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MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

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MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE:ย Predictions, Odds for Europeย ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+

Pulisic Watch: Goal, hamstring injury in FA Cup final

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Christian Pulisic had both a dream and nightmare outing in the FA Cup final, as he became the first USMNT player in history to score in the FA Cup final but looked to have severely injured his hamstring.

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Pulisic, 21, scored a superb opener at Wembley as he dazzled for Chelsea early on but right at the start of the second half he raced clear of the Arsenal defense, again, but appeared to injure his right hamstring badly before he took a shot.

Injury update, latest news on Pulisic

Frank Lampard gave a Pulisic injury update after the game and said that the USMNT star would not be fit to play in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg game at Bayern Munich next Saturday. Lampard also confirmed that Pulisic will have a scan on his injured hamstring to determine the severity of the damage.

Here’s a close look at a superb display for Pulisic which ended in injury.


2nd minute: Found on the ball and plays it back to Rudiger. Chelsea looking to play the ball direct early on.

7th minute: GOALLL! Finds Giroud centrally, then surges forward and finds Mount on the left.ย  A cross from Mount is flicked to Pulisic by Giroud and he dinks home over Emiliano Martinez. Pulisic becomes the first USMNT player in history to score in an FA Cup final.

9th minute: Man, is he up for this. Pulisic puts Bellerin under pressure and wins the ball back for Chelsea.

11th minute: Lovely feet from Pulisic as he ran past two Arsenal defenders and at another two, before hitting a shot right at Emiliano Martinez.

14th minute: A nice flick to Giroud who didn’t quite read it. Lovely creativity.

20th minute: Picks up the ball on the left and is calm and composed on the ball. Always looking to drift inside.

31st minute: Cuts in from the right and flies past two players but Alonso fouls and the attack is over. Chelsea struggling after Arsenal’s equalizer.

38th minute: Found by Kovacic and plays it wide as Chelsea try and possess the ball after losing captain Azpilcueta to injury, who had given away the penalty kick Arsenal equalized from.

41st minute: Almost gets away but Arsenal stop him. A real nuisance.

45th minute: Tackled by Kieran Tierney, as Arsenal win a free kick right on the edge of the box but it is flashed wide.

47th minute: Right at the start of the second half he accelerates towards goal and is away from the Arsenal defense, but he pulls up in agony with a right hamstring injury before getting a shot away which is just wide. Somehow he still had a shot despite being in agony.

48th minute: Pulisic is in agony as he is helped off the pitch and Pedro replaces him. A dream start to the FA Cup final ends in agony for the American. Chelsea and USMNT fans everywhere will be waiting anxiously to hear the latest Pulisic injury update.

UPDATE: Pulisic went straight down the tunnel and was seen late in the second half as the other Chelsea players sat in the stand and watched their team.

Ranking new Premier League kits for 2020-21

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Premier League kit rankings are absolutely one of our favorite things to do each summer.

New kits have been dropped by plenty of Premier League clubs ahead of the new 2020-21 season, with fresh looks galore.

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Some teams have kept it simple, while others have gone for something very different.

With big name kit suppliers arriving on new deals at clubs, there will be some very different looks for next season and beyond.

Check out our 2020-21 Premier League kit rankings from the shirts released, so far.


1 – Sheffield United: Absolutely stunning design. Simple and striking at the same time. Love it.

2 – Southampton: Classy retro kits to celebrate their 135th anniversary, as Saints return to their original look.

Southampton

3 – Aston Villa: Clean, sharp look and you can’t go wrong with claret and blue. Love the larger badge too.

 

4 – Arsenal: Loving the retro vibes and yet another fine Arsenal kit.

 

5 – Brighton: Gone for an all blue number with white pinstripes. This is very good and a big chance from the bigger blue and white stripes. Retro, again.

6 – Tottenham Hotspur: Very sleek look and Spurs have kit it simple. Like the away kit, a lot.

7 – Manchester United: Nice little design throughout the kit which adds something extra.

8 – Liverpool: New Nike kits for the first time in history. The teal trim looks smart. Kept it simple and safe.

9 – Wolves: Another team which has gone for the retro look and it works.

10 – West Brom: The barcode stripes are slightly jarring but the colors, badge and design are good.

11 – Man City: A little too much going on with the home and away kits.

12 – West Ham: The Hammers are celebrating their 125th anniversary in style. Very nice. Classic look with a massive badge. Maybe a bit too plain?

13 – Chelsea: The new sponsor logo and the size of it has been ridiculed and it does ruin the very snazzy looking kits.

14 – Similar look for Leicester and this is a nice design. Big fan of the sleeves.

15 – Everton: Hummel are underrated and this has a nice retro look to it.

16 – Newcastle United: Does what it says on the tin. Black and white stripes, and that’s it.

Alexis Sanchez close to permanent Inter move; Ceballos update

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Alexis Sanchez is close to a permanent move to Inter Milan and there’s an interesting update on Dani Ceballos heading to Arsenal on a permanent basis.

[ MORE: Bundesliga plan for fans’ return ]

Starting in Milan, several reports claim that Alexis Sanchez is finally leaving Manchester United and will sign for Inter permanently on a free transfer. Other reports claim that Inter are paying a $17.6 million transfer fee for Sanchez, who still has two years left on his current Man United contract of $730,000 per week.

Sanchez’s departure will allow Man United to wrap up the $140 million signing of Jadon Sancho, with Sanchez’s huge salary finally off their wage bill as they’ve been paying a big chunk of his wages since last summer when he joined Inter on a season-long loan.

As for the details of the permanent deal, our partners in the UK at Sky Sports have some more details.

“The Chile international would receive a payout from United for cancelling his contract, which still has two years to run. The details of the payout are unknown but the value of the remaining two years in wages is around ยฃ55m. Sanchez is set to sign a three-year contract with Inter worth ยฃ6.3m a year. A deal should be finalised this week and would mean Sanchez is eligible to play for Inter in this season’s Europa League competition.”ย 

Alexis Sanchez, 31, has been in good form for Inter Milan since the restart (three goals and seven assists says as much) as he finally seems to have shaken off injuries. In 18 months at Man United the Chilean star struggled to make an impact after joining in January 2018 as part of a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan as he left Arsenal after a lengthy contract saga.

Ceballos to Arsenal
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As for another player who could be joining his loan club permanently, there is an intriguing update from Real Madrid and Spain midfielder Dani Ceballos.

Ceballos, 23, starred on loan at Arsenal and helped Mikel Arteta’s side win the FA Cup as he put in a man of the match performance in a new deeper role in central midfield.

The Spaniard has been instrumental so far during Arteta’s rebuild of the Gunners and although the Arsenal boss is keen for the club to work out a deal to extend the loan of Ceballos, or even try and sign him permanently, it appears the silky midfielder may not be so keen on staying in London.

Speaking to Spanish outlet El Partidazo de COPE, here’s what Ceballos said about his future as he will chat with Real after their Champions League Round of 16 clash with Man City later this week.

“I haven’t spoken to Real Madrid yet, but anyone who wears that shirt is happy,” Ceballos said. “Madrid are better than any club in the world. We’ll see about my future. I’m not thinking about whether or not I can play for Real Madrid, Arsenal or another club. Now it’s time to disconnect. I have to be calm and think clearly with my family about the coming year.”

Ceballos has also stated his love for his boyhood club, Real Betis, as he could end up back in Spain but not at Real Madrid.

Arsenal and Arteta want Ceballos to remain at the Emirates, badly, and they must do all they can to bring him back to north London for the 2020-21 season. His partnership with Granit Xhaka in the two deeper central midfield roles was a big surprise as they added stability, vision and composure to the engine room.