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Championship Playoff Final preview: Fulham vs. Aston Villa

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Imagine playing in a single game where your performance over 90 minutes means the difference between over $300 million for your club or at least another year in the lower leagues.

That’s what is estimated to be on the line as Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday in the Championship playoff final at 12 p.m. ET hoping to earn the final spot in next year’s Premier League campaign.

Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce will be searching for an unprecedented fifth Championship promotion after previously guiding Birmingham City and Hull City to the top flight on multiple occasions. He is 2-0 in the playoff final, having won it previously once with each former club, taking Birmingham City to the Premier League in 2002 after defeating Norwich City in a penalty shootout, and earning the victory with Hull City in 2016 via a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. Players Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass have both won playoff finals before as well.

Fulham, meanwhile, has experience of its own on the touchline, as boss Slavisa Jokanovic has taken Watford to the top flight previously, finishing second in the Championship in 2015, but he has never experienced a playoff final before.

The Whites appear to be in the better form, having nearly ended the season in historic form with 24 straight unbeaten, but lost on the final day of the campaign, missing out on automatic promotion by just two points. They play a possession-based style under Jokanovic, and while it’s taken a while for the team to grasp the tactics, they look as deadly as ever. However, the last few games have exposed the team yet again, with the loss to lowly Birmingham on the final day before a 1-0 loss to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semifinal, a scoreline which they turned around in the second leg at home.

The Fulham midfield duo of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen has a claim to be the best pairing in the Championship over the past two seasons, and they anchor Jokanovic’s setup behind playmaker Tom Cairney. The club brought embattled Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic to London in January, and he’s brought a cutting edge to an attack that was just missing a target man up front. Young winger Ryan Sessegnon, who just turned 18 years old on Friday, has been the club’s most heralded player, and could move to a top Premier League side this summer, especially if the Whites fall at Wembley this weekend. Finally, USMNT defender Tim Ream has led the defensive improvement of a club that conceded 83 goals three seasons ago to halve that this campaign.

They’ll take that attacking prowess up against one of the league’s most pragmatic opponents, as Villa finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed and shut out Middlesbrough across both legs in the semifinals. They feature former Chelsea defender John Terry anchoring the back line, and he partners with experienced 29-year-old James Chester who has played under Bruce before at Hull. Terry himself has won five separate trophies at Wembley Stadium, experience he will surely share with the squad.

Villa’s most dangerous player this season has been Albert Adomah whose blistering pace down the right has been something for opponents to deal with. However, he’s hit a cold streak, without a goal since scoring in a 4-1 win over champions Wolves back on March 10th.

Villa is looking to go back to the Premier League after relegation two years ago, while Fulham has spent four years in the second tier after being sent down back in 2014.

UEFA Nations League wrap: Batshuayi stays hot, Croatia keeps England alive

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Belgium and Croatia picked up big wins in UEFA Nations League play on Thursday, the most notable events from the day’s action

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings | 3 things ]


Croatia 3-2 Spain

England is alive thanks to a wild second half between two World Cup powers, with Spain twice equalizing before falling victim to a goal deep in stoppage time. That goal was the second from — excellent name alert — Tin Jedvaj.

If Croatia beats England on Sunday, Croatia moves onto the semifinals. If England wins, the Three Lions move on. A scoreless draw pushes Spain onto the finals and relegates Croatia, while a scoring draw moves Croatia above England and relegates the Three Lions.

Belgium 2-0 Iceland

Why he didn’t work for Chelsea, we don’t know, but Michy Batshuayi has scored everywhere else. That includes his national team, as the Red Devils now have firm control over Group A2 with a 2-0 defeat of Iceland. A draw against Switzerland in the group finale will be enough for Belgium to reach the semifinals.

Elsewhere
Austria 0-0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
San Marino 0-1 Moldova
Luxembourg 0-2 Belarus
Andorra 1-1 Georgia
Kazakhstan 1-1 Latvia
Hungary 2-0 Estonia
Greece 1-0 Finland

Calls for new head coach grow, as USMNT lack direction

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LONDON — It is clear that the U.S. national team has been in quite a strange place for the last 13 months. And not good, strange.

[ MORE: Angry Pulisic hits out

Since Dave Sarachan took charge on an interim basis last October after the huge blow of not making the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. have played friendly and friendly and used over 50 players to try and find out whatever they can about the next crop of talent.

But what is the end game? What direction are the U.S. heading in?

Against a reserve England side at Wembley on Thursday, Sarachan’s youngster started slowly and never fully recovered despite Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood going close to scoring in each half. They were outclassed throughout the 3-0 defeat and their play lacked a cutting edge. Subconsciously they must feel like they’re stuck in a holding pattern until the next permanent head coach arrives.

The fans, players and everyone who watches the team want the next step now. They want to move on from the wreckage of World Cup qualification failure.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ] 

Sarachan has done all he can to push these players on and give them chances, but with so many players coming in and out the disjointed nature of the USMNT’s recent displays are to be expected.

But the reports of Gregg Berhalter set to take charge rumbling on for at least another few weeks, a lack of direction appears to be hurting this team badly.

“Dave is doing what he can and obviously he wants to win these games too, just like we do,” Pulisic said. “It is going to help a lot once we get a permanent head coach, moving forward with a guy who has a real plan and a style we want to play. He is going to help us a lot.”

Pulisic is only saying what everyone is thinking.

Brad Guzan, who was the most experienced U.S. player on the pitch on Thursday with 60 caps, admitted that everyone connected with the USMNT wants this situation sorted out as quickly as possible.

“Everyone is eager to see who that is, not just the players, fans, Dave [Sarachan], everybody involved with U.S. Soccer,” Guzan said. “As a national team, of course you want that direction and whatnot but ultimately when you step across the white line to a certain extent tactics go out of the window and you have to be able to play with a bit of desire and fight. We probably showed them too much respect in the first half.”

Sarachan, to his credit, has been exceptional in his handling of this situation.

He has handed chances to young players against France, Colombia, Brazil and now England, and the way he has encouraged them to step up to the international level must be remembered a few years down the line when the likes of Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Tim Weah are in their prime.

“These fixtures are great fixtures for our young guys. There is a lot of lessons learned when you play teams like England and the form they’re in and and the way they play and the quality they have in a tough environment. It showed,” Sarachan said. “In my mind in the first half we were a little timid and allowed a little too much space, their spacing and movement was very challenging for our group. As much as we talked about it, watched and scouted England, it is still on the players to sort through that.”

Right now, the players need more support from someone they know is going to be around beyond next week. That lack of uncertainty is hurting the development of this team.

13 months on from being hired as an interim head coach, Sarachan is still in charge. This situation should have never been allowed to get to this stage. Of course, the U.S. Soccer Presidential election in February and a change of leadership impacted this situation, but USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who started his new gig in August, should not have waited this long to bring in someone on a permanent basis.

The damage this ‘lost year’ will do on the USMNT long-term remains to be seen but it is clear everyone is pushing for one thing. A permanent head coach. Now.

National Women’s Soccer League recognizes players union

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CHICAGO (AP) The National Women’s Soccer League has formally recognized the NWSL Players Association as the exclusive bargaining representative for the league’s players.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings | 3 things ]

The NWSLPA represents current and future players who have signed standard player agreements with the NWSL. U.S. national team players who are allocated throughout the league are represented by the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association.

“We’ve now achieved official status as a labor union, but we intend to approach our relationship with the league in a very different way than what comes to mind with traditional labor relations,” said union President Yael Averbuch, who plays for the Seattle Reign. “The NWSLPA is glad to continue a collaborative relationship with the league, with the health and sustainability of the league central to the ongoing relationship.”

The NWSL just wrapped up its sixth season.

USMNT’s Pulisic hits out after England defeat

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LONDON — Christian Pulisic’s mood sums up the current situation around the U.S. men’s national team right now.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Pulisic, 20, missed an early chance to give the USMNT a 1-0 lead but in truth they were always second best as they lost 3-0 at Wembley in Wayne Rooney’s farewell game. Pulisic, who was playing in just his second game for the U.S. in the past 13 months and his first since May, seemed to be a little off the pace throughout the match.

[ MORE: Player ratings

Speaking to reporters after the game, Pulisic was disappointed with the overall team display and he was asked directly if he felt he could have tracked back further to help out defensively on England’s first goal from Jesse Lingard.

“You think that?” Pulisic answered, as he had a face like thunder. He then added “I don’t know” when asked again, and moved on quickly.

His disappointment and anger was clear and in recent days he has seemed fed up with the way the USMNT are drifting along without a head coach (now 13 months and counting) amid a severe lack of direction.

Interim head coach Dave Sarachan and his staff are doing the best they can with this extremely young side but they were clearly second best against a reserve England team, which underlines just how far the U.S. have to go to become competitive among the top 20 in the world.

“You are never happy to lose 3-0. It is a tough result. We need to get a lot better as a team,” Pulisic said. “We can talk about continuing to gain experience. That is not why we are here. We want to win now. We need to win these games. I’m a competitive guy and I know everyone else is in the locker room. It wasn’t good enough today… I had a really good chance in the first half that I need to score and that could change the game, after that they scored two quick ones and that soccer is. It can change real quick and there just wasn’t time for us to recover.”

Moving ahead, the USA’s final game of 2018 is against Italy in Genk, Belgium next Tuesday. Do Pulisic and his teammates feel under pressure to deliver something special in what is likely Sarachan’s final game before a new manager comes in?

“There is no pressure. I don’t feel any added pressure because it is our last game of the year or whatever,” Pulisic said. “Whoever we are playing we want to go out and prove to ourselves and our country we can take down a good team. We want to go out there and we want to win.”