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Atlanta’s MLS Cup celebration is joyous, but short-lived

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ATLANTA (AP) Despite cold, drizzly weather, thousands of fans turned out Monday for a downtown parade and rally to celebrate the city’s first championship since 1995.

The revelry won’t last long.

Atlanta United must find a coach to replace Tata Martino and likely cope with the loss of star midfielder Miguel Almiron before returning to the field in February for their first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League.

“That puzzle exists every year in professional sports,” team owner Arthur Blank told reporters after the rally outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “The great organizations, the great teams find a way to respond to that. What we’ve built here is a sustainable, winning organization, so we’re looking forward to being back – not just competing, but being back on this stage a year from now.”

In just its second season since entering Major League Soccer as an expansion team, Atlanta United won the championship with a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers on Saturday night.

Less than 48 hours later, the city toasted its first championship team since the Atlanta Braves won the 1995 World Series .

“We did it! We broke the curse!” said rapper Archie Eversole, whose song “We Ready” became a popular theme at home games.

The players rode a double-decker bus on the 1-mile-long parade route, holding up the cup for the cheering crowd as they passed the Georgia Aquarium, College Football Hall of Fame and Centennial Olympic Park. Blank, team president Darren Eales and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms revved up fans in convertibles at the front of the procession.

The parade ended in a grassy lot alongside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where some 15,000 turned out for a lunchtime rally also attended by outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal.

“We’ve won a championship in only our second season,” Eales said. “That’s pretty incredible.”

In probably his last appearance with the team, Martino hammered in the golden spike while the crowd roared. The Argentine coach is reportedly headed to Mexico to become that country’s national team coach.

“Coach Martino is one of the great coaches in the world,” Blank said. “He saw the vision, he bought into the vision, and he executed the vision with this incredible group of players.”

That group will be changing.

Atlanta already made several moves, announcing the day after the game that it declined contract options on five players including captain Michael Parkhurst, though the 34-year-old defender is expected to return in 2019. The team said it has already begun negotiations on a new contract with Parkhurst, who finally won the MLS Cup after playing on four runner-up teams.

The biggest moves are still to come. Almiron, who was runner-up in the MVP voting to teammate Josef Martinez, is expected to follow through on his desired move to Europe, which should bring United a hefty transfer fee.

The team seems to have already lined up a replacement.

Argentine star Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, who scored the clinching goal in River Plate’s victory Sunday in the Copa Libertadores final, announced on the field right after the game that he’s leaving the team. He told media in his native country that he’s headed to Atlanta United.

Martinez, who scored a record 31 goals during the regular season and added four more in the playoffs , appears likely to remain with the team for at least one more season. He’s had much more success in MLS than his previous stint in Italy’s Serie A.

“I am going to be here as long as they want me,” Martinez said after winning the MVP award. “I feel like I’m at home.”

Atlanta United could target another South American coach as Martino’s replacement, with an eye toward maintaining a pipeline to promising young players from that continent. As Almiron has shown, the MLS can provide a useful steppingstone to those wishing to further their careers in Europe.

Among those mentioned as candidates: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who previously won the MLS Cup as a player in Columbus and coached Boca Juniors to the Copa Libertadores final this season; along with Marcelo Bielsa, who has close ties to Martino and is currently managing Leeds in England’s second division.

Atlanta United will have an additional priority in 2019 after qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League, the continent’s top club competition. They will face Herediano in the two-legged opening round, with the first game to be played in Costa Rica in a Feb. 19-21 window before the second leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium a week later.

That 16-team competition, which runs through the first of May, figures to be the team’s top priority in the early part of the 2019 season. The only U.S. team to win the title was D.C. United two decades ago.

But Atlanta is intent on defending its MLS championship, as well.

“It’s an honor to represent this city,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, saluting the fans who broke numerous attendance records during the club’s first two seasons. “We’ll be back next year to defend this cup.”

Court date for USWNT’s law suit versus U.S. Soccer delayed

USWNT equal pay
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A court case that has dragged U.S. Soccer’s administration through the mud and led to a change of leadership may drag into the summer.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

A judge in California has delayed the May 5 trial of gender discrimination against the USSF until June 16 due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. A pretrial conference was also moved to June 1.

The federation is being sued by members of the two-time reigning World Cup champion USWNT under the Equal Pay Act.

The women are requesting more than $66 million in damages.

The extra month gives both parties more time to reach a settlement which could keep this ugly case away from trial. Given the uncertainty in our world, it could of course be delayed again.

The USSF has a new CEO in Will Wilson, who can make a major statement of change by stopping the trial from reaching court.

Handicapping the Final Four of Premier League March Madness

Premier League March Madness
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Our Premier League March Madness results have been as topsy-turvy as the 2019/20 on-field campaign before coronavirus halted it last month.

Yes, the runaway No. 1 seed is alive, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth seeds have been expelled from the tournament within the first two rounds.

Voting in the semifinal round begins Thursday.

[ RESULTS: March Madness Round of 16 ]

Before we go any further, if you’re unfamiliar: To make sure you’re not missing out on either March Madness or the business end of the PL season, we’ve gone ahead and merged the two competitions. The March Madness Final Four and Championship game were due to take place this weekend in Atlanta but now you will be voting on Tottenham v. Arsenal instead of Duke v. Kansas.

Teams are seeded from 1-16 based on their current spot in the table, with Aston Villa winning the relegation playoffs on Monday to remain in the Premier League.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ] 

Before we handicap the semifinal matches, let’s take a look at where the field sits after your Wednesday voting.

No. 1 Liverpool v. No. 12 Everton
No. 6 Wolves v. No. 7 Sheffield United

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Look, all bets are off for the derby. The Everton faithful has shown up in a big way during voting, dispatching Manchester United and Chelsea.

That’s big time stuff, though Liverpool ended the dreams of our presumptive sleeping giant favorite Arsenal after beating West Ham in the Sweet Sixteen.

The Reds are going to have to not just been upstart Everton but overcome the legions of rival supporters who would happily click the Toffees’ box rather than see Liverpool gain the crown.

The other side of the bracket sees No. 7 Sheffield United looking to continue its surprising run in both the PL season and our voting.

The Blades knocked off Man City, potentially aided by the same phenomenon Everton hopes to see on Thursday.

Now they meet Wolves, who may be riding a crest of North American momentum in the form of affinity for El Tri hero Raul Jimenez.

Our prediction: Everton and Wolves in the Final.

RESULTS: Premier League March Madness Elite Eight

Premier League March Madness
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Everton continued its upset path toward in our Premier League March Madness voting, showing its sensational support and setting up a fantastic eMerseyside Derby in the Final Four.

Thousands of votes were cast Wednesday, and the Toffees upset isn’t even the top underdog story.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ] 

Chris Wilder’s Blades of Sheffield United won a back-and-forth affair with No. 2 seed Manchester City to move into the semifinals.

That’s where they’ll meet No. 6 seed Wolves, who powered past Leicester City as if it wasn’t a challenge.

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final – Aston Villa prevailed, Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford relegated
TuesdaySweet 16 results in full
Wednesday: Elite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

IFAB: New handball rule can be adopted when games resume

Handball rule
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The International Football Association Board (IFAB) issued a letter from secretary Lukas Brud on Wednesday, outlining several changes to the game.

The “tee shirt line” handball rule may be coming to club football quicker than expected due to the coronavirus suspension of the 2019/20 season.

IFAB will allow leagues the choice to use the new handball rule when matches resume this season, also making changes to VAR protocol and vowing to review the offside rule.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

The new handball rule states that the shoulder goes to the end of the shirt sleeve or the bottom of the armpit (though obviously not in the case of a long-sleeve jersey).

For the purposes of determining handball offences, the ‘arm’ stops at the bottom of the armpit

So… get ready for baggy, longer jersey sleeves, or the increased recruitment of players with the longest armpits.

Kidding aside, the handball rule desperately needed clarification and we’ll see if this gives enough to fans and players alike.

Referees will now be “expected” to go to the screen on the field when a call is subjective, forcing the official to either uphold or overrule his initial call.

This same post says IFAB will now allow accidental handballs in the run-up to a goal in certain situations.

“Accidental handball by an attacking player should only be penalized if it ‘immediately’ results in a goal or an obvious opportunity for the player and/or their team to score a goal (i.e. following the handball, the ball travels only a short distance and/or there are very few passes).”

Well, that needs some clarification.

Back to the timing issue for the new handball rule, it seems logical that leagues would want to introduce new laws with a new season but stand-by for the decision of your favorite league.

As for the offside rule, “The members agreed that the fundamental philosophy of offside is underpinned by a desire to encourage attacking football and the scoring of goals. It was further agreed, therefore, that Law 11 – Offside should be analyzed and reviewed with a view to potentially proposing changes reflecting this philosophy.”

It’s a lot to unpack, and we’ll surely here from proponents and opponents of the changes soon. As always, implementation will make the biggest difference in how these changes are received.