Orlando was slow to react to Diego Valeri’s corner kick in the 66th minute, allowing Eryk Williamson to collect the ball, change direction and take a shot that Jeremy Ebobisse deflected to Zuparic’s feet. Zuparic didn’t have to do much to get it by Pedro “The Octopus” Gallese, who had made two fantastic saves in the lead-up to the corner kick.

The goal started the celebration on Portland’s sideline and sent Orlando into panic mode. The Lions had a chance in the closing minutes, but failed to get the equalizer.

“It’s a group of players in a lot of pain right now,” Orlando coach Oscar Pareja said. “Things didn’t bounce our way. We made a couple of mistakes.”

The Timbers, who spent 39 days in the MLS bubble and remained on West Coast time, hugged and danced after the final whistle. They raised the silver trophy while hooting and hollering. But the lasting image will be players and coaches waving at a camera and reaching hundreds back home.

It ended a wild month for the MLS, which managed to play 51 matches in 45 days at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World.

No family. No friends. No fans.

But it was by most accounts a rousing success, especially considering how it started. FC Dallas and Nashville were forced to withdraw days before the start because of positive coronavirus tests.

Players, coaches and support personnel were tested regularly inside the MLS bubble. The league reported just two positives out of nearly 35,000 tests following the initial setbacks that threatened to derail a tournament that came with a $1.1 million purse.

“We just told ourselves we need to make it worth it,” Mabiala said, adding that his son has been calling, crying and clamoring for him to come home in recent days.

Portland will get $328,000 in prize money to split. The Timbers also earned a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, their first since 2016.

Orlando settled for $150,000 to share.

Orlando’s appearance in the finale was a surprise considering the team finished 11th out of 12 in the East last season and fired coach James O’Connor. Pareja took over in 2020 and made an immediate impact.

Pareja convinced his players, including star Nani, to settle into the bubble several days early. They won the tournament opener, a group-stage victory against Miami, and ended up spending nearly seven weeks quarantined in the bubble.

Portland’s experience – the Timbers won the MLS title in 2015 and were runners-up two years ago – showed in the finale.

Portland’s first shot on goal found the back of the net. Valeri delivered a perfectly placed free kick into the box that Mabiala headed past Gallese in the 27th minute. It was Valeri’s 93rd assist with the Timbers.

But considering Portland has managed just three clean sheets in its last 23 matches, it was no surprise to see a defensive breakdown just a few minutes later.

Nani worked the ball down the left side following a turnover and created enough room to get a crosser into the box. Mauricio Pereyra got a foot on the ball and then took advantage of a fallen defender to tie the match.

The equalizer came shortly after Portland’s Sebastian Blanco exchanged words with Pareja during a hydration break. Referees stepped between them, and they later apologized and hugged it out.

The league resumes its regular season Wednesday night with Dallas playing at Nashville. The league’s 26 teams will play 18 games apiece. A majority of the games will be played without fans because of local regulations. Teams will be subject to a rigorous testing protocol and will use charter flights or buses to limit outside contact.

“We have to see if it works,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “If it does, we go through with it. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to adjust.”

Nuno ‘proud of the boys’ after Wolves’ magical UEL run ends

Nuno Wolves
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Nuno proud, but frustrated: Wolves’ 2019-20 campaign kicked off 383 days ago, on July 25, and finally ended on Tuesday in a late, heartbreaking defeat to Sevilla in the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

[ MORE: Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David ]

From those early-round UEL qualifiers, to another fine season in the Premier League (finishing 7th), to reaching the quarterfinals, it’s been an incredible, dramatic, exhausting road for Nuno Espirito Santo and his players.

Speaking after the game, Espirito Santo revealed he was experiencing equal part pride and frustration at the way their season had just ended. Pride for meeting the challenges they faced along the way, and frustration for the missed opportunity — quotes from the BBC:

“We have frustration, in the last minutes it is something that has happened to us many times. We required focus on a set piece. I am proud of the boys, we played a tough team and we had moments, small details, small margins.

“That happens in football. We came this far and now it’s over. Let’s rest and look to the future. We need more players to help us, it’s a small squad.

“Sevilla made us run, we made a big effort to control it but of course there were players who gave everything and the legs and brain doesn’t work so good. We must be proud of ourselves, admit we made mistakes during the season that we need to rectify to compete at a high level. We must work harder and become stronger.

“We are here because we did things good the previous season. European football is something that we chase because we want to improve and compete agianst the best. The Premier League is challenging enough, it’s like playing the Champions League every week.”

The Wolves players will now have the next week or two off before reporting for the first day of 2020-21 preseason later this month. The 2020-21 Premier League season is currently scheduled for Sept. 12.

Europa League: Wolves knocked out by late Sevilla winner

Europa League Wolves
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Europa League: Wolves’ magical run through the Europa League came to an end on Tuesday, as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side was knocked out in the quarterfinals by UEL specialists Sevilla.

[ MORE: Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-1 Sevilla

Sevilla were quite comfortably the better side on the night, the side with the vast majority of the scoring chances, and thoroughly deserving semifinalists. Julen Lopetegui’s side will face Manchester United in the semis on Sunday.

It didn’t come easily for Sevilla, though. The game remained level at 0-0 for 87 minutes, until Lucas Ocampos rose above the crowd to head home his 16th goal of the season in the 88th minute.

Wolves had the game’s first — and virtually their only — chance to go ahead inside the first quarter-hour, but Raul Jimenez was denied from the penalty spot in the 12th minute. The real story here, however, is the ease with which Adama Traore left the pack behind and dribbled the ball 81 yards before Diego Carlos cut him down from behind.

Jimenez’s blunder from the spot was one of just two shots on target — both by Jimenez — that Wolves could muster in the game.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Havertz to Chelsea; Ramsey available ]

Sevilla began to ramp up the pressure after halftime and went dangerously close to breaking the deadlock just after the hour mark, as Youssef En-Nesyri weaved his way through traffic inside the penalty area before firing a low strike on goal. Fortunately for Wolves, Rui Patricio was all over and denied En-Nesyri his wondergoal.

Ever Banega forced Patricio to make a vital save of his curling free kick in the 77th minute, but again the Portuguese was up to the challenge. He scrambled across goal and rose high to get a hand on the ball and push it over the crossbar.

Shakhtar Donetsk thrashed Basel 4-1 in Tuesday’s other quarterfinal. They will face Inter Milan in the second semifinal next Monday.

Other Europa League scores

Shakhtar Donetsk 4-1 Basel
Man United 1-0 Copenhagen (Monday)
Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen (Monday)

Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David

Lille sign Jonathan David
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Lille sign Jonathan David: Lille announced on Tuesday their signing of Canadian star Jonathan David from Belgian side Gent for a reported transfer fee of $35 million.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Havertz to Chelsea; Ramsey available ]

The fee paid is a record not only for a Canadian player, but also makes David Lille’s club-record signing and the most expensive player ever sold by a Belgian club.

David had been linked with a move to dozens of clubs across Europe, including a handful of Premier League sides, in recent weeks but it would appear that Lille’s recent success with young players starring in the first team, before selling them to those bigger European sides for massive profits, was an important factor in David’s decision to move to Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Hojbjerg from Southampton; Walker-Peters to Saints ]

The 20-year-old operates predominantly as a center forward but has, on rare occasions, played as a second striker underneath the main man. David racked up 48 goals and 20 assists in his two seasons at Gent, including a number of standout performances in the Europa League.