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Three things: VAR blunders; LAFC’s flaw; RBNY’s kids

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Another Saturday full of MLS action is in the books. Here are three things we learned today…

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Defending is MLS has been… well, we’ll just say, not great through two weeks, but that’s resulted in tons of goals — some great, some pretty comedic — if not the highest possible quality of soccer.

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

A bonus point, right off the top, for maximum visibility…

VAR is… struggling… still

If video-assistant refereeing has been implemented to correct “clear and obvious errors” by a referee, what’s the point of spending all the money required to operate VAR if you’re not even going to have a look at what will likely go down as the most egregiously blown call of the season — even including those that are reviewed and corrected?

Let’s very quickly review the possible offside offenses in the build-up to the above goal: Steven Beitashour is only offside, but far enough offside that consulting the video replay would pretty clearly confirm he’s offside by a foot or more; Latif Blessing’s entire body is ahead of the ball, though the assistant referee’s view of the diminutive Ghanaian is obstructed by Beitashour and/or goalkeeper Nick Rimando — this is understandable, but also precisely the situation for which VAR was invented. If any of the four referees are unable to make the correct call for any variety of reasons in a moment that is truly game-changing (that’s their criteria), VAR is a simple solution.

Whether the center ref must currently choose to look at the replay on his own accord or at the behest of his video assistant, there should be a mandatory viewing of the replay if the video assistant indicates a clear and obvious error has occurred. No center ref should possess the power to wave away his assistant’s advice. If this is what occurred between Baldomero Toledo and Juan Guzman Jr., Toledo shouldn’t take charge of another MLS game for a good, long while.

RSL would have remained level with Los Angeles FC at 1-1 had Toledo spent two seconds looking at the footage, and the game could have played out very differently.

On the game’s other questionable refereeing decision (WATCH HERE), your periodic reminder that contact with an opponent isn’t required to have committed a foul:

Expansion teams no longer look like expansion teams

Speaking of LAFC — all VAR controversies notwithstanding — they were simply irresistible and downright unplayable at times during their 5-1 rout of RSL to collect their second away win (over legitimate MLS Cup contenders) in as games as they’ve played in team history.

Diego Rossi has three goals in two games (to go with three assists, meaning he assisted on every goal he didn’t score on Saturday); Carlos Vela bagged his first goal in MLS; Marco Ureña is far more dynamic and versatile than anyone could have known; and Latif Blessing has proven a game-discombobulating livewire. It’s all coming up Bob Bradley‘s boys these days.

However, tonight I’d like to note that RSL weren’t without ample opportunity to put up four or five goals of their own. It was something of a cakewalk through the heart of LAFC’s midfield for Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata, and had RSL’s composure been a bit higher in and around the penalty area, this game would have blown away the insanity that was Chicago Fire 3-4 Sporting Kansas City. The likes of Ola Kamara, Mauro Manotas and Josef Martinez will feast upon these chances.

Benny Feilhaber is a supremely talented player who also happens to be 33 years old and has never (successfully) played as part of a deeper midfield-two — a role which requires a ton of defensive work, positional discipline and a fair bit recovery speed and instincts — and Mark-Anthony Kaye is a 23-year-old rookie with 180 minutes of pro experience under his belt playing alongside Feilhaber. Laurent Ciman is fantastic at center back, which is great, because he’s going to have to be if Bradley persists without a veteran defensive midfielder to protect Ciman and Walker Zimmerman/Dejan Jakovic.

Who really runs New York?

The commonly accepted belief coming into the season was that New York City FC were the vastly superior side from the Empire/Garden States, that they were the ones with the chance to knock Toronto FC off their Eastern Conference perch. That’s likely still very true, but you might just be able to put Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls right alongside them.

After impressing in CONCACAF Champions League play midweek, the Baby Bulls (eight starters under the age of 25, and six under 23) rotated their lineup and destroyed the Portland Timbers in their league opener on Saturday, to the tune of 4-0. 17-year-old Ben Mines, 23-year-old Carlos Rivas (times two) and old man (32 — being facetious here) Bradley Wright-Phillips, who came off the bench, scored the goals. Play your kids, indeed.

23-year-old playmaker Alejandro “Kaku” Romero, for whom the Red Bulls paid more than $6 million this winter, made his MLS debut and tallied his first assist in the process. And still, Vincent Bezecourt (24) and Sean Davis (25) were arguably the best players on the field, as they terrorized Diego Valeri and Co. to the tune of 9 tackles won, 4 interceptions, 21 recoveries and 4 clearances, while Valeri, the reigning MVP, completed just three passes inside the final third.

Portland, it should be said, are completely and hopelessly lost without Diego Chara on the field.

Sporting KC built for the road (again)

The first two weeks of the season have a couple things abundantly clear for Sporting Kansas City fans: there’s no playmaking no. 10 to speak of on the roster, and they’re still seeking more any contributions from their starting striker. Also: the midfield is exhausting to watch — let alone play against — but that’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation for a Peter Vermes-coached team.

Felipe Gutierrez has, in 180 minutes, shown himself to be a cut above most any opposition midfielder he’ll come up against this season. The Chilean international was Sporting’s lone bright spot in last week’s 2-0 loss to NYCFC and followed up his strong debut with a pair of goals, including the game-winner four minutes from full-time, against Chicago on Saturday. An elite level of defensive industry was expected, and Gutierrez has delivered.

Where he lacks, of course, is the part of the game where he’s required to see, and play, the final ball into the box. He is, after all, an all-action no. 8 and a semi-regular fixture for Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile — so, again, what do you expect? Gutierrez was the late-arriving third or fourth man into the box on just about every occasion Sporting managed to hold up play and create a chance from inside 20 yards.

For this reason, among others, Sporting are fantastically assembled to meet opponents head-first like a battering ram away from home, when there’s a bit more space to play into and a willing combatant — they thrived in moments of chaos against Chicago, particularly the cool heads of Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi. At home, though, they’re going to struggle once again when visiting sides sit inside their own defensive third and force Sporting to break them down.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

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It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.