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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.

LAFC cleared after Timbers withdraw U.S. Open Cup appeal

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U.S. Soccer has cleared Los Angeles FC of any wrongdoing in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals win over the Portland Timbers, after the latter dropped their appeal against the expansion MLS franchise.

[ MORE: MLS preview — TFC, Sounders running out of time ]

The Timbers had lodged a claim following the 3-2 LAFC win regarding the number of international players to suit up for Bob Bradley‘s squad.

Under the laws of the Open Cup, teams are allowed up to five international players in an 18-man gameday roster — a total that LAFC exceeded due to misleading information provided by U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Mark-Anthony Kaye, a Canada international, was ruled eligible to play by the competition, despite not meeting the requirements set forth by the Open Cup of an American player.

Kaye does not currently hold a green card.

The 23-year-old appeared in the match, making him the sixth international to suit up for Bradley’s squad, and theoretically could have cost LAFC a spot in the next round if the Timbers had stuck with their protest.

Kaye was listed as a domestic player on the matchday roster for LAFC, though, after general manager John Thorrington consulted with the USSF regarding the player’s status.

The USSF released the following statement on Friday night, declaring that the Timbers “gracefully” withdrew their appeal despite miscommunication between LAFC, MLS and U.S. Soccer.

“After a thorough review of the Portland Timbers’ official protest, it has been determined that the inclusion of additional foreign players was a result of a good faith misunderstanding among the U.S. Soccer, Major League Soccer and Los Angeles Football Club. Each organization involved has agreed to determine an improved process to ensure this will not happen again. In recognition of this fact, the Timbers have gracefully withdrawn their protest.”

LAFC will now either take on the Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo or Philadelphia Union in the semifinal stage of the competition, with a draw expected to be held in the coming days.

MLS preview: TFC, Seattle running out of time; Rooney vs. ATL

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Week 21 of the 2018 MLS season features 10 games on Saturday (nine) and Sunday (one). Here’s a few key storylines to keep an eye on…

[ MORE: Miami City Commission sends Beckham stadium to Nov. ballot ]

Jozy’s back, but is it too late?

It’s been nearly three months since Jozy Altidore last appeared for Toronto FC, and not much has changed with regard to the Reds’ place in the standings: they at south of the playoff line then (after going all-in on the CONCACAF Champions League), and they remain there ahead of Saturday’s trip to Chicago. Greg Vanney’s defending champions currently sit 11 points back of sixth place with 15 games left to play.

As for Altidore, he was hugely important in TFC’s run to the CCL final, but it would be a massive oversimplification to say his absence has been the only — or main, even — cause for struggles this season. In fact, it’s been injuries up and down the entire squad (every center back on the roster, multiple midfielders and playmakers, as well as Altidore). Finally, after months of walking wounded, nearly everyone is back and available for selection. TFC’s charge up the stands begins, presumably, soon.

Rooney makes DCU better, but by how much?

As I opined following his D.C. United debut last weekend, Wayne Rooney was quite good during the opening 32 minutes of his MLS career. That was against the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of the slowest playing teams in the entire league, though. On Saturday, Rooney and Co., will come up against something not so dissimilar to European quality and competition in Atlanta United.

There’s the level on competition to consider as Rooney continues on in his MLS journey, but also this: against Vancouver, there was very little flash or attempt at end product from Rooney, which was fine considering he quickly and smartly facilitated play and opened the field up for others to make and score the goals. The questions are: for how long is he happy to be a simple cog in the machine, and are United getting their money’s worth if that’s Rooney’s regular contribution?

What about Seattle?

Just like Toronto, the Seattle Sounders currently find themselves 11 points back of sixth place (though they do have one more game still to play). Just like Toronto, injuries have completely ruined the Sounders’ 2018 season. Just like Toronto, they have been to back-to-back MLS Cups, and won one. Just like Toronto, they can’t really miss the playoffs, can they?

Now, though, Raul Ruidiaz has been added for some much-needed firepower up top (the Peruvian is a back-to-back Golden Boot winner in Liga MX), Gustav Svensson is back from the World Cup, and Nicolas Lodeiro has shown signs of coming out of his slumber in recent weeks. Just like Toronto, Brian Schmetzer’s men have no choice but to begin their playoff chase on Saturday, when Vancouver comes to town.

Full weekend schedule

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United — 3:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 4 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. LA Galaxy — 7 p.m. ET
New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew SC vs. Orlando City SC — 7:30 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas — 9 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids — 10 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. Montreal Impact — 11 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. Los Angeles FC — 7 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Leicester sign Ward from Liverpool; Boufal out on loan

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LONDON (AP) — Leicester signed Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward from Liverpool on a four-year contract on Friday.

Ward dropped in the pecking order at Anfield following the arrival of Brazil goalie Alisson.

Leicester’s fourth signing of the offseason will offer competition to Kasper Schmeichel and Eldin Jakupovic.

Ward will join the team on Monday for a training camp in Austria.

“I’ve come here to develop my allround game and hopefully help deliver some more success,” he said.


Southampton winger Sofiane Boufal was sent to Spanish club Celta Vigo on a season-long loan.

Boufal came to Southampton in 2016 from Lille, and made 59 appearances, scoring four times.

The Moroccan fell out of favor with manager Mark Hughes at the end of last season.

Neymar says he’s staying at PSG; rumors “invented by the press”

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Neymar insists he is going nowhere this summer, that he’ll spend (at least) one more season at Paris Saint-Germain, and he intends to bring another handful of trophies back to the French capital in doing so.

[ MORE: PSG in “advanced negotiations” for N’Golo Kante, but must sell first ]

Speaking during a press conference on Friday, his first media availability session since Brazil were eliminated in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals, the 26-year-old superstar went so far as to say that reports linking him with a move to other European mega-clubs (most notably, Real Madrid) were “invented by the press” — quotes from ESPN:

“Yes, I will stay in Paris. I have a contract with PSG. The speculation? The majority of it is invented by the press.

“I have a contract and people know the objective, the reason why I went to PSG. I want to win with this club and I hope this season will be wonderful.”

While it seems a no-brainer that PSG would want Neymar to stay, there’s unquestionably a case to be made that selling him would give them the financial flexibility needed to address needs elsewhere in the squad. N'Golo Kante, for instance, is reportedly transfer target no. 1 at the Parc des Princes, but sales will have to be made before a fee of that size can be paid, due to financial regulations.

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