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Three things: NYCFC flying with Villa, Medina at the helm

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Week 2 of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and New York City are one of just four teams with six points following Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy.

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Earlier today, I advocated against making any judgments whatsoever about the MLS season before the calendar reads May or June. Barely two hours later, I’m ready to ignore my own advice and tell you that NYCFC are very, very good — largely based upon the entirety of 2017, but also the way they’ve kicked off the 2018 season…

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Medina lessens the blow of losing Harrison

Jack Harrison was, in so many ways, a perfect complement to David Villa, in that he was only slightly less aggressive and quick to transition than the legendary Spaniard. He was an abundant source of secondary goals — a must-have for every team, even ones with a Villa-caliber spearhead.

Everyone was, understandably, unsure how NYCFC would replace Harrison’s final-third production following his transfer to Manchester City. It was a big ask for 20-year-old Paraguayan attacker Jesus Medina to walk straight into an established squad and immediately shoulder the load as Villa’s primary running mate. Through two games, Medina has surpassed expectations by miles and miles.

He scored a goal against Sporting Kansas City last week, and was instrumental in setting up both goals against LA. On the first, it was Medina who got the ball wide right, held up play ever so slightly to allow Villa to move ahead of him, and finally slotted the perfectly timed and weighted through ball to the top of the six-yard box. Villa’s shot was saved, but the rebound came to Anton Tinnerholm, who smashed his left-footed shot off the underside of the crossbar and in.

On the second, it was Medina, alongside Ben Sweat, who chased a bouncing ball deep inside NYCFC’s half and eventually won possession, then turned on the jets as he glided around one defender before playing the pass to present itself, a simple square ball to Sweat at the top of the box. Again, Sweat’s shot was saved, but the rebound fell to Villa with an empty net to mark his 100th MLS appearance with a game-winner.

Medina will probably come up short of Harrison’s numbers in the goals column — maybe even for assists, too — but it’s already very clear that he’s got a brilliant soccer mind when it comes to so many of the little things: his movement off the ball, how to time his runs to maximize the space he creates for others, and a willingness to play within the confines of his own strengths and weakness. For a 20-year-old player of any age, he’s been off-the-charts impressive.

Injuries, ineffectiveness, indifference

We’re only two weeks into the season, and LA have already lost superstar attacker Romain Alessandrini to a hamstring injury last week, starting center back Michael Ciani to an injury of his own on Sunday, and supposed-to-be-star Giovani dos Santos to a complete loss of form and ability, and/or an overwhelming sense of indifference. Dos Santos was subbed off at halftime of Sunday’s game, replaced by Servando Carrasco, a defensive midfielder.

Why would Sigi Schmid do that to his most expensive and centerpiece Designated Player, you ask?

Considering LA have considerably curtailed their free-spending tendencies in recent seasons, it’s not at all outside the realm of possibility that they could look to move on from Dos Santos’ contract, which pays him $5.5 million per year, should he continue in this vein of form.

Yes, we’re going to keep talking about VAR

… until MLS and the Professional Referee Organization gets its head on straight. If you missed it yesterday, I ranted at greater length about Baldomero Toledo and Co.’s refusal to even consult the video review available to him after Los Angeles FC scored what will likely be the most egregiously offside goal this season (since, you know, VAR is in place to correct these kind of mistakes).

On Sunday, barely a day later, another instance where VAR could have fixed a potentially “clear and obvious error” occurred in the 85th minute, with LA trailing 2-1 and threatening to equalize, when Ashley Cole was shown a second yellow card for tripping Villa as he prepared to run into 50 yards of open field.

First things first, yellow cards — not even a second yellow — aren’t reviewable within the guidelines set forth by MLS (goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistake identity). Considering a second yellow has the exact same impact as a straight red, which is to effectively end LA’s comeback bid when Cole appears to have made no contact with Villa, it should be reviewable all the same.

These are simple matters of common sense that, were MLS serious about using VAR as a tool to improve the level of refereeing, could be fixed overnight. They started using VAR roughly two-thirds of the way into the season last year, so what’s an amendment to the guidelines after fewer than two dozen game this year?

How will USMNT line up versus Costa Rica?

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Saturday brings a first look at the United States men’s national team in 2020, though Gregg Berhalter’s bunch won’t look anything like its best self.

The Yanks have an almost exclusively MLS roster for the match, with Hobro’s Christian Cappas, Wolfsburg II’s Uly Llanez and unattached 17-year-old Bryang Kayo in the fold.

Many of Berhalter’s best MLS stars won’t be in Carson either for the 3:55 p.m. ET Saturday kickoff. Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley are the biggest names.

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Ronald Gonzalez’s Ticos will be similarly hampered, although more of Costa Rica’s A-side play in MLS and domestically.

We’ll leave the breakdown of the visitors for a later date, but who will rep the U.S. in Saturday’s Starting XI?

The travel roster includes keepers Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, and Matt Turner, as well as defenders Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Reggie Cannon, Julian Araujo, Chase Gasper, Justen Glad, Mark McKenzie, and Sam Vines. Listed midfielders Sebastian Lletget, Jackson Yueill, Brenden Aaronson, Cappis, Kayo, and Brandon Servania are joined by forwards Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Ferreira, and Ulysses Llanez.

Goalkeeper is anyone’s guess, but Johnson’s got the most run of the three during the Berhalter era. The younger Turner or more accomplished Hamid may step in there.

It would be surprising to see any other center backs besides Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long given what we know of Berhalter and his respect for regulars. Reggie Cannon should start at right back and it’s between Chase Gasper and Sam Vines for the left. We’ll choose Vines out of intrigue.

Jackson Yueill, Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, and Gyasi Zardes are safe bets to start, and this would seem a spot to give Jonathan Lewis more than subs’ run. That leaves one spot, and we’re pegging Brandon Servania to be the one chosen of four midfielders aged 17-20.

There’s also the matter of whether FC Dallas striker Jesus Ferreira will be internationally cleared to play Saturday. We sure hope he will be!

How do you think Berhalter will line them up?


How Berhalter may go

Johnson

Cannon — Zimmerman — Long — Vines

Yueill — Servania

Arriola — Lletget — Lewis

Zardes


What we’d like to see

Turner

Cannon — Zimmerman — McKenzie — Vines

Yueill — Cappis — Servania

Arriola — Ferreira — Lewis

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Report: Sheffield United in ‘advanced talks’ for $22M Norway star

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Sheffield United is ready to add one of the game’s brightest young talents to its blossoming Premier League side.

Norway midfielder Sander Berge is the name, and he’s been linked with Liverpool amongst others over the past few months.

Berge turns 22 next month and already has 20 caps for Norway in addition to 113 senior appearances for Genk in Belgium and 43 more for Valerenga in his home country.

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The defensive midfielder has chipped in six goals and four assists. He won the Belgian Super League with Genk last year and has a career-best four goals so this season.

It shows what success brings to a club, as Sky Sports reports that Berge turned down a move to Bramall Lane in the summer.

The fee is said to be $22 million, which isn’t small but completely reasonable given his stature for club and country.

This may move may join the Lys Mousset purchase as one of the Blades’ smartest bits of business, especially as Chris Wilder‘s men look for success on multiple fronts. Their success as a newly-promoted side is one of the great stories of the European season, and a place in Europe would be a fantastic achievement.

From The Yorkshire Post:

“It is going well, no doubt about it,” Wilder said. “On the Premier League front and in the Cup. You probably would not think it, but the win at Millwall has given me an enormous amount of pleasure in confirming, not even seeing, what my team is about. Players have come in with the likes of the skipper (Billy Sharp) and other players who are really driving it forward and want to produce individual performances and the atmosphere is good.”

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Espanyol identify 12 fans who racially insulted player

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BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish club Espanyol says it has identified 12 fans who racially insulted an Athletic Bilbao player in the Spanish league last weekend.

Espanyol said on Monday in a statement that nine of the fans were club members and would face punishment that could include suspension or a full-time ban.

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It said a report of its analysis of the video images of Saturday’s game at RCDE Stadium were sent to authorities.

The club reiterated its “categorical condemnation of any displays of violence and racism.”

The fans made monkey noises directed at Athletic forward Inaki Williams, who is black. Television images showed Williams confronting the section of Espanyol fans who taunted him after he was substituted late in the game in Barcelona.

The Spanish league said it will seek a partial stadium closure for Espanyol and will raise the incident with the Spanish soccer federation’s competition committee, which handles disciplinary issues.

Transfer rumors: West Ham want $44M midfielder, Barca eyes Rodrigo

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West Ham United is being linked with a big transfer splash, and it’s not even a striker.

Uruguayan midfielder Nahitan Nandez is the man in question, and West Ham is reportedly tempting Cagliari with a $44 million offer this January.

Nandez, 23, arrived from Boca Juniors for less than half that fee this summer, and has chipped in a goal with three assists for Tommaso Giulini’s sixth-place Serie A side.

He’s got 31 caps for his national team, and is averaging 1.5 tackles per match with Cagliari. Nandez is also averaging a key pass and 1.1 successful dribbles per league outing.

Football-Italia says that Cagliari will try to tie Nandez to a new deal with a $44 million release clause if the move to West Ham is unsuccessful.

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Meanwhile Barcelona’s pursuit of a Luis Suarez replacement isn’t limited to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, according to Marca.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu admits that Valencia striker Rodrigo Moreno is interesting his coaches.

“We don’t talk about players from other teams. But [Rodrigo’s] name is on the table of the coaches, and a replacement will arrive. I do not know whether it will be from Barcelona B or from outside. I like many players.”

The Spaniard has eight goals in 21 caps, and turns 29 in March. Rodrigo has four goals and 10 assists in 23 matches across all competitions this season.

Valencia beat Barcelona this weekend to send the Blaugranas three points back of La Liga leaders Real Madrid.