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Three things learned: Aston Villa v. Fulham

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Fulham sealed promotion back to the Premier League on Saturday as the 10-man Cottagers beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the Championship playoff final at Wembley.

Tom Cairney‘s strike midway through the first half was enough to send Fulham back to the top-flight and leave Villa heartbroken.

Here’s a look at what we learned from a tense battle in the heat at Wembley.


FLUID FULHAM FIT FOR TOP-FLIGHT 

Since December Fulham’s fluid, attacking style of play saw them go on an incredible run of just one defeat in 24 games as they just missed out on automatic promotion with a defeat on the final day of the season.

The Cottagers’ silky play won them the playoff final as Slavisa Jokanovic’s men stuck to their playing philosophy with Tom Cairney pulling the strings in midfield, Aleksandar Mitrovic a handful up front and teenager Ryan Sessegnon floating about to cause havoc. They dropped deeper in the second half as Villa went at them but still had good chances and always looked dangerous on the break, even when they were down to 10-men after Denis Odoi picked up a second yellow card.

With their brave style of play, Fulham will add panache to the Premier League.

You can expect special things down by the banks of the River Thames at Craven Cottage as American owner Shahid Khan will no doubt splash the cash to take them to the next level after they dropped out of the big time in 2014. They will be desperate to solidify themselves back in the top-flight.

Fulhamerica is back and on that note U.S. men’s national team center back Tim Ream had himself a heck of a game at the heart of Fulham’s defense at Wembley to help seal the deal.


SESSEGNON SENSATIONAL

You can understand exactly why the biggest clubs in England have been chasing Sessegnon for many years.

The 18-year-old was the Player of the Season in the Championship and he was involved in the key moment in the final as the Fulham academy graduate has been the main reason they’re back in the Premier League.

Sessegnon finished the season as Fulham’s top goalscorer with 17 goals and there were many pushing for him to be included in England’s World Cup squad this summer. He has all of the talent available to flourish as a wide forward in the top-flight and after Matt Targett‘s arrival in January he has been pushed further forward from left back and has thrived.

There’s no doubt that Sessegnon is destined for big things but now he has the fairtyale end to a fairytale season for him at Fulham.


VILLA’S EXPERIENCED HEADS RATTLED

Villa’s experienced defense boasts Ahmed Elmohamady, John Terry, James Chester and Alan Hutton and in a massive game at Wembley they were rattled early on and Villa couldn’t quite drag themselves back into the game.

Steve Bruce‘s side had the second-best defensive record in the second-tier this season and they kept Fulham from opening them up for most of the first half but one lapse in concentration was exploited by Sessegnon and Cairney as Hutton stepped up, Terry was caught out and Villa conceded.

To be fair to Bruce’s side they dragged themselves back into the game impressively after a turgid first half display and were easily the better team after the break with Jack Grealish pulling the strings.

Grealish (who could well have been sent off) squandered two good chances either side of half time with a rising shot in the first half and then a header he should’ve done better with in the second, while the English playmaker also danced through Fulham’s defense before being denied by Marcus Bettinelli.

Villa have made significant progress this season under Bruce but you have to wonder if he and most of this Villa squad will be around next season, especially after a year of struggle off the pitch for Bruce as he lost both of his parents within a few months.

If Bruce sticks around then Villa will be one of the favorites for promotion next season.

Spain revamps Super Cup (and others should follow suit)

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Ever read a tournament concept and immediately think nearly every other league should adopt it?

La Liga is taking its version of England’s Community Shield — the Spanish Super Cup — and making changes that see the league season kick off in style.

[ MORE: CONCACAF Champions League returns Tuesday ]

Normally the winners of the Copa del Rey and La Liga meeting for a piece of hardware, the Spanish federation will now hold a four-team tournament abroad.

The tournament would include the Copa del Rey finalists and the two top league finishers (obviously extending to the third and fourth place teams if needed).

Flip it on its ear and imagine that MLS was kicking off its season not with myriad friendlies and the CONCACAF Champions League, but the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup winner, MLS Cup finalists, and Supporters’ Shield winner (especially if it was mandated that the cup finalists mixed it up in the semis).

For the Community Shield, you could include the Premier League winners, League Cup winners, FA Cup winners, and either the second place team or the “reigning Community Shield winner.” The gut reaction might be to rebel against “ugh, another game,” but if it’s taking the place of a Stateside friendly between second-choice sides? Come on!

CONCACAF Champions League returns with TFC, Houston

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The CONCACAF Champions League returns Tuesday night with a pair of Major League Soccer sides seeking a positive start to their seasons after substandard 2018s.

[ FA CUP: Man Utd bounces Chelsea ]

In the case of Toronto FC, their season went downhill in a big way after CCL success driven largely by Sebastian Giovinco. He’s gone now, as is Victor Vazquez, and TFC opens its bid to return to the final with a visit to Panama’s Independiente for the front end of a two-legged tie.

The Reds are almost even money to win, according to most oddsmakers, but anything can happen on a CONCACAF pitch in February.

Having helped the USMNT start life under Gregg Berhalter following its World Cup collapse, TFC captain Michael Bradley is prepared to engineer another turnaround following his club’s playoff-free 2018. From TorontoFC.ca:

“Nobody is sitting around worried about last year anymore,” added the TFC captain. “For me, that’s been the best part of this last week or so: coming into camp, looking around and feeling right away that there was an excitement and a real motivation of the guys to get going; to work and make sure that we use every day in the right way to push ourselves forward.”

Jozy Altidore is still out for Toronto, which should give new import Terrence Boyd the chance to star in Panama.

That match kicks off at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, two hours before Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champs Houston Dynamo enter the CCL with a visit to 5,000-capacity Estadio David Cordon Hichos in Guatemala.

That’s where they’ll meet Guastatoya. We don’t know a ton about the Guatemalan side, other than they won both the Clausura and the Apertura last season.

Familiar faces return for the Dynamo in the form of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis, but there will be new talent on show. Defender Kiki Struna arrives from Palermo, while Marlon Hairston joins the Dynamo from Colorado, and could end up being a very productive player in Wilmer Cabrera’s system. Tommy McNamara also gets a new lease on life in Texas.

Klinsmann received $3.35M settlement from U.S. Soccer

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CHICAGO (AP) Jurgen Klinsmann received a $3.35 million settlement of his contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation, according to the USSF’s tax filing.

His replacement, Bruce Arena, was given a $300,000 settlement during the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2018, according to the filing, which was released Monday.

[ FA CUP: Man Utd bounces Chelsea ]

Klinsmann was hired in 2011 and in December 2013 was given a contract extension through December 2018. He was fired in November 2016 after an 0-2 start in the final round of World Cup qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean. His contract was settled for $3,354,167, the tax filing said.

Arena earned $899,348 in base pay during the fiscal year and a $50,000 bonus, according to the filing, which was first reported by The Washington Post. He quit after the U.S. loss at Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017 that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances.

Dave Sarachan, Arena’s top assistant, was the interim coach from October 2017 through last November. He had a base salary of $223,656 during the fiscal year.

Klinsmann’s top assistant, Andri Herzog, was given a settlement of $355,537 during the fiscal year. He is now Israel’s national team coach.

U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis earned $291,029 in base pay during the fiscal year, which did not include a major tournament. He compensation was topped by under-20 men’s coach Tab Ramos, who had $295,558 in base pay plus a $30,000 bonus.

USSF CEO Dan Flynn, who has said he may be retiring, had $684,617 in base pay and $130,000 in bonuses. Chief operating officer Jay Berhalter, brother of new U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, had $466,195 in base pay and $115,563 in bonuses.

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

Champions League preview: Bayern visit Anfield; Lyon v. Barcelona

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Liverpool and Bayern Munich are set to battle for 180 minutes beginning on Tuesday, when last season’s UEFA Champions League finalists host the reigning Bundesliga champions at Anfield, and Reds boss Jurgen Klopp is as anxious as anyone to watch the drama unfold.

[ FA CUP: Paul Pogba scores, assists as Man Utd bounce Chelsea (video) ]

“It’s another one of those games I’m really happy to be involved in, and if I wasn’t involved, I would try and buy tickets,” Liverpool’s German manager said this week. “It’s a tough one against a really strong, experienced team, but we are strong as well. Only more stress [facing Bayern], because all the people wanted 600 extra interviews with German news.”

Liverpool will be fully prepared and well drilled after having no game during the most recent FA Cup weekend. By the time the referee’s whistle blows for kickoff at 3 p.m. ET, 10 days will have passed since the Reds thrashed Bournemouth in PL play.

Liverpool will definitely be without the trio of Virgil Van Dijk (suspension), Joe Gomez (leg) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), while Roberto Firmino (illness), Dejan Lovren (hamstring) and Xherdan Shaqiri (abdominal strain) are questionable to varying degrees. Central midfielder Fabinho could be forced into central defense as a result. On the other side, Niko Kovac’s side will be without the services of Thomas Mueller (suspended), Jerome Boateng (illness), Corentin Tolisso (knee ligaments) and Arjen Robben (thigh). Kingsley Coman (ankle) is expected to be available for selection after picking up an injury over the weekend.

[ FA CUP DRAW: Man City, Man United avoid derby showdown ]

Elsewhere in Europe, runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona will visit Ligue 1’s third-place side, Lyon. Though Lionel Messi and Co., head into Tuesday’s first leg as heavy favorites to reach the quarterfinals, Ernesto Valverde’s side has won just one of its last four games (all competitions).

They have, however, been nearly infallible in Europe competition this season, as they waltzed to the top spot in Group B, finishing a full six points clear of Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan. Even Messi has seen his form dip ever so slightly in recent weeks, as the Argentine magician has scored just once in his last three appearances (two starts). Those relative struggles comes on the heels of a nine-game goal streak which saw the 31-year-old score a dozen times. He has been his usually brilliant self this season, and will cause Lyon all kinds of problems from the outset.

Lyon will be without star attacker Nabil Fekir (suspension), which could prove a futrher crippling blow to their chances.