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Don Garber talks #SaveTheCrew status at MLS State of the League address

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has long made his MLS State of the League address during championship weekend, which continued on Friday ahead of the 2017 final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders.

While Garber has taken this time in the past to address topics like expansion and new league rules, this year’s conversation was highly centered around the MLS’ current situation involving an existing club.

[ MORE: A closer look at Saturday’s MLS Cup by the numbers ]

The Columbus Crew continue to be the focal point of league-wide discussions as club owner Anthony Precourt observes his options both in the city of Columbus and outside the state of Ohio, with Austin, Texas seemingly the hottest destination for the long-time MLS side to relocate to in the near future.

Garber spoke about this issue on Friday in Toronto, which will play host to Saturday’s MLS Cup final.

“Let me be clear, it’s the league’s decision, not the league’s approval of an owner decision to determine whether or not moving out of Columbus is something that would make sense for Precourt Sports Ventures,” Garber said. “It requires club approval, but ultimately it is a decision made by the owner. We have said all along, and this was said by Anthony [Precourt] as well, that he would pursue a parallel path.

“A path to see if his situation would improve in the city of Columbus, at the same time determining if there would be a viable option in Austin. What has happened of late is we’re told that they would not continue discussions with Anthony if he was going to pursue this parallel path.

“I assume that will change. I hope that changes because I think we need to have that debate. There’s been talk of owners coming together. Anthony isn’t looking to sell the team. There’s talk about stadium opportunities, which I think are intriguing, so we need to all get back together and see if there is an opportunity to determine two possibilities.”

The Crew have been one of the league’s original side’s since MLS’ inception in 1996, when the league consisted of just 10 teams.

While Garber noted the difficulty of the matter given Columbus’ longstanding ties to Major League Soccer, the veteran commissioner noted that the club and city’s issues maintaining the Crew have been well-documented throughout the years.

“I think they’re able to address some of the concerns that we have been experiencing in that city for many years it is conceivable that the team could stay,” Garber continued. “It’s a legacy team, and it’s traumatic when an owner and league are willing to move a team, whether it’s a legacy team for 20 years or in other leagues when they’ve been around for 50.

“But you need to be in a situation where you can be viable. We have new teams coming in that are deeply-connected in the community and have more commercial revenue, higher fan bases and all the measures that matter. We’ve been experiencing issues in Columbus for many years and we’ve been somewhat quiet about this. It is among the lowest teams, between 20 out of 22 in every measure that matters in pro sports.

“Average ticket price. Average attendance. Average revenue. Their local television ratings. Their local television deal. Every aspect that is going to determine whether a team can be viable. And as our league continues to move in the right direction, we need to have strong clubs. So there’s a lot that needs to happen.”

This past season, the Crew ranked 20th league-wide in average attendance, with roughly 15,439 supporters filing into MAPFRE Stadium during the regular season. Only the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas averaged few fans on a per-match basis.

In comparison, expansion side Atlanta United — who was knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs by the Crew in 2017 — averaged over 48,000 supporters on a per-game basis, with the club boasting a league record 71,874 in one of the team’s first matches at their home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

[ MORE: Huddersfield’s Danny Williams eager to rebuild USMNT ]


Below are some of the other topics Garber addressed on Friday.

About the current MLS playoff structure

“If you could wave a magic wand, ending the season before the FIFA break in November and not have that gap then we wouldn’t have that gap you mentioned. I think it’s important to note that we’ve had higher average attendance and higher television ratings for these playoffs than any other year in our history.”

Columbus comparison to Kansas City’s struggles before new ownership took over

“Because those issues have been going on for almost since the beginning. We had, and it was before I came to MLS, but the first year was remarkable. Lamar Hunt went in and said ‘I’ll think of Columbus as an inaugural team.’ You need to have a local ticket campaign. I think they had 10,000 season tickets. Almost since then, after the stadium was built, it took a couple years to settle in. We’ve been struggling to resonate in that market.

“I made this comment, and I’ll make it again. I did it in an interview with someone this morning. The Hunt Sports Group, when they owned the team, had invested over $200 million. Anthony Precourt has invested nearly $40 million. You can read what investor and investment lost kind of synonymously. We’ve had those challenges for a long time, so we don’t think it’s an issue of ownership.

The possibility of one of the upcoming expansion teams leaping over Miami

“It’s conceivable. It’s conceivable that that could happen.”

Are soccer-specific stadiums a necessity for clubs trying to enter MLS?

“That question is going to get answered as we debate Detroit’s bid, which was very strong. It had a very creative way of downsizing Ford Field, but was not part of the original requirements that we had when we sent out RFPs to the 12 cities that raised their hand. I think something I’ve said to all of you is that this is an evolving league. We’re 22 years old. We’re competing against leagues like the NFL that have celebrated 100 years next year. We’ve got to be sure we’re evolving our decisions along with how our league evolves, how our fan base evolves, all that goes into what makes teams successful.”

When asked about NYCFC playing two home matches away from Yankee Stadium in 2017

“It’s not optimal. It wreaks havoc on our schedule. It’s not good for fans. And I think Jon Patricof is a good local chief business officer. They’ve been patient, but it’s been a challenge. I think if we were going to look at this situation today, as if New York City was going to come in as team 25 or 26 or even 27 or 28 we would have required that there be a stadium finalized at that time.”

On recent developments in U.S. Soccer Federation presidential race

“Let me start by saying that I understand why people are upset that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. When you miss it it’s a disappointment for all of us.  For media, for fans, for league executives, for federation staff and players. I spoke to many of them after Trinidad. I think there’s been a lot of attempts to attribute blame as if there’s one switch you can pull and then all of the sudden it changes. And I think this process, which has been traumatic to the system, has us taking a step back and realizing that we were all experiencing positive momentum.

“We were beginning to think that we cracked the code, and when you have things that set you back it allows for strong people to work within and reach outside your group to get better. I actually think will be a positive, at least on the men’s side, for U.S. Soccer, and even the league. It will force us to be more integrated on our development programs within the federation. It’ll force the non-affiliated teams that aren’t affiliated with MLS to think more about what they need to do, like we have been within the federation to bring in better coaches. Maybe they address some of the structural challenges that exist at the youth level.

“Maybe we are more open to thinking about the Tyler Adams’ of the world playing for a year or two and then going overseas.  There are a dozen other things like that.I believe strongly that soccer in America is, in many cases today, stronger because of the relationship between our league and the investments and our federation. I will segway to Sunil [Gulati], who has been an unbelievable leader for the federation. He hasn’t gotten enough credit for that as we’ve gone through that recent narrative.

“You’ve got thriving leagues. You’ve got an incredible launch of the women’s league, which was almost a single-handed commitment on his part. You’ve got a strong commercial business. You’re got a corpus of income sitting in the coppers waiting to be deployed and allocated. You’ve got a supporter movement. There are a lot of things that have happened. We didn’t qualify, and that stinks, but the sky isn’t falling and we just need to be smart in how we work together to ensure that this doesn’t happen four years from now.”

Serie A roundup: Immobile nets hat-trick, Lazio runs over Sampdoria (video)

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Lazio’s record-extending 11th straight Serie A win highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 5-1 Sampdoria  

Like Lazio’s season, Ciro Immobile continues to make strides with each passing day.

The 29-year-old’s hat-trick powered Simone Inzaghi’s side past Sampdoria 5-1, extending his goal count to 23, nine more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaka.

 

Lazio, who are three points behind top-of-the-table Juventus and one behind second-place Inter Milan, were up three goals by the 20-minute mark. By the 65th minute, Immobile reached the three goal mark, converting from the spot.

“We would need too much time to count his records,” coach Simone Inzaghi said on Immobile’s magnificent run of form. “We are talking about an extraordinary team player. He has shown that so many times. Immobile has been doing extraordinary things for four years, I’m not surprised.”

Full of confidence, Lazio turn one of the most challenging corners of the season, as they take on rivals AS Roma defend the Italian Cup against Napoli.

“We’ll enjoy this 11th win but we have to already be thinking about the next matches,” Inzaghi said. “We know what a derby means but I can’t allow myself to think about Roma.

“We play Napoli on Tuesday, we know what the Italian Cup means for us, what it meant last year, we have it on our shirts and we will fight for it again.”

When it comes to Sampdoria, things are going from bad to ugly, quick.

“Tonight I’ll add salt and pepper and I’ll eat them alive,” Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri said of his players.

“Lazio was too good for us, you could clearly see the difference between the two teams, but it was without doubt the worst Samp performance since I’ve been here.”

Elsewhere

Sassuolo 2-1 Torino

Napoli 0-2 Fiorentina

La Liga roundup: Casemiro’s brace earns injury-riddled Real Madrid win (video)

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Casemiro’s heroic performance against Sevilla highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Real Madrid 2-1 Sevilla

Real Madrid’s goalscoring hero on Saturday wasn’t Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, or even Sergio Ramos.

With two crucial goals in the second half, Casemiro single-handedly earned three points at the Santiago Bernabeu, days removed from cathartic Spanish Super Cup win against arch rivals Atletico Madrid.

With Bale, Hazard, Ramos injured, Benzema on the bench far from match-fit, and Federico Valverde suspended, Los Blancos were in dire need of someone to lead the way, and place pressure on struggling co-leaders Barcelona, who are now under Quique Setien’s tutelage.

By the time the first 45 minutes came to a close, the overall impression was that it would take a miracle for the home side to earn much-needed three points.

That all quickly changed in the second half as the Brazilian midfielder chipped Tomas Vaclik after a picture-perfect backheel from Luka Jovic. Madrid were edging Julen Lopetegui’s side, and Casemiro foreshadowed what was to come.

With the score level, the Brazilian leaped inside the box and headed home a lofting ball from the right flank, catching Sevilla’s defense completely off guard.

Casemiro’s brace came just five minutes after Luuk De Jong‘s left-footed goal in the 64th minute.

League leaders with 43 points, Madrid prepares for their Copa del Rey bout against third-division side Unionistas midweek. Sevilla, on the other hand, host Levante in the same tournament.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Atletico Madrid

Osasuna 0-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-1 Alaves

16-year-old Cherki scores 2 as Lyon advances in French Cup

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PARIS (AP) Two goals and two assists from 16-year-old forward Rayan Cherki helped Lyon win 4-3 at Nantes and reach the last 16 of the French Cup on Saturday.

But the run of Reunion Islanders JS Saint-Pierroise ended with a 1-0 loss away to Epinal, which scored deep into extra time.

Cherki put Lyon ahead in the first minute, deftly rounding goalkeeper Alban Lafont and then clipping the ball beyond a defender. He made it 2-0 in the ninth, slotting the ball through Lafont’s legs after being set up by right winger Bertrand Traore.

New signing Renaud Emond headed in Moses Simon’s cross from the left to pull a goal back for Nantes in the 16th. Cherki then showed great awareness to release forward Martin Terrier with a fine pass from midfield in the 37th for 3-1.

Cherki shaved the crossbar with a shot in the 60th and won a penalty in the 67th after robbing the ball off Thomas Basila. He generously allowed striker Moussa Dembele to take it, but Lafont saved Dembele’s attempt.

Two minuter later, Cherki threaded the ball down the right to Dembele, who slotted in, and the irrepressible Cherki set up another chance for Terrier.

Lyon’s defense remains vulnerable and Simon set up Imran Louza’s goal before heading in late on to ensure a tense finish.

Saint-Pierroise had caused an upset in the previous round by knocking out second-division Niort and the players again traveled 6,000 miles (around 9,700 kilometers) from the small island in the Indian Ocean, located off the east coast of Africa.

Saint-Pierroise, the former club of France midfielder Dimitri Payet, was looking to become the first club from the Reunion Islands to reach the last 16 and almost forced a penalty shootout, despite having forward Jean-Michel Fontaine sent off in the 15th minute.

But substitute Adel Berkane rifled home a half-volley for fourth-tier Epinal with two minutes left in extra time.

Also, there were wins for first-division sides Nice, Lille, Saint-Etienne and Strasbourg.

Lille won 2-0 at fifth-division Gonfreville thanks to goals from forwards Loic Remy and Victor Osimhen, while coach Patrick Vieira’s Nice side held on to beat third-tier Red Star 2-1.

Saint-Etienne won 3-2 at Paris FC, a team fighting relegation in the second division.

Paris FC led 2-1 with goals from former Paris Saint-Germain forward Jeremy Menez and ex-Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa. Teen forward Charles Abi equalized for Saint-Etienne with 20 minutes left before veteran right back Mathieu Debuchy netted the winner.

Strasbourg won 5-1 at fourth-tier Angouleme.

On Sunday, Rennes plays at fifth-tier Athletico Marseille and PSG travels to face second division league leader Lorient.

Rennes beats PSG in last year’s final.

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‘I’m very happy for this’: Jimenez becomes Wolves all-time leading PL goalscorer

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Raul Jimenez has carved his name in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ history books.

“I want to say thank you to all my teammates, to the staff, to the coach, because without all of them, I can’t achieve this goal,” Jimenez said following Wolves’ come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Southampton on Saturday.

Just minutes earlier, in front of a fervent stand of Wolves supporters at St. Mary’s Stadium, Jimenez scored his 23rd Premier League goal for Midlands side, becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer in the Premier League era. The Mexican surpasses Steven Fletcher‘s record of 22 goals, which stood since 2012.

“I’m very happy for this, and I want to keep scoring,” he added.

With Wolves disputing Europa League qualifying matches in August, the 28-year-old began to build early on what is now a monstrous campaign – 19 goals and 9 assist in throughout all competitions. Half a year down the road, there are no signs of Jimenez’s magic running out. In fact, his brace against the Saints is clearest indicator of why that’s the case.

With his divine hold up play, well-calculated pressing and hunger for redemption, Jimenez emotionally inspired Nuno Espirito Santo‘s side comeback. And in the 65th minute, his trademark penalty overturned a two-goal deficit, turning emotional to physical inspiration.

“[Coming back] was very important for us after a very bad first half,” he told Wolves reporters following the match.

Jimenez was full of praise for his team’s collective grit. He lauded his team’s “fantastic” second half – full of pressing and chances created. The tactic alterations implemented by Nuno Espirito Santo influenced Adama Traore’s run that led to Jimenez’s third and winning goal.

“In the end, we know that it depends on us – what we want to do, what we want to achieve. So, we need to keep going until the last minute. Keep trying to score, keep going with our football that makes us Wolves.”

We now know that Jimenez is Wolves’ all-time Premier League goalscorer, too.