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Championship playoff primer: Who’s coming up?

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The story lines for the 2017-18 Football League Championship playoffs are many.

Aston Villa is looking to return to the Premier League, where it was a mainstay for so long, while Fulham competed in the Europa League within the past decade.

[ MORE: Iniesta to Japan? ]

Derby County has been knocking on the door to return to the top flight on a near annual basis, while Middlesbrough is bidding to go one-and-done in the second tier.

So here’s a bit of a cheat sheet ahead of the weekend’s semifinal first legs, as only one of the quartet can joins Wolves and Cardiff City as promoted sides.

Schedule

Derby County vs. Fulham — 2:45 p.m. ET Friday

Middlesbrough vs. Aston Villa — 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Fulham vs. Derby County — 2:45 p.m. May 14

Aston Villa vs. Middlesbrough — 2:45 p.m. May 15

Top scorers

Derby County – Matej Vydra, 21 goals

Aston Villa – Lewis Grabban, 20

Fulham – Ryan Sessegnon, 15

Middlesbrough – Britt Assombalonga, 15

History

Last Premier League season
Middlesbrough 2016-17
Aston Villa 2015-16
Fulham 2013-14
Derby County 2007-08

American connections
Fulham has two Americans on its current roster: mainstay defender Tim Ream and young midfielder Luca de la Torre. Some of the U.S. most recognizable names have played for Fulham, including Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, and Kasey Keller. Eddie Johnson, Eddie Lewis, and Emerson Hyndman have also played for the team once nicknamed Fulhamerica.

Aston Villa was the long time home of USMNT backstop Brad Guzan, and Eric Lichaj also spent a good period of time in Birmingham. Michael Bradley and Brad Friedel also played for Villa.

Derby County‘s American alums include Benny Feilhaber, Eddie Lewis, and Ian Feuer.

Middlesbrough had Guzan on the squad for its 2016-17 relegation campaign.

Best top flight finish
Aston Villa – 7 top flight titles
Derby County – 2 top flight titles
Middlesbrough – 3rd place in 1913-14
Fulham – 7th place in 2008-09

 

Serie A roundup: Napoli falls to Parma in debut for Gattuso (video)

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Napoli’s last-minute loss to Parma in Gennaro Gattuso’s debut highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Napoli 1-2 Parma

Napoli remains in a dark place as Gennaro Gattuso debut with Gli Azzurri ended in a last-minute 2-1 loss to Parma.

The defeat marks eight consecutive games without a win in Serie A play for Napoli, who dismissed Carlo Ancelotti earlier this week despite punching a ticket in the last 16 of the Champions League after a win over Genk.

After their fifth loss of the season, Napoli are currently eighth on the table with 21 points, seven behind sixth-placed Atalanta and 17 behind league leaders Inter Milan.

 

 

In the third minute of stoppage time, Gervinho – experienced as anyone else in tightly-contested situations – received a simple pass from Dejan Kulusevski, carefully striking it into the back of the net inside the six-yard box. The 32-year-old Ivorian has five goals in Serie A this season, and Saturday’s was his most important yet. 

For Gattuso (and hopeful Napoli supporters), Saturday was the antithesis of dreamy start, but with time and a change of mentality the situation may change.

“I don’t believe in bad luck. Right now we’re not good mentally,” the 41-year-old manager said following the match. “The team is paying for the fact that it has not won (in the league) for 50 or more days.”

“The first 10 minutes also prove it,” he added. “It’s tough as are the whistles of the fans. There’s a lot of work to do.”

The home side recorded 33 shots throughout the night, but Parma proved to be more clinical, scoring at death and opening the scoresheet just four minutes in. In the 64th minute, Napoli were able to get one go their way, as Dreis Merten’s lofting cross with force was headed home by Arkadiusz Milik. 

Gattuso and his men will be tested once as they travel to Sassuolo in a weeks time, while Parma look to trim their four-point gap with Atalanta when they host Brescia.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Brescia 3-0 Lecce

Genoa 0-1 Sampdoria

Hertha’s under-16s stop playing after alleged racist abuse

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BERLIN (AP) Hertha Berlin’s under-16 team stopped playing a game at regional rival Auerbach after its players were allegedly subjected to racist abuse from their opponents on Saturday.

The Bundesliga club says in a statement on its website that “several players from our team were racially abused by their opposing players.”

Hertha officials informed the referee of the alleged abuse and decided to stop playing in the 68th minute while leading 2-0 “because we as Hertha BSC condemn racism and discrimination in every form,” the club said.

Hertha executive board member Paul Keuter called it “the only correct decision, not to continue with the game.”

On Twitter, the club said: “There are times when football doesn’t come first. Racism has no place in our society.”

Hertha under-23 player Jessic Ngankam said he was targeted with monkey chants and called an “ape” by an opposing player during his side’s fourth division game against Lokomotive Leipzig on Dec. 6.

“Insults are unfortunately an everyday occurrence in football, and I can put up with them. But racist abuse is a no-go,” the 19-year-old Ngankam told broadcaster MDR.

Both Hertha and Lokomotive condemned the alleged abuse.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ciaran Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

La Liga roundup: Sociedad hold leaders Barcelona to draw (video)

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A stunning draw from top-of-the-table Barcelona highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Sociedad 2-2 Barcelona

If Real Madrid manages to walk away from Mestalla with three points, they’ll dethrone nemesis Barcelona and become clear-cut leaders of La Liga.

Just days before El Clasico itself, a rare 2-2 draw from Barcelona against hosts Real Sociedad is the reason behind Los Blancos’ prime opportunity.

 

Former Borussia Dortmund starlet Alexander Isak tapped in his fourth goal of the season in the 62nd minute, leveling the score for Sociedad and sending the home fans into a frenzy.

In true Barcelona fashion, Real Sociedad, ironically hit the ground running first. 

After earning a foul inside the box from a corner kick set piece, Reala captain Mikel Oyarzabal converted from the spot, putting Sociedad, who have exceeded expectations this season under first-year manager Imanol Alguacil, up against the defending champions. 

It wouldn’t take long before the visitors responded, however.

A familiar face and experienced goalscorer at Anoeta, it was the ideal scenario for Antoine Griezmann to shake off some pressure that has been a key talking point surrounding the Frenchman lately. Darting inside the box with only Alex Remiro to beat, No. 17 – like in the old days – carefully chipped the ball over Remiro and into the back of the net the ball wandered. 

If the second half indicated anything early on it was that it was going to be difficult for Barcelona to drop points on Saturday. Unselfish as ever before, Lionel Messi laid off the ball to an unmarked Luis Suarez, who his team up 2-1 four minutes into the second half.

A lack of control of possession and, most notably, an unstable defensive line, would end up costing Barcelona two points.

Next for Barcelona is the game of the season: a league bout against Real Madrid on Wednesday, while Real Sociedad travel to Becerril in the second round of Copa del Rey. 

Elsewhere in La Liga

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Osasuna

Granada 1-2 Levante

Atheltic Bilbao 0-0 Eibar

South Florida officials seeking more international soccer

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) More than two dozen political leaders in South Florida have written letters to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s board of directors, urging them to allow top-tier international matches to take place in the Miami region.

Relevent Sports, the soccer-promoting group owned by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, filed suit against the USSF earlier this year saying that the sport’s governing body in this country was helping to prevent them from hosting certain matches.

The letters were released Friday to media outlets, including The Associated Press.

The USSF did not respond to a request for comment.

Ross’ group and top Spanish league La Liga have been working for some time to bring a regular-season match to Hard Rock Stadium, the facility Ross owns and is the Dolphins’ home.

The politicians – ranging from city mayors, county mayors, county commissioners and one state Senator – all essentially said the same thing, that bringing major international soccer to South Florida only will help the region’s tourist-dependent economy.

“Doing so will demonstrate a genuine commitment to our communities and the growth of the game, which you, as the United States Soccer Federation, are charged with promoting,” wrote Dean Trantalis, the mayor of Fort Lauderdale. That’s the city where David Beckham’s new MLS team, Inter Miami, will begin play next March.