Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Filling out an MLS Best XI is harder than ever

1 Comment

Fewer fun things have been as agonizing as filling out a ballot for the 2017 Major League Soccer Best XI.

This goes beyond the travails of deciding whether you need your lineup to be one that can actually play functionally in a match, whether that be by using a standard formation or players out of position. Even long believers in that process — this post-writer fell in that group until, spoiler alert, this season — would be challenged by this season’s options.

[ MORE: PST’s Best XI | Award winners ]

Part of that is due to super teams — Who contributed the most? — while plenty more comes down to some absolutely bonkers performances from players on wildly disappointing teams (Ignacio Piatti and Romain Alessandrini, we’re looking at you. Andre Blake, you, too).

Admittedly, my Best XI looks a lot like the one compiled by our PST staff, seven of 11, but I’ll give you my decision later. Here are some of your challenges.

1) Super teams — Toronto FC was the best single season club in MLS history and, given the parity and strength of the league relative to previous seasons, it’s easy to argue it isn’t even close. Sebastian Giovinco is its best player but missed significant playing time. Victor Vazquez became the straw that stirred the drink. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were fantastic but missed time with international commitments. Left-sided man Justin Morrow is, spoiler alert, my defender of the year.

How many can you take from that squad, and how about the shiny new toy that is Atlanta United, which had injury absences of its own but excited on so many levels. Beyond ex-River Plate defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the Five Stripes boasted four star attackers in Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Yamil Asad. Consider that this was September’s Best XI according to the advanced stats people at WhoScored.com:

2) Midfield and attack problems: This is rarely easy given the magnification of star turns from players who score goals, but choosing even seven players this season was troubling given the remarkable amount of new boys and regular stars who got the job done this season.

In the midfield, there was the no doubt inclusion of Diego Valeri, who’s 21 goals and 11 assists demanded MVP attention, and the dominant seasons of Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and Montreal’s Piatti. Then there’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Vazquez, Alessandrini, and RSL’s Albert Rusnak.

Difficult stuff, and we’re not even talking out-and-out attack. Martinez and Giovinco posted gaudy numbers despite missing significant portions of the schedule with injury. Is that enough to discount them? What absence counts for this? Miguel Almiron missed time late, while David Villa, too, had an MVP caliber season and Nemanja Nikolic only went and led his third-straight league in goals.

All that without a mention of Alex Ring, Justin Meram, Lee Nguyen, and Ola Kamara. Fortunately for the league’s voters, Blerim Dzemaili’s 22 matches mean he wasn’t around long enough to warrant a vote despite 7 goals and 10 assists in limited time.

3) Formation: So, given this and the amazing season of Morrow, how do you rightly go about picking three at the back? It’s enough to move stringent XI voters to a team that would get in trouble on a real pitch by using a 3-4-3 to maximize mids and forwards.

4) Goalkeeper: The usual suspects — Luis Robles, Bill Hamid — were good, with several others included in the MLS MVP shortlist: Bobby Shuttleworth, Tim Howard, Joe Bendik, and Stefan Frei (Robles was not included in RBNY’s bunch). However, it’s hard to imagine voters weren’t deciding between former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake of Philadelphia and the near-impeccable season of Sporting KC’s Tim Melia.

Blake (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

5) So what was your ballot, writer dude?

The Best XI was the only category that took me longer to sort out that the MVP debate, and that’s because I had a very difficult time reconciling Valeri’s unbelievable full season with the fact that Giovinco was the best player despite missing five different stints with injury (More on that later).

Ultimately, I hedged on that “Could this team perform on the pitch?” question. As much as it would be easy to play a four at the back by including Graham Zusi, or to feel better about a back three by having Kendall Waston get a deserved spot, I’d rather have Justin Morrow slightly out of position than have to sacrifice a midfielder or attacker.

The trio of forwards was the most difficult choice. Martinez and Giovinco were Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of potent players in the league when healthy. Martinez’s 17 goals in 19 matches allowed me to slot him in the team, while Giovinco’s 16 goals and six assists in 25 matches feel similar. Including both, however, would mean dismissing Villa, the best player in league history and the prime reason NYCFC finished second in the East, or Nikolic.

Here’s one area I will hedge: While I felt confident in submitting my XI, I’ve since felt nagged by two exclusions: Villa (!!) and Waston. If the deadline was 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, I may have removed Martinez and Matt Besler.

Andre Blake (PHI)

L. Gonzalez Pirez (ATL) — Matt Besler (SKC) — Justin Morrow (TFC)

Bastian Schweinsteiger (CHI) — Cristian Roldan (SEA)

Diego Valeri (POR) — Ignacio Piatti (MTL)

Josef Martinez (ATL) — Nemanja Nikolic (CHI) — S. Giovinco (TFC)

Ultimately, I think we beat your team.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Coronavirus: Italy may lift ban on sporting events by Monday

Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) The Italian government could lift its ban on sporting events by Monday in areas affected by the coronavirus if the number of cases stabilizes.

The outbreak forced a number of sporting events to be called off throughout the country this past weekend, including four Serie A matches in the north of Italy.

This week, the ban on sporting events was extended from Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont – the areas hardest hit by the outbreak – to also include the regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna and Liguria, until March 1.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“If, as I hope, the statistics don’t give us different signs then maybe already by Monday these measures won’t be continued,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “But it’s only Tuesday today and we have to wait and see what happens over the next few days. The health of the Italian citizens is the most important thing.”

Italy reported a 45% increase in the number of coronavirus cases Tuesday, from 222 to 300. Ten people have died, all of them elderly or suffering from other ailments.

“Obviously, I can’t say I’m not worried because I don’t want anyone to think we’re underestimating this emergency,” Premier Giuseppe Conte said before meeting with visiting World Health Organization representatives. “But we trust that with the measures we have implemented, there will be a containing effect in the coming days.”

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two regions where clusters have formed and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

Serie A matches this weekend are set to be played behind closed doors, including Juventus’ key match against Inter Milan. That game is not only potentially crucial to the title race but also sees the return of former Juventus coach Antonio Conte.

Inter’s Europa League match at home to Ludogorets on Thursday will also take place without any fans allowed in.

Serie C canceled all games in two leagues which have teams in the north. Volleyball and rugby games were also suspended nationwide through next weekend.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation suspended all of its events throughout the country for an entire week, although it said that “for now” next weekend’s World Cup ski races in La Thuile in the Valle d’Aosta region were still set to go ahead. Those races are operated by the International Ski Federation, which has already canceled races this season in China that were slated to test the course for the 2022 Beijing Games.

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

El Tri winger Jurgen Damm headed for MLS this summer

Jurgen Damm
Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images
Leave a comment

This season’s Liga MX invasion of MLS continues with Jurgen Damm announcing that he’ll leave UANL Tigres this summer after five years with the club.

TUDN has the destination as Atlanta, though previous reports have linked Damm to the LA Galaxy is the spot.

And MLSSoccer.com scribe Tom Bogert says the Houston Dynamo have his “discovery rights” (which remains the worst concept in the entire league).

Reports emerged over the past 48 hours that the El Tri man was headed for an MLS club.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 12-times capped winger has one goal for Mexico, but has not been capped since Oct. 2018. He has spent his entire career in Liga MX.

Damm spent the early part of his career with Tecos and Pachuca, but has been with UANL Tigres since 2015.

He won four league titles with UANL, as well as the 2018 Campeones Cup.

Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry: “London’s still red” after Bayern beats Chelsea

Serge Gnabry
Photo by Roland Krivec/DeFodi Images via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ex-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry still has love for the club.

Gnabry tweeted that “London is still red” after he scored twice for Bayern Munich in a 3-0 beating of Chelsea on Tuesday in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

This after scoring four times against Spurs in a previous Champions League group stage match and Tweeting that “North London is Red.”

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

So what’s with the London form?

“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Gnabry said after the game. “A lot of them were in the stands tonight, and it seems they give me a lot of good power.”

Gnabry only scored once during his time in England with Arsenal and West Brom but is a bona fide star in the Bundesliga.

With a three-goal advantage over Chelsea heading to Munich for a second leg, however, he’s not got his head in the clouds.

“Three goals ahead gives us a little bit of confidence, but we need to be prepared for the second leg. We can’t take it not seriously enough. … We’ve seen it last year with Liverpool beating Barcelona, so we have to be careful. We have to go into the second leg with all of our focus.”

Gnabry now has 51 goals and 29 assists in four seasons since returning to Germany from Arsenal. Not terrible production for a player the Gunners offloaded to Werder Bremen for under $6 million in 2016.

What color will London be when Chelsea buys him next year? We kid, we kid…

Champions League preview: Real Madrid renews rivalry with Pep; Lyon hosts Juve

UEFA Champions League preview
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The final two ties of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 begin Wednesday when Manchester City and Juventus head to Spain and France.

The focus for many will be on the former, as City continues to weather UEFA drama while its manager prepares for his fiercest foe as a player and manager.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Pep Guardiola has managed against Real Madrid 17 times and boasts a 9-4-4 record between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The Catalan wizard has lost his last three versus Real, two with Bayern and once in his final El Clasico as Barca boss.

Even as Guardiola stresses preparation and plan, he knows there will be bounces and that both teams will have to cope with them.

“We have to be strong, have quality and need to have luck,” he said, via The Manchester Evening News. “At this stage, it’s important but we cannot control that. We can control what we can control and we will see. This competition, last season, against Liverpool, there are decisions. You have to overcome. You need incredible concentration in our game and game plan plus try to be a little lucky.”

Real Madrid living legend Sergio Ramos has earned the ire of Guardiola on plenty of occasions, one of the few things Liverpool and City fans have in common.

Ramos wouldn’t get drawn into rivalry talk, sying the stage somewhat negates the opponent.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Ramos said via the club’s web site. “I think he’s a fantastic coach, with loads of experience, and his numbers speak for themselves. We’re motivated by the Champions League, regardless of the players or coaches who may have been rivals in the past. We’re up for the Champions League and our next task is to beat City. From a personal point of view, I’m just focused on making the next round.”

[ MORE: Key battles for Real-Man City ]

Wednesday’s other match sees a club long linked with Guardiola, as Juventus will play the role of heavy favorites against Lyon.

Maurizio Sarri‘s side is to bidding to win what’s eluded all Juve bosses since Marcello Lippi beat Ajax in 1996. If they succeed, it will be by going down a different path than it’s traveled in recent years.

Here’s Leonardo Bonucci, via Football-Italia:

“What the coach asks of us now is basically the opposite of what the previous coach did,” Bonucci mused. “It was usually individual against individual, now it’s more about organized team movements. Obviously, you need to train consistently to get that down and playing every three days makes it difficult. But we started this journey well aware of the positives it could bring and the difficulties of getting there.”

Lyon has been maddeningly inconsistent this season, sitting seventh in the Ligue 1 table, but has the tools to surprise if Juve doesn’t bring its best. That starts in France on Wednesday.