NYCFC

Vieira on NYCFC’s hopes, building an identity

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Patrick Vieira is in his third season with New York City FC in Major League Soccer and the legendary French midfielder believes his project is gathering momentum as they prepare to host LA Galaxy at Yankee Stadium in their home opener.

To help build the anticipation levels for their opening home game of the 2018 MLS season, NYCFC is hosting a 24-hour game at Rockefeller Center with Patrick Vieira and David Villa each having a side in their name and getting involved on Mar. 9-10.

The 24-hour game kicked off on Friday afternoon in Manhattan and will finish on Saturday afternoon with a special soccer pitch set up in the center of Rockefeller Plaza, plus all of the proceeds from the event will be donated to support NYCFC’s charity, City in the Community (CITC).

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk ahead of NYCFC’s home opener against the Galaxy on Sunday, Vieira revealed his excitement levels are sky-high as he looks to reward the fans with another season of progress.

“We are really excited. It is always good to play at home in front of our fans and, honestly, last year they were really good, they were fantastic supporting the team, especially when we were going through a difficult period,” Vieria said. “We are really looking forward to playing the young kids again and there wasn’t a better way for us to start [this season] after the win we had at Sporting Kansas City. I’m really looking forward to the game against LA at home.”

After finishing second in the Eastern Conference last season, the pressure is on Vieira, 41, and his players to make another big leap forward in 2018.

With Jo Inge Berget and Anton Tinnerholm arriving from reigning Swedish champs Malmo in the offseason, plus talented young attacker Jesus Medina from Paraguay, the makeup of this NYCFC team is a little different to having the likes of Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa around as they did over the past three years, although the latter is still leading the line at the age of 36.

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Vieira acknowledges that the pressure is building but he is also keen to keep NYCFC’s identity strong.

“I think what’s important for us, as a team I think when you look at the last two or three years, I think we managed to be in the playoffs, especially last year in the playoffs, we looked better than in the first year,” Vieira said. “Of course, there is a big expectation of ourselves because of who we are. My job is still the same. There is going to be a pressure all the time and this is something I accept and that is what brings the best out of me. What is important for me is not to forgot that to win you need to get the best of the players. To get the best of the players you need to have a clear identity and a clear idea on how you want to play. It is my job to make the players understand this.”

With reigning MLS Cup champs Toronto the favorites to win it all again, plus Atlanta United spending big in the offseason to bring in Darlington Nagbe and Barco, does Vieira see those two teams as their biggest rivals to finish atop the Eastern Conference?

“Yeah, Atlanta, Toronto… but when you look at the East, D.C. United have a really good team and this year is going to be really tough. Columbus went to win in Toronto, so I think in this league it is of course a bit too early to talk about who is the favorite but we have a team who can compete against other teams,” Vieira said. “What will be important for us is for me to get the best of the players and to allow them to perform at the best that I know they can do, and obviously to be consistent. Consistency will be really important for us.”

The likable Frenchman beamed when talking about their opening day 2-0 win at Sporting Kansas City as his side showcased grit and a solid defensive outing in testing circumstances away from home: “We showed experience and I really loved the way we managed the game,” Vieira added.

The former Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan and Man City star also revealed that new signing Medina, who scored on his debut in that win at Sporting KC, took a while to adjust to life at NYCFC after arriving from Paraguayan side Libertad in the offseason but he is now “expressing himself and we don’t have any doubt about his talent” with the entire squad eager to make him feel at home and let his talents flourish.

Speaking of talent, Vieira’s former team Arsenal has plenty of that but has struggled for results this season in the Premier League with the Gunners so far having their lowest points tally under Arsene Wenger at this stage of a PL campaign.

With Arsenal in sixth place in the table and the Wenger Out calls growing louder despite their win at AC Milan in the Europa League this week, Vieira believes there are plenty of other PL clubs worse off than the Gunners.

“When you look at Arsenal in the last four years, I think they’ve managed to win three FA Cups. You only have one winner in the last few years and in the last few years Arsenal was there,” Vieira said. “I think at the moment people are maybe asking too much about this team because of what they can deliver. I don’t know because I’m not there to see it. All I have to say is that when you judge a team by what they win in the last couple of years and when you look at Arsenal and what they won in the last couple of years, I think there are a lot of teams who are doing worse than what Arsenal is doing at the moment.”

As pressure continues to mount on his former manager Arsene Wenger, some have linked Vieira as being a potential successor to the long-time Arsenal boss. The former Arsenal skipper, who won three PL titles with the Gunners and led the famous Invincibles side, is fully focused on NYCFC heading into the new MLS season.

But with one eye on his old team, does he feel the current criticism of Wenger is unfair?

“It is unfair because they’ve been winning silverware and there are a lot of teams who are not performing and not winning,” Vieira said. “Arsene, with what he has given to this football club, I think he should be the one who decides when it is time for him to leave or not.”

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Barcelona denounces Spanish court decision on Catalan independence

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Barcelona released a statement criticizing a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision that saw 12 political activists jailed for their role in the 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The statement said that “prison is not the solution” and called the decision “condemnatory.” Instead, the club said that “the resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

The political activists were punished for pushing through an October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that resulted in over 90% of the population voting for independence. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain and seen within the country’s political hierarchy as an act of treason.

As one of the biggest social institutions of Catalonia, Barcelona’s statement on the matter carries significant weight both within the region and across Spain. Barcelona games often feature flags and banners calling for Catalan independence. Catalonia has also made a recent push for an independent FIFA-recognized squad, unsuccessful to this point. However, they played their first match inside a FIFA-sanctioned international window this March against Venezuela.

As a result of the court decision, the Catalan Football Federation suspended all its matches for Monday in solidarity with the accused. This includes only clubs and leagues that fall under the federation, which does not include Barcelona, La Liga, or the Spanish national team.

“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” the club said in the statement. Gerard Pique re-tweeted the social media version of the statement, adding the caption “Proud to be part of this Club.” Pique is a Catalan native and has appeared for the Catalonia national team 10 times.

Barcelona reportedly set to sign young Ansu Fati to first-team

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According to a report by Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona is readying a first-team contract for 16-year-old Ansu Fati after a collection of positive performances for the club.

The youngster was promoted to the senior side at the start of the season thanks to an injury crisis that swallowed up Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele.

He made his first appearance off the bench in the opening league game, coming on for 12 minutes against Real Betis. He then was handed a 45-minute substitute appearance against Osasuna where he registered his first goal in a 2-2 draw. That saw Fati handed his first start, and he scored again just two minutes into the eventual 5-2 win over Valencia.

With Messi struggling of late with injuries and Suarez also struck down and seeing his minutes carefully watched thanks to his advanced age, Fati’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for Barcelona. Therefore, the report states the new contract will feature an astronomical release clause of $220 million.

He only just signed a contract with the club back in July that saw him tied to Barcelona through 2022 and put him on a tiered pay scale that would reward him based on appearances for various youth and senior squads. His release clause in that contract was set at $110 million – already a record for a player of his age – but after his recent outburst the club may feel even that is not enough to ward off outside interest. The new contract will also reportedly boost his salary to a fixed $1 million for the season.

Convincing Fati to stick around long-term is of the utmost importance to Barcelona who has been forced to consider the future of the striker position at the club. Suarez’s age is the most pressing concern, but even the potential decline of 32-year-old Messi is a possibility for the near future. With those in mind, Fati’s contributions are critical and could signal a positive future for the Barcelona attack despite the necessary upcoming transitions.

Liverpool, Manchester United set for injury returns

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According to reports, both Manchester United and Liverpool are preparing to welcome back a number of important players from injury for their rivalry meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Most notably, the Reds will reportedly have goalkeeper Alisson ready to take his place between the sticks, having missed nearly the entire season to this point with a calf injury. The Brazilian made it just 39 minutes into the Premier League opener against Norwich City before succumbing to injury, and Adrian has filled in since. While the Spaniard has played exceptionally well in his teammate’s stead, The Guardian reports that Alisson will take back his starting place no questions asked, having rigorously tested his injured leg with intensive training to make sure he is ready.

In addition to the Brazilian goalkeeper, Liverpool is also reportedly set to see Mohamed Salah prove fit to start despite his injury scare against Leicester City just before the international break.

For the hosts, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has received welcome news on a number of players prior to the matchup. Paul Pogba, who has missed three of the last four league matches and five of the last seven overall thanks to an ankle injury, is ready to go and will be available to start. The Mirror reports that Pogba spent much of the international break training in Dubai to aid in his recovery.

Also returning for Manchester United is Aaron Wan-Bissaka who has missed the last two Premier League matches with tonsillitis. It was reported that Wan-Bissaka was ready to return for the Newcastle match prior to the international break, but he missed out nonetheless and was absent from the England national team as well. Also reportedly returning is the oft-injured Luke Shaw who has not played since late August thanks to a hamstring problem.

Finally, Anthony Martial could be ready to return from his own hamstring injury. The report is that Martial would be in contention for a place in the Manchester United18-man squad, suggesting that he may need a match or two to regain full fitness for a starting spot but would be an option off the bench if needed.

Liverpool and Manchester United meet on Sunday for the 203rd time overall and 173rd time in the top flight, kicking off at 11:30 a.m. ET from Old Trafford. The matchup is significant for both sides as Liverpool looks to maintain its perfect record and eight point lead atop the Premier League table, while Manchester United is hoping for a boost from its vastly mediocre record to this point in the season, having recorded just two wins through the first eight matches.

Petr Cech earns win with 2 penalty saves in hockey debut

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Former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper joined English fourth-division hockey team Guildford Phoenix four days ago and made his debut on Sunday.

He did not disappoint.

The 37-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout, earning Man of the Match honors.

Cech is reportedly a fan of the Guilford Flames, the first-division side who use the Phoenix as their developmental side. He was signed to be the team’s third-choice goalkeeper, just a chance for him to get in on the action before his body gives way for good, but he was given a chance to play right away. He wore number 39, a nod to famous Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. His custom helmet was adorned with Arsenal and Chelsea colors. Regulation finished level at 2-2 before Cech’s shootout heroics.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said after the match. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”