Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD

MLS: Atlanta buzzsaw rips LAFC; Chicago struggling; VAR (still) a mess

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The sixth Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and as always, we learned a few lessons from the afternoon and evening’s slate of games…

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

Return of the ATL buzzsaw

Atlanta United were shut out — and blown out — on opening day just over a month ago, and the knee-jerk reactions were as predictable as they were flimsy: Are they really that good? Maybe they just had a lucky season last year? You can’t play like that in MLS and expect to win.

That narrative lasted, quite literally, all of 90 minutes before Tata Martino’s men dismantled D.C. United and Vancouver Whitecaps by a combined score of 7-2 in back-to-back weeks immediately thereafter and ground out a 1-0 win over Minnesota United while playing 52 minutes a man down last week. The Five Stripes’ resurgent run came to a head on Saturday, when they hammered Los Angeles FC, the expansion side upon which so much praise was heaped following wins in their first two games, to the tune of 5-0. Miguel Almiron scored two from the penalty spot, to go with single tallies from Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel and Romario Williams.

On Saturday, it was Gressel who stood head and shoulders above his peers, as the 24-year-old German import (via last year’s SuperDraft) bagged the game’s opening goal and delivered the seeing-eye cross to Martinez for the second which all but put the game to bed. At right, you’ll find the entirety of Gressel’s contributions for the afternoon, on both end of the field.

A few observations: 1) there’s not a single unsuccessful pass shorter than 10 or 15 yards in distance; 2) he’s extremely tidy when involved in short, combination play; 3) the location of his defensive actions, all of which are inside Atlanta’s defensive half of the field, placed alongside his passing map, paint a clear picture of just how active and involved he is over the course of 90 minutes.

Teammates like Martinez, Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Hector Villalba and even Darlington Nagbe will get 95 percent of the headlines coming out of Atlanta this year — and rightly so, nothing should be taken away from them — but it’s someone like Gressel, who functions like the glue that hold all those entertaining, attacking parts together, while managing to contribute more than his fair share of danger, that has this buzzsaw ripping through opponents week in and week out.

[ MORE: Agent: Giuseppe Rossi could seek MLS move after two years ]

VAR is… struggling… still… still

Atlanta midfielder Chris McCann was sent off for a reckless tackle, which occurred 36 seconds into the game, that referee Ted Unkel deemed to have endangered the safety, in one way or another, of LAFC’s Benny Feilhaber. Unkel then consulted his handy-dandy video-assistant review system, and reversed the call, drastically changing the events and outcome of the ensuing 89 minutes.

If you watched the above clip, you’ll probably agree it’s something commonly referenced as an “orange-card” offense — just shy of a sending-off, but worse than your run-of-the-mill yellow card — which is just a clever way to say that it’s far from a “clear and obvious error” (yet again, that’s the language of MLS and the Professional Referee Organization), which is, of course, the threshold for a reviewable decision. No matter the initial call — red or yellow — it’s planted firmly in the gray area between yes and no, right and wrong.

If you watched that clip, you’ll find another extremely gray-area decision that initially went against Atlanta, only for Unkel to change his mind after a video review. I’m of the opinion it’s probably a foul — one that Almiron baits Walker Zimmerman into and undoubtedly embellishes — but it’s nowhere near definitive one way or another, which is the mandatory requirement to review the call on the field.

In the grand scheme of the game, it mattered very little, but if this is the willy-nilly process by which refs choose whether or not to review calls on the field, it’s going to rear its ugly head at a critical point in a game in the near future, and continue to do so until there’s a uniform process in place. The fact we’re left to wonder about the thought process of refs is, easily, the most frustrating part and does little to dispel the notion that MLS refs aren’t up to the standard of the league’s players and they too routinely impact the outcome of games.

[ MORE: CONCACAF issues punishments for TFC-America fracas in CCL ]

A win, but the same old problems for Chicago

Here’s the good news for Chicago Fire fans: after two losses and a draw to start the season, your team beat Columbus Crew SC and got its first win on Saturday.

Here’s the bad news: it was an identical offensive performance to those first three games, only with a Howler of the Year nominee from Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen to bail out an attacking unit totally bereft of ideas and execution.

This is hardly a new development for Veljko Paunovic’s side, which lacked any semblance of a focal-point playmaker last season. Here’s some worse news, as something of an aside: it wasn’t addressed during the offseason, and the secondary transfer window might be too late in a deep Eastern Conference (the primary window is still open, but April and May are practical non-starters for transfer activity).

You can see, clear as day, where the gaping hole exists, as well as some pretty damning statistics. Paunovic’s plan ahead of Saturday’s win over Columbus was to pair a target man, Alan Gordon, with the defending Golden Boot Winner, Nemanja Nikolic, presumably to provide a bit of hold-up and knock-down play for Nikolic to swarm around and make runs off of. It… well, didn’t really work, as Nikolic touched the ball just once times inside Crew SC’s penalty area — his goal, which resulted from a wayward pass from the opposing goalkeeper.

Manchester United: Solskjaer hopeful of new Paul Pogba contract

Paul Pogba contract
Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is singing a new tune, hopeful that star midfielder Paul Pogba will stick around Old Trafford for the long term.

Reports say that United has an option to extend Pogba’s contract by an extra year beyond its 2021 expiry, but Solskjaer is thinking bigger. He has been praising Pogba plenty since the World Cup winner returned to the lineup.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

It’s a bit surprising given Pogba and his super agent’s constant time in the rumor mill, with Real Madrid often linked with the Frenchman. And that agent, Mino Raiola, has not been so nice when it comes to judging Solskjaer.

But Solskjaer is reportedly hopeful that Pogba can join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and others in building a new power.

“I can’t comment on discussions between player and the club but. of course, we want to keep the best players around the club,” Solskjaer said. “We want to build a squad for the future and Scott and Nemanja are a similar position but at different stages in their careers. One at the start, one really experienced one.”

Pogba leads United in key passes per game with 2.3, though his minutes have been severely limited by injuries this season. He had 13 goals and nine assists last season, and turned 27 in March.

The way United’s performed in recent weeks it would not be a surprise if keeping its main talents while adding another stalwart center back and wing would propel it into a more serious table discussion.

Do you buy the idea that Pogba could be with United well into the future?

Suarez goal gives Barcelona win, relegates neighbors Espanyol

Espanyol relegated
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Seventh-place one season ago, La Liga mainstays Espanyol are being relegated from Spain’s top flight.

The final decision came at the hands of their Catalan neighbors Barcelona, who got a second-half goal from Luis Suarez to relegate Espanyol.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Espanyol are 11 points back of 17th place and can only capture nine more points this season following the 1-0 loss in a match where both teams had a player sent off.

Suarez’s goal was a nice one after Antoine Griezmann’s back heel pass to Lionel Messi saw the Argentine’s shot deflect onto the path of the Uruguayan finisher.

Espanyol had been in the top flight since 1994 and has only spent four single seasons outside La Liga since 1929. Leganes and Mallorca may join them soon.

Barcelona moves a point back of Real Madrid. Real has four matches left to Barca’s three and holds the tiebreaker.

Klopp reacts to Liverpool wins, says Henderson injury ‘not nothing’

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Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was a bit more what we’re used to from the Premier League champions.

But that wasn’t the focus of the post-match despite a highlight-reel show from Mohamed Salah, as Reds boss Jurgen Klopp sounded an ominous note when asked about Jordan Henderson leaving the match with injury.

“I don’t know exactly but it was something with the knee I think. We know it’s not nothing.”

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Henderson’s not exactly a player to hit the deck unless he’s feeling pain, and Klopp removed him for James Milner with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about the only bad news from the win, as Liverpool became the first team this season to breach the 90-point mark and saw Salah’s brace move him within three goals of the Golden Boot lead.

Salah would only say, “Let’s take it game-by-game,” but it’s clearly on his mind.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says the Egyptian is hungry to get a share of a third-straight Golden Boot.

From the BBC:

“He has his targets, he’s around the Golden Boot and it’s something he wants to retain,” Alexander-Arnold said. “He’s a world class player who scores so many goals for us and we try to get him on the board as much as possible.”

As for the match, Brighton almost as missed some big chances as Liverpool before the game was out of reach. Klopp admits that it was a challenge.

“We started really well,” Klopp said. “We had to adapt a little bit as we knew what they wanted to do but it was a little bit hard to defend. We left one or two players in a position where if we won the ball we had players in the counter-attack position. We got the first two goals with super balls but we could have scored more. I said to the boys at half-time they could have been 2-2 too. It was a nice game to watch.”

The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.

Liverpool march continues with 3-1 win at Brighton

Brighton - Liverpool recap
Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Mohamed Salah had two goals and an assist in the first eight minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday.

Salah is now three goals behind league leader Jamie Vardy, and Liverpool’s 92 points are 23 more than Man City. Jordan Henderson also scored for the Reds.

BRIGHTON – LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY

Leandro Trossard scored for Brighton, whose 36 points are nine clear of the bottom three with four matches to play (The 18th and 19th place sides do have a match each in hand).

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Liverpool’s 30 wins through 34 outings is a Premier League record and Jurgen Klopp’s men are chasing several PL records. The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.


Three things we learned

1. Salah somehow under the radar: Look, the Egyptian star’s 32-goal league season was an outlier. Not a lot of guys consistently hit 25, let alone the 30 mark in the Premier League. But Salah has rather quietly put together another amazing season with 19 goals and nine assists in PL play plus another four and three in cup competitions. Salah is one assist of joining the a small group of players to get double digit league goals and assists in a top five European league this season.

While it’s become sexy to praise Sadio Mane as the Reds’ top winger, Salah has been just as good. He could’ve had another goal in the 53rd but Mat Ryan made a fine intervention at close range. If Salah is under the radar, it’s because Liverpool has spread the wealth this season and had so many heroes in close matches. But boy, oh boy, is he their best weapon.

2. Lamptey shows glimpses, then youth: The sample size is very small, but 19-year-old Chelsea outcast Tariq Lamptey has played well at right back in most of his outings for Brighton since the return from the coronavirus pause. Lamptey was at blame for Liverpool’s third goal in both the chance conceded and actual finish from Salah, but the $4 million January buy looked well worth the price tag in a terrific first half at the Amex.

3. Seagulls still missing final ball: Brighton produced four big chances in the game to Liverpool’s two, but only put one in the back of the net (SofaScore). That’s sadly been par for the course this season, as Brighton’s style has been worthy of a top half place. Brighton entered the day with seven fewer goals than its expected goals total. Only Everton, Watford, and Norwich have been less fortunate.

Man of the Match:

Salah.


Brighton – Liverpool recap

Salah had a goal and an assist within 500 seconds of kickoff.

The Egyptian took a feed from Naby Keita to score off a Davy Propper giveaway and then set up Henderson’s second to have the Seagulls’ heads spinning early.

Brighton found a chance in the 19th but Neco Williams recovered with a slide to block Leandro Trossard from slotting a point-blank goal.

The Seagulls pulled within one just before halftime when in-form youngster Tariq Lamptey swept a cross into the mix for Trossard to punch home.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Salah could’ve had it 3-1 at one end but Brighton’s Dan Burn asked the Egyptian to hold his drink with a butchered wide-open shot at the back post in the 60th minute.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the close score, and brought on Fabinho, Andy Robertson, and Sadio Mane in the second half. One of the players he removed, Naby Keita, had a strong hour before departing the contest.

Henderson almost produced a third Liverpool goal after a rare Lamptey error spring a chance that took a wicked turn off Dale Stephens.

The Reds made it 3-1 off the ensuing corner, Salah’s clinical header in front of Lamptey. Henderson limped off for Liverpool late in the contest.

Ryan denied Salah a hat trick in stoppage time and the Egyptian headed over the bar at the final whistle. He could’ve had five.