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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.”

Alex Morgan out for season with knee injury

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We knew Alex Morgan was hurt. You could see it, I could see it, we all could see it. Yet she insisted all throughout the 2019 Women’s World Cup, “I’m ok.”

Now we confirmation that she wasn’t ok.

Morgan announced she will miss the rest of the 2019 NWSL season for the Orlando Pride with a knee injury, confirming she’s been dealing with the problem since the World Cup. “I’m disappointed I won’t be able to compete with the Pride for the remainder of 2019 due to a knee injury I’ve been managing since the World Cup,” Morgan wrote on Instagram, “and that I can’t be there to help my teammates and my club have more success.”

The Pride are bottom of the NWSL table, with just four wins in 21 matches this season. Morgan has played in just six of those, four before the World Cup and two after, without scoring or assisting a single goal. Orlando won just one of the six games Morgan appeared in, the most recent one on August 21 against second-placed Chicago. Meanwhile, they were shut out in four of the six games she appeared in, with Morgan registering just one lone shot among the six appearances.

“I have already started physical therapy in LA and am eager to get back on the field doing what I love,” Morgan said without offering any other details on her injury.

The 30-year-old USWNT star scored five goals in their opening match of the 2019 Women’s World Cup against Thailand, assisting three more as the U.S. won 13-0. However, she was a consistent target for physical play in the ensuing match against Sweden and was seemingly injured in the 33rd minute, leading Jill Ellis to withdraw the striker at halftime. Morgan did not appear herself over the rest of the tournament, scoring just one more goal the rest of the way and at times looking unusually off the pace. Opposing teams copied Sweden’s strategy, targeting Morgan throughout the tournament with repeated kicks, fouls, and physical play.

“his year has had the highest of highs but along with that comes challenges and sometimes even falling short of my goals I set for myself in 2019,” Morgan wrote in her announcement.

UCL preview: Messi back for Barcelona v. Dortmund, Liverpool visits Napoli

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The Champions League group stage is back. So is Lionel Messi.

Tuesday kicks off the 2019/20 Champions League in earnest, with a litany of powerhouse matchups dotting the landscape. Most notably, Barcelona’s five-time Ballon d’Or winner is in the squad for the trip to the Rhur valley to take on Borussia Dortmund, potentially set for his first appearance of the season after missing Barcelona’s first four matches of the season with a calf injury.

[ PST writers predict the CL group stage ]

Those two teams are both roaring back from disappointing league losses, and come into this match in good attacking form. Barcelona fell to Athletic Bilbao on the opening weekend of the La Liga season, but is unbeaten in their last three with 12 goals in those three games. Dortmund, meanwhile, fell to Union Berlin at the end of August but crushed third-tier Ergenie Cottbus in cup action before blowing out fellow Champions League participants Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 this past weekend. 19-year-old Jadon Sancho provided two assists in that most recent game and will get his first crack at the La Liga giants.

Defending champions Liverpool are on the road at Napoli, with the Italians having integrated Hirving “Chucky” Lozano into the squad. The Mexican international got his first start against Sampdoria over the weekend in a 2-0 win, playing 65 minutes. The Reds fell in this same fixture last season en route to the title, losing 1-0 at San Paolo Stadium in one of their worst performances of the season. This time around they are top of the Premier League through five matches – all wins – but will be without Divock Origi, Alisson, and Naby Keita through injury while Andy Robertson is a game-time decision.

[ Villa, West Ham meet in scoreless draw ]

Chelsea hosts Spanish side Valencia in an absolutely wide-open and loaded Group H that features four quality sides, meaning every game will be a significant challenge. The Blues’ defense has been quite poor so far this season, and will again be without Antonio Rudiger thanks to a groin problem picked up after just making his return over the weekend from knee surgery. Chelsea has never lost to Valencia in six European meetings, their joint-most games without losing against any European opponent.

On the other end of that brutal Group H, new-look Ajax hosts French side Lille. The visitors finished second in Ligue 1 last season and have three wins in their first five this campaign, proceeding without Nicolas Pepe after his sale to Arsenal this summer. Ajax has also lost highly valued young talent, with Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt having left for greener pastures, although they have thus maintained an unbeaten record this season, earning a berth in the group stage while proceeding through two qualifying stages.

Benfica hosts RB Leipzig in another brutal group, Group G that also features Zenit St. Petersburg and Lyon who match up in France. Leipzig leads the Bundesliga with an unbeaten first four matches, including a draw against defending champions Bayern Munich. Striker Timo Werner has a fabulous five goal haul through RB Leipzig’s first four league matches including a hat-trick against Borussia Monchengladbach. Benfica has also started its league campaign well with four wins in five, a solid sign after the loss of young star Joao Felix to Atletico Madrid.


Tuesday Champions League matches:

Inter v. Slavia Prague (12:55pm ET)
Lyon v. Zenit St. Petersburg

Ajax v. Lille (3:00pm ET)
Benfica v. RB Leipzig
Borussia Dortmund v. Barcelona
Chelsea v. Valencia
FC Salzburg v. Racing Genk
Napoli v. Liverpool

Pellegrini chastises Masuaku for red card against Villa

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Manuel Pellegrini said he was “very happy for the performance of the team” despite the 0-0 draw with Aston Villa that saw West Ham record just one single shot on target.

Still, he noted that he was less than pleased with the sending off of Arthur Masuaku, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the West Ham manager said the referee can be easily goaded into soft decisions against the away side by raucous fans. “It’s a typical sending off when you play away,” Pellegrini said in his post-match television interview. “With the pressure of the fans in every foul, of our players that had a yellow card – in this case Arthur Masuaku, Mark Noble, and another player in the first half, I don’t think this was a yellow card, but playing away it is very easy for the referee to send him off.”

Later, he noted that a discussion at halftime with Masuaku about his earlier booking was unsuccessful. “They [the home fans] try to do it with the pressure of the fans,” Pellegrini said in the post-match press conference. “They tried to do it with Mark Noble in the first-half, they try to get a second yellow. We [Masuaku] talked about it at half-time. We told him he must be careful.”

That didn’t pan out, as Masuaku was sent off for a second yellow card earned while fouling Ahmed Elmohamady who had just come onto the pitch moments earlier. The foul was deemed somewhat soft, but match commentator Martin Tyler pointed out – as Pellegrini seems to be indicating – that Masuaku’s mistake was giving the referee the opportunity to make the call for an otherwise needless foul.

Despite the one negative moment, Pellegrini was pleased with the team’s overall performance on the road.

“I prefer to talk about our team,” Pellegrini said when asked about the refereeing decisions. “I think we played a very good game. We had the personality to come here and try to win the game from the beginning, and the last action, the last play of the game we had a very clear chance to score. We played with 10 men exactly the same that we did with 11. We tried defending well, we tried to continue scoring a goal, so I am very happy for the performance of the team, for the personality of the team, and when you are playing away if you can’t win the game, don’t lose it.”

UEFA Champions League group stage predictions

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To have our crew predict it, the UEFA Champions League group stage should prove to be fairly straight-forward.

[ MORE: UCL score predictions, Wk 1 ]

Our three consulted staffers at Pro Soccer Talk have predicted 18 teams for the 16 spots in the group stage, including a healthy three seeded spots for Premier League sides.

GROUP A

Joe Prince-Wright: PSG, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Club Brugge
Nick Mendola: PSG, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Club Brugge
Kyle Bonn: Real Madrid, PSG, Galatasaray, Club Brugge

Zinedine Zidane to bring the UCL magic touch back to Spain? One of our three think so, while JPW and Nick both figure Mbappe and Neymar will be too much for the group.

GROUP B

Joe Prince-Wright: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Olympiacos, Red Star
Nick Mendola: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Olympiacos, Red Star  
Kyle Bonn: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Red Star, Olympiacos

There’s a gulf in class between the top two and bottom two, but be careful with overlooking Olympiacos; The Greek club was very difficult to break down in qualifying.

GROUP C

Joe Prince-Wright: Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb
Nick Mendola: Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb
Kyle Bonn:  Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb

The only team in the world averaging more shots per game than Manchester City this early season is Atalanta. Colombian attackers Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have combined for six of the side’s seven Serie A goals this season.

GROUP D

Joe Prince-Wright: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow
Nick Mendola: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Lokomotiv Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen
Kyle Bonn: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow

While it’s certainly more complex than Joao Felix against the previous Portuguese generation’s Joao Felix, Atletico Madrid will hope its young wizard has the goods to break down Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juve.

GROUP E

Joe Prince-Wright: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk
Nick Mendola: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk
Kyle Bonn: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk

The order of this group isn’t as interesting as the performances, as American eyes will be watching how Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch manages to get on versus two of Europe’s best.

GROUP F

Joe Prince-Wright: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague
Nick Mendola: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague
Kyle Bonn: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague

Is Inter Milan’s renaissance for real? Nick and JPW thinks so, while Kyle Bonn thinks Lucien Favre’s BVB will keep humming past the Serie A giants.

GROUP G

Joe Prince-Wright: Lyon, RB Leipzig, Benfica, Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Nick Mendola: RB Leipzig, Lyon, Zenit Saint-Petersburg, Benfica
Kyle Bonn: Lyon, RB Leipzig, Benfica, Zenit Saint-Petersburg

Anything could happen here, and only Nick believes Timo Werner and RBL can outlast Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembele, and Lyon to win a seeded place in the knockout rounds.

GROUP H

Joe Prince-Wright: Chelsea, Ajax, Lille, Valencia
Nick Mendola: Chelsea, Valencia, Lille, Ajax
Kyle Bonn: Chelsea, Lille, Ajax, Valencia

Massive names with equal-sized questions. In other years, this would look like a group of death, but Lille earned its place via now-sold Nicolas Pepe and Ajax sold a good part of a golden academy generation to Barcelona, Juventus, and others. Chelsea, oddly enough, may be counting its blessings.