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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.”

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova