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Why Southampton should consider keeping Claude Puel

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It has all gone quiet at Southampton. But for how long?

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Media speculation has been rampant over the past few weeks that Claude Puel, Southampton’s first-year manager, would be shown the exit door at St Mary’s this summer amid fan unrest about the style of play and their regression from a team challenging for the top six.

But, even in these times where fans demand instant success and patience is severely lacking, is that really the right answer?

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Puel, 55, delivered an eighth place finish, the fourth-straight season Southampton have finished eighth or higher, which is the first time they’ve achieved that feat in club history.

Yet many supporters point to the fact that Southampton finished just five points above Swansea City who finished in 15th place, plus they complain about Puel’s dull demeanor in his press conference as he struggles to express himself in English. He is a figure which truly divides the fanbase between those wanting him fired and those wiling to give him another chance.

Saints are a club who finished in a higher league position in seven-straight seasons before this campaign, so perhaps the vast majority of the fanbase have become too accustomed to overachieving and this reality check was always on the horizon.

A top 10 finish and a cup run should always be a superb season for a club of Southampton’s size, but fans want more. With talk of a potential Chinese takeover this summer, they want to dream that they can push for a top six finish and qualify for Europe each season and aren’t sure Puel is the right man to deliver it.

That’s fair enough, but when you dissect the entire season and the key stats which came from it, getting rid of Puel seems incredibly hasty.

He had many unfortunate obstacles to overcome in his first season in England and it’s unlikely he’ll have so much to deal with next season, and possibly beyond.

Club captain Jose Fonte was sold midway through the campaign after a disagreement with directors over his future, while leading scorer Charlie Austin (yes, he was out since December but still finished top scorer, with nine) was injured for five months and star center back Virgil Van Dijk was also injured in January as it ended his season. Along with all of this Puel had to deal with Saints’ first-ever Europa League group stage campaign and the agony of missing out on the knockout stages by one goal.

The constant chopping and changing of the team dominated Puel’s reign in the early months as he made 97 lineup changes throughout the season. Only Manchester City and Manchester United made more in the PL in 2016-17.

Perhaps one of the major criticisms was that he tinkered too much to try and keep his squad fresh as they pushed to qualify for the Europa League knockout stage, with the previous high-tempo style of play impossible to replicate across a 53-game season.

Hence the slower pace of play which frustrated many fans and perhaps failed to get the best out of a team built by Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman to play a fast, high-pressing style, which in turn led to reports of many senior players unhappy at the tactics deployed by the Frenchman.

Another big factor of the rotation was reaching the EFL Cup final where Saints, again, agonizingly came up short as they lost 3-2 to Manchester United at Wembley in a game which they should have won.

In the Premier League his team scored just 17 goals in 19 home games with no goals in any of their final five home games of the season which led to fans booing and plenty calling for Puel to be fired. But if you look a little deeper, the chances are being created but with Austin out, Manolo Gabbiadini‘s hot streak over after his initial burst and the duo of Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez failing to step up, Saints’ shot conversion rate was the lowest in the PL.

That’s right, Southampton converted just 7.47 percent of the 549 shots that had at goal, which was the seventh-highest number of shot attempts in the PL. Saints created chances but could Puel really do much about his players not converting them? It sounds simplistic, but think about it. With Austin back fit next season, plus Gabbiadini and Sofiane Boufal acclimatized to life in England, will this shot conversion rate really be this low again?

Saints also had two players in the PL’s top 18 in terms of chances created, Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond, and away from home they had the seventh best record but had the 17th best record at home, suggesting their prowess as a counter-attacking team. Had Saints scored penalty kicks against Hull City and Manchester United in two of their final three home games then they would have finished more comfortably in eighth place and had a much better home record.

Small margins.

Southampton also had the second youngest starting XI in the PL at 26 years and 169 days, with Redmond and James Ward-Prowse making their full England debuts, plus no PL club had more than Saints’ seven players in the full and U-21 England teams when they were announced at the end of the season.

As well as English talent like Sam McQueen, Ward-Prowse, Redmond and Jack Stephens improving drastically, Puel helped the likes of Oriol Romeu, Maya Yoshida and Cedric Soares reach new heights too. It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom and Puel is a man who can deliver steady progression at a club which lost its past two managers, Pochettino and Koeman, to bigger teams in the PL just when it appeared they were on the verge of great things at St Mary’s.

Another reason to keep the faith, for at least another season, is the fact that wherever Puel has been he has delivered improved results beyond his first season. There’s a hope he can do that at Southampton, especially without the extra rigors of European action next season.

He took charge of AS Monaco in January 1999 and they won the French title in May 2000. He took charge of Lille in 2002 and improved them from 14th to 10th to 2nd place finishes in his first three seasons at the club. Puel spent six seasons at Lille and helped the likes of Eden Hazard and Yohan Cabaye break into the team.

In 2008 he took charge of Lyon and in his second full season he took the French outfit to the UEFA Champions League semifinal for just the first time in club history, plus Hugo Lloris and others broke through under his guidance. In 2012 he took charge of Nice and in his first season he led them to fourth in Ligue 1 (their highest Ligue 1 finish since 1976), then did it once again in 2015-16 with 17th and 11th place finishes in-between. The Nice team he left behind last season just finished third in Ligue 1.

All of this proves that Puel can improve teams, if he’s given time.

What is Saints’ alternative to Puel? Some reports suggest Marco Silva would be the main man but he appears to be joining Watford after impressing at Hull City, while the names of Slavisa Jokanovic and Alan Pardew have also been mentioned as potential replacements.

Do Southampton really want to become a club know for hiring and firing managers after a season which presented plenty of challenges but still ended up with a top half finish, a decent run in Europe and a EFL Cup final appearance?

If Saints put faith in Puel, he may just surprise everyone. Of course, like every manager, he needs a bit of luck to drop his way but fans calling for his head should think clearly about what the alternative would be.

Three things we learned from Seattle-Real Salt Lake

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The game in 200 words (or less): Nick Rimando stood on his head in an outstanding 7-save performance that will be the last of his incredible career, as a fine near post header from Gustav Svensson and a late marker from Nicolas Lodeiro sent Seattle Sounders to the Western Conference Final with a 2-0 win in Washington on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

Real Salt Lake had a strong first half, with attacking life sprung from Jefferson Savarino, but the hosts had more dangerous chances and took control of the match in the second 45 through relentless Jordan Morris and visionary midfielder Lodeiro. Svensson scored off a set piece and Lodeiro deservedly joined the scoring at the end of a Man of the Match performance before RSL’s Everton Luiz was shown a straight red for an awful two-footed tackle.


Three things we learned

1. Playoffs make unlikely heroes — It was going to take something special for Seattle to beat Rimando, and Gustav Svensson got the better of Kyle Beckerman to turn Lodeiro’s near post corner kick past the wrong-footed keeper. Brian Schmetzer’s teams have never lost a home playoff game, and that record stands thanks to Svensson’s noggin. It was the Swede’s 14th goal in 367 career matches.

2. Morris, Lodeiro lead determined Sounders — Morris, the MLS Comeback Player of the Year, has a first-class engine with a motor to match, and his on-field wisdom and improvement on both wings has made him a terror in MLS. Combine that with the vision of Lodeiro and there was a feeling of inevitability once the match reached halftime with zeroes on the scoreboard.

Lodeiro’s goal to make it 2-0, off a fine set-up from Raul Ruidiaz, was a sweet finish and a deserved marker. Look out, Los Angeles.

3. Rimando’s final game finds him in fine feather– The “Wall of the Wasatch” made a pair of very good saves in the first 15 minutes, the second causing him serious shoulder discomfort. He was needed again at halftime as Raul Ruidiaz raced onto an inch-perfect Lodeiro cross in the 43rd minute. After Nedum Onuoha blocked a shot with his face early in the second half, Rimando saved his teammate an own goal moments later. He made a flying 61st minute save to keep it 0-0, and made another terrific stop in the 86th minute to deny Victor Rodriguez with his seventh save of the night.

Twenty-two times capped by the USMNT, he played over 500 times for Major League Soccer teams and was very good on his final bow. He spoke to FS1 on the field after the game:

“I enjoyed everything. I enjoyed my 20 years and being here with family, it’s not the way we wanted to go. It’s a tough thing to swallow. It’s hard to put in words. I gave so much to the sport. To see it go, I’m just grateful you know, for everything it’s given me. It’s tough to lose like this. We’ll see what happens next.”

Man of the Match: Lodeiro — The 60-times capped Uruguay was lively from Moment No. 1 and will give Seattle hope against any remaining opponent.


NYCFC boss Torrent hints at coaching change after playoff exit

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A crushing defeat to Toronto FC may’ve signaled the end of the Domenec Torrent era at New York City FC.

The Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed was statistically the better team on Wednesday at Citi Field, but Torrent’s saw horrid errors from two players contribute to a 2-1 loss.

[ MORE: NYCFC 1-2 Toronto FC ]

Torrent worked under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Man City before taking the reins for the Bronx-based City, and led NYCFC to the East’s top seed and the second-highest performing offense in MLS. He finished second to Bob Bradley in the MLS Coach of the Year vote.

The defense wasn’t bad, either, but errors from Maxime Chanot and Ronald Matarrita opened the door for TFC on Wednesday.

Sport Business’ Bob Williams reports that Torrent was pretty blunt with the media following the loss, saying at one point, “NYCFC are ready for another coach, don’t worry.”

Three things we learned from NYCFC-Toronto FC

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The game in 200 words (or less): The Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed is gone from the MLS Cup Playoffs, and has no one to blame but itself.

The hosts took too long to get going at their temporary home of Citi Field — home of baseball’s New York Mets — and needed a strong first half from goalkeeper Sean Johnson to stay in the game before bowing out via two school child errors. The play overall was as haphazard as the baseball screen obstructed the TV cameras for most of the match, so it felt oddly fitting that Toronto’s appearances on the scoreboard came via elementary errors.

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

At the other end, well-traveled French-American backstop Quentin Westberg took over with an outstanding save on Maxi Moralez and another on Ronald Matarrita (an offside chance, alas). Alexandru Mitrita blew a 1v1 chance around the hour mark, but NYC found its breakthrough via Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. The Libyan forward lashed a back post offering from MLS assist leader Moralez home with just over 20 minutes to play. But Matarrita made an absolutely comical slide tackle on Richie Laryea in the box, and Pozuelo stepped to the line and put TFC in another conference final.


Three things we learned

1. Pozuelo punishes rusty hosts: NYCFC got a little too cute in dealing with a wild and unexpected lash into the box from Auro Jr., the message hailed by a series of popped-up headers not heard by City goalkeeper Sean Johnson (who to that point had been spectacular).

Maxime Chanot tried a header back to his keeper. It wasn’t a good one and Johnson declined to rush out for it. The one player City wouldn’t have wanted to run onto the mistake was former Swansea City man Pozuelo, who scored his 13th goal to go with eight assists in his first campaign with the Reds. He’d add his 14th when NYCFC made another terrible error, Laryea chopped down by Matarrita.

2. Savvy Toronto meets NYCFC plan head-on, but City regroups: Calmer on the ball and quick to reload, TFC was not bothered by the narrow pitch at Citi Field. The Reds were happy to play the ball all the way back to Quentin Westberg, but also more adept and desperate in 50-50 battles at the heart of the action. The second half, however, saw less crispness and tenacity from the Reds as NYCFC launched forward in desperation and NYC might’ve pulled out the win without those two costly errors.

Credit Toronto manager Greg Vanney, who introduced the penalty-winning Laryea late as a massive change from from right back Justin Morrow. Without Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, however, the Reds got the job done.

3. Johnson the early star, Westberg late: NYCFC veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson was much busier than his counter part in the first 30 minutes, and only stumbled once when he briefly bobbled Alejandro Pozuelo’s unfairly-won free kick. His finest moment came in the 37th, when Tsubasa Endoh backheeled to set up Jonathan Osorio for a vicious shot that Johnson’s pushed over the bar. Whereas the star of the first half was all about Johnson, TFC backstop Westberg was oh-so-necessary. The former Troyes and Auxerre goalkeepr made a big stop just after City equalized, and commanded the area as TFC took the win to the house.

Man of the Match: Chris Mavinga — Toronto’s Congolese center back was a force in the air and on the ground, putting an end to several big NYCFC chances with positioning and power.


FIFA inviting some non-champions to enlarged Club World Cup

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Based on qualification procedures seen by The Associated Press, teams can qualify for FIFA’s expanded Club World Cup without having to win a regional competition – even at the expense of some champions.

The FIFA Council on Thursday is set to approve China as host of the inaugural edition of the 24-team club competition in 2021 and review the qualification procedures, people with knowledge of the decision making told AP.

They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss FIFA’s plans ahead of the meeting in Shanghai.

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A document sent to council members seen by the AP shows the outcome of the initial talks between the FIFA administration and the six regional confederations to determine the criteria for securing one of the slots.

The revamped Club World Cup is due to be staged every four years, replacing the current annual format that features the six champions of continental competitions and the host nation’s domestic title winner.

But caps on the number of representatives from a single country in the new format raises the prospect of even winners of continental competitions missing out.

EUROPE

With eight slots, Europe will be the best represented continent at the Club World Cup even after rejecting four additional places, helping FIFA drive ticket sales and broadcast revenue.

All the Champions League and Europa League winners from 2018 to 2021 are set to qualify – although that could be dependent on UEFA determining the maximum number of slots per country. Clubs from England and Spain have dominated those competitions in recent years.

Should a team enjoy multiple wins across the competitions, the free slot is due to go to the most recent Champions League runner-up.

Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2018 when Atletico Madrid triumphed in the Europa League. English clubs swept last season’s trophies, with Liverpool victorious in the Champions League and Chelsea in the second-tier competition.

SOUTH AMERICA

While South America will get six slots, only the process for distributing four of them has been settled. They will go to the 2019 and 2020 winners of CONEMBOL’s two competitions: The Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.

The document shows no plan for determining the route to securing the remaining two berths or the limits on national representation.

ASIA

The three Asian places will to go the winners of the 2019 and 2020 Asian Champions League and the runners-up will have a playoff for the third entry into the Club World Cup group stage.

Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal will play Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in this season’s final next month.

If the title is defended in 2020, the runners-up from both years will complete Asia’s FIFA lineup.

But Asia only wants a maximum of two teams from one country. So, if the winners and runners-up in 2019 and 2020 are all from the same country, the two losing Asian Champions League semifinalists in 2020 would contest a playoff for a route into the global tournament.

NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA

The 2021 CONCACAF Champions League finalists will qualify but a process for deciding the third slot was left hanging in the FIFA Council document.

Mexican teams have won all 11 titles since the regional competition was rebooted as the Champions League. Only three of the finals have not been an all-Mexican lineup.

But a cap of two teams per country from this region will exist at the Club World Cup.

[ MORE: Talking CBA, MLS with Chris Wondolowski ]

AFRICA

The simplest qualification will be from Africa, with the places going to the 2021 Champions League finalists and the winner of a playoff between the two semifinalists.

The plan is complicated by a cap on two teams per country.

OCEANIA

Oceania is the only one of FIFA’s six confederations not guaranteed a place at the Club World Cup. To make one of the eight groups of three, the Oceania Champions League winner will face a playoff against the Chinese champions.

TOURNAMENTS DATES

A previous FIFA plan seen by the AP in March proposed the Club World Cup running from June 17 through July 4 in 2021, taking the slot originally set aside for the Confederations Cup competition that is no longer due to be contested.

For some players from Africa and the CONCACAF region it could be a busy summer, with their regional national competitions proposed to start on July 9.

The final two editions of the seven-team annual Club World Cup are being staged in Qatar this December and in December 2020.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports