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Why the heck did Chelsea recall Nathan Ake?

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It’s tough to criticize much about Chelsea’s spectacular season, and whether they end up winning the title or not, Antonio Conte has been wildly successful at turning around the doldrums of Jose Mourinho’s final year at Stamford Bridge and setting sail towards more fruitful waters.

There is one puzzling decision, however, that may have a major impact on their future.

With captain John Terry announcing he will be leaving the club at the end of the season and Gary Cahill still one of the most overrated players in the Premier League, there has been a need to prepare new blood in the Chelsea defense for years. The club is keenly aware of this fact and has been for years, evident by the 2014 purchase and careful preening of Kurt Zouma.

Nathan Ake is another defender the club has been grooming for years, since they grabbed him as a teenager in the Feyenoord system all the way back in 2011. This season, Ake was loaned to Bournemouth – remember that?

Ake was a big reason why the Cherries had a fantastic first half of the season, finishing the calendar year in 10th, a fine position for a team that escaped relegation last year by the slimmest of margins. He scored three goals in 10 Premier League appearances for the Cherries and brought to the table a fresh defensive prowess at the CB position, a spot that is relatively new to the Dutchman after spending much of his career to this point as a full-back (he played left-back for much of his time on loan at Watford last campaign).

Then, the Blues decided to bring all the progression to a screeching halt, recalling the 22-year-old back to his parent club, where he proceeded to find himself immediately out of the first-team squad. Since returning to Chelsea, he hasn’t seen a single Premier League minute, only finding a spot on the bench five times in 12 games. He has only earned a pair of starts in FA Cup action, keeping a clean sheet against both Brentford and Wolves.

Simply look to Bournemouth’s defensive woes since Ake’s departure to realize just how far he has come. With the Dutch defender on the roster, they conceded 29 goals in 19 matches, not a great total but for the attacking style the Cherries practice, a solid number, one that had them into the top half for much of the 2016 calendar year. Since Ake’s recall, Bournemouth has conceded 29 goals in just 13 games, and the club has dropped down to 16th in the table, looking to stave off relegation yet again.

It’s possible Chelsea wanted the cover Ake provided as Cahill and David Luiz racked up the minutes, but for a team only competing on the League and FA Cup fronts, there is no fixture congestion to navigate. If they truly needed the cover, they would never have loaned him out in the first place. Nothing had changed on the defensive depth chart between August and January.

Ake was obviously loaned out in the summer to aid his development, and he was developing beautifully with his loads of first-team action at Dean Court. So why, with a need for young, title-challenging central defenders in the immediate future, did Chelsea bring Ake to simply shove him back into the depths of the Cobham training ground? We won’t know the impact of the recall until years down the road when Ake is called upon – if ever – but on the surface, this appears to be a decision that makes little sense, and one that could drastically affect the club’s future, even costing them millions should the need arise to purchase a top-level defender rather than use the internal option whose growth may be irreparably stunted.

CCL Wrap: LAFC makes history, Sounders eliminated

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Major League Soccer already saw three clubs into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Two more needed to overcome obstacles to see MLS remain perfect through the Round of 16. While LAFC did its share of heavy lifting, the Seattle Sounders collapsed late as Olimpia advanced to the quarterfinals.

LAFC, in front of a brilliant tifo from the home fans at Banc of California Stadium, needed to overcome a 2-0 first-leg loss. The home side poured on the pressure all match, winning 3-0 to become the first MLS side to eliminate a Liga MX club after falling behind by multiple goals in the first leg. They absolutely battered the Mexican club, proving vicious on the counter and solid at the back.

Carlos Vela had an early miss, breaking down the right flank before firing wide of the near post with the outside of his boot on seven minutes. LAFC had another chance for the opener in the 11th minute but Marc-Anthony Kaye was denied by a brilliant reflex save from Rodolfo Cota who got a hand to the close-range shot despite falling down backwards on the line. Cota was on hand again to reject LAFC its much-needed breakthrough as he lept to tip a long-range Eduard Atuesta effort over the bar.

The hosts were robbed of first blood in the 26th minute when LAFC broke spectacularly three-on-two but Diego Rossi hit the post and while Carlos Vela put the rebound into the back of the net, the flag went up for offside on the initial effort. They would finally break through moments later, however, as a ball across the end line found Vela at the near post who tipped the ball towards the goal mouth, with the final touch coming off Cota who fumbled the ball over the line.

LAFC absorbed some pressure to end the first half, and Kaye was lucky to stay on the field as, already on a yellow card, he stamped on the ankle of Luis Montes and absolutely could have earned a second caution. After the break, LAFC regained the front foot but past the hour mark could not find the critical second goal. They had another huge chance on 71 minutes but Rossi whiffed after Vela teed him up on the doorstep. As LAFC became more desperate, Vela struck with 14 minutes to go, punching home Tristan Blackmon’s feed from deep on the right.

With LAFC level on aggregate with a 2-0 home lead, Diego Rossi atoned for his early miss with an absolutely stunner to win it for the hosts, delivering a cross brilliant ball to the far corner that came off the underside of the crossbar, then the inside of the post, and into the back of the net.

Up the coast to the north, Seattle had plenty of chances, leading 4-3 on aggregate late, but they collapsed as Olimpia equalized to send the game to penalties, where the Honduran side advanced 4-2.

Just five minutes in, Olimpia went in front on a set-piece as Elvin Oliva headed in a corner, with the ball squeaking past Cristian Roldan who was guarding the near post. The early strike mirrored the first leg when Seattle scored six minutes into the eventual 2-2 draw.

El Savladorian referee Ivan Barton was not shy about handing out early cards. In the very first minute he cautioned German Mejia for barreling through the back of Joevin Jones, while Seattle’s Nouhou Tolo was cautioned for a seventh minute foul in the air. The Sounders finally built themselves into the match, holding more possession than in the early minutes, and it paid off as Christian Roldan headed in off a set piece to put Seattle level on the match 1-1 and on aggregate 3-3, holding the away goal advantage.

Nouhou had the ball in the back of the net on 27 minutes, but the flag correctly went up for offside. Seattle continued to pressure the Olimpia back line after the break, and nearly had a second. Jordan Morris delivered a 56th minute cross along the goal mouth that Edrick Menjivar couldn’t handle and a streaking Joao Paolo just missed the bobbling ball.

The sealing goal would come in the 64th minute as Roldan delivered a vicious ball from the right flank and it found Paolo who this time converted, thanks in large part to a slight deflection off the knee of Johnny Leveron that wrong-footed Menjivar. Olimpia would not be phased, waiting until the 86th minute before drawing back level as Carlos Pineda rifled a long-distance equalizer.

In the penalty shootout, Christian Roldan skied his effort over the bar and Kelvin Leerdam’s spot-kick was saved by Menjivar. Stefan Frei got his hand to Edwin Rodriguez’s penalty but couldn’t keep it out as Olimpia didn’t miss any of its four efforts to advance.

MLS Week 1 preview: New teams, players, and stars

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AThe 2020 Major League Soccer season is here. This weekend, the new campaign gets under way with two new teams, a new defending Supporters’ Shield winner, and a new superstar.

Debuts are the theme as Inter Miami and Nashville SC both take the field for the first time this weekend across Saturday and Sunday. The defending champions Seattle Sounders host the Chicago Fire and their new logo. Chicharito leads the L.A. Galaxy as the visit the Houston Dynamo.

The new clubs both get tough welcomes to the league, with Nashville hosting Atlanta United and Inter Miami traveling to Western Conference finalists LAFC. Atlanta has plenty of new faces of its own, with captain Michael Parkhurst retired while both Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel having departed. Miles Robinson is injured to start the season, and given how Atlanta started the season last year, they could be vulnerable this weekend. LAFC has seen Walker Zimmerman and Tyler Miller move on, and after playoff disappointment last season, they have plenty to prove themselves.

Last year’s Eastern Conference regular season champions NYCFC starts the season on the road at Columbus on Sunday afternoon, under new management in Ronny Deila. Gedion Zelalem also joins, although he struggled last season at Sporting KC. The Philadelphia Union, off a 55 point season last campaign, visit FC Dallas who doesn’t have much new of note except new contracts for Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira.

The defending champs host the Chicago Fire, with Seattle seeing a designated player depart in Victor Rodriguez with Joao Paulo arriving in his stead. RSL, who finished third in the West last season, announced Thursday the addition of Guiseppe Rossi and he could be in line to see time as they travel to Orlando S.C. on Saturday. After a promising season of growth, Minnesota United switched out goalkeepers, bringing in LAFC’s Miller for Vito Mannone. Abu Danladi is also gone, having departed for Nashville in the expansion draft, and Luis Amarilla has arrived in his place with a promise of goals, with a West Coast trip to Portland his first challenge.

Full MLS Week 1 slate

Saturday:
D.C. United v. Colorado Rapids (1:00 p.m. ET)
Montreal Impact v. New England Revolution (3:00 p.m. ET)
Houston Dynamo v. LA Galaxy (3:30 p.m. ET)
San Jose Earthquakes v. Toronto FC (5:30 p.m. ET)
FC Dallas v. Philadelphia Union (6:00 p.m. ET)
Orlando S.C. v. Real Salt Lake (6:00 p.m. ET)
Nashville S.C. v. Atlanta United (8:00 p.m. ET)
Vancouver Whitecaps v. Sporting KC (10:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday:
Columbus Crew v. NYCFC (12:30 p.m. ET)
New York Red Bulls v. F.C. Cincinnati (1:00 p.m. ET)
Seattle Sounders v. Chicago Fire (3:00 p.m. ET)
LAFC v. Inter Miami (5:30 p.m. ET)
Portland Timbers v. Minnesota United (7:30 p.m. ET)

Arteta ‘hurt’ by Arsenal’s Europa League exit

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Mikel Arteta wasn’t shy about his feelings towards Arsenal’s Europa League elimination.

“It hurts, big time,” Arteta said after the match. “We had a lot of hope in this competition. It was a great way for us to be able to go to Europe and it is a very beautiful competition to try to win.”

For much of the second leg against Olympiakos, Arsenal was flat. The Gunners conceded a goal shortly after halftime, and with the aggregate score 1-1 through 180 minutes, the game went to extra-time. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang appeared to have struck the winner for Arsenal in the 113th minute, only for Olympiakos to level the score back up in the 119th minute and go ahead on away goals.

[ ROUNDUP: Early Europa League kicks | Late kicks ]

“I think we did a lot of positive things in the game,” Arteta said. “I think we created enough chances to win, but if you concede two set-pieces again in a tie like this you put yourself in big trouble.”

The Gunners, in truth, did not create much, at least not through regulation. It may have been enough to expect victory, but it was not enough for a team with an attacking mentality. Arsenal racked up 2.19 expected goals through the match, but their two best chances came late with Aubameyang’s last-gasp miss and Alexandre Lacazette failing to strike with a 77th minute diving header.

“This is football and sometimes it is very cruel when the emotions are right here [raises hand high],” Arteta said in the press conference, “then in another moment they’re somewhere else [lowers hand]. You have to able to handle that if you want to be in this industry so now it’s up to us, and up to me, to bring this place back in and move forward.”

The Gunners are still in the FA Cup, with a fifth round match against Portsmouth on Monday. They sit ninth in the Premier League table, four points back of Manchester United in fifth.

Giuseppe Rossi signs with Real Salt Lake

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Former Manchester United, Villareal, and Fiorentina forward Guiseppe Rossi has signed with MLS side Real Salt Lake in yet another bid to revive his injury-plagued career.

Rossi, a New Jersey-born striker who infamously chose to represent Italy at the international level, has struggled mightily for game time over the past few years thanks to a string of bad injury luck. He most recently made 9 Serie A appearances for Genoa through the latter half of the 2017/18 season, without a competitive match since May 20, 2018.

“For me, MLS has been growing every year and has produced an exciting product,” Rossi said upon signing. “I’m lucky enough to have RSL be my first contact in the league during this process. The club’s respect and kindness towards me is something I appreciate immensely. I can’t wait to see and meet the fans and immerse myself in the RSL culture. Along with the rest of the team, I can’t wait to begin this season and enjoy the journey together.”

The 33-year-old has suffered five major knee injuries throughout his career, including three ACL tears. According to the soccer database Transfermarkt, Rossi has missed upwards of 1,200 days due to injuries throughout his career.

The signing represents an exciting moment for Rossi, who despite his struggles is thought to be a supremely talented player when healthy. No matter how this tenure goes, Rossi’s chance to play back in the United States marks a significant transition for a player who has had a contentious relationship with USMNT fans due to his national team decision. While it’s not as exciting a signing as it would have been 5-7 years ago, Rossi’s return to his home nation is a move with plenty of upside.

Through his European career, Rossi racked up 170 La Liga appearances, 62 in Serie A, 16 in the Premier League, and 12 in Champions League play. Rossi has 29 caps for the Italian national team, scoring seven goals including two against the United States in a 2009 Confederations Cup match.

Real Salt Lake starts its 2020 season against Orlando City on Saturday.