Hojbjerg the great, young Dane ready to lead Saints’ revival

Leave a comment

SOUTHAMPTON — Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is a born fighter. When he speaks, he speaks with purpose and you listen. When he walks out onto the pitch for Southampton he gives everything he has to the cause.

In the current situation Saints are in, they need Hojbjerg leading their charge out of the relegation zone under new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl in the tough weeks and months to come.

At the age of 23, Hojbjerg seems like the perfect man to lead Hasenhuttl’s high-pressing style from midfield with the Danish international becoming a firm fans favorite in Southampton as they called for him to become their new captain.

It is hard to not want Hojbjerg to do well, as he spoke eloquently to Pro Soccer Talk about doing all he can to succeed and trying to help his teammates around him improve at the same time.

Without a win since Sept. 1, and with just one PL victory from 16 games so far this season, Hojbjerg and Southampton welcome high-flying Arsenal to St Mary’s this Sunday (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports Gold).

Big changes have occurred at the top of the club in recent weeks with Les Reed, the long-time leader of their football operations fired, and Mark Hughes replaced by Hasenhuttl.

Many believe that Southampton is a club on the edge of the abyss, one that has no clear plan or direction to get themselves out of a second-straight relegation scrap after four years of top eight finishes, playing in Europe and going far in cups fuelled by buying low and selling high.

Their fiery Danish midfielder, who speaks Danish, French, German and English among other languages, thinks otherwise.

“It is always easy to point at one thing when things are not going as you’d like to, or expect to or as you thought so. I have to disagree,” Hojbjerg said. “I also have to be honest and say I don’t know exactly what the problem is. Because I think there are small parts that play a role and in the end it gives a result on the pitch. We, as players, we are the ones who go out on the pitch and we have to win the games. That is what I’m focusing on. That is what I’m trying to do to create a positive situation. I do not know what happens behind the doors of the directors, or staff members, or coaches. I can tell you that from the players perspective, we are giving everything on the training pitch and every Saturday and Sunday in the stadium. Because we know that is the main focus and that is the main achievement. That is football. That is on the pitch. That is getting results.”

Hasenhuttl has been tasked with changing Southampton’s fortunes around on the pitch, as the former RB Leipzig and Ingolstadt coach has run his players into the ground during his first full week at the club. Hojbjerg played against Hasenhuttl’s Ingolstadt during his time in Germany and described them as “nasty to play against” as well as being “tough and well organized.”

Gruelling longer training sessions, cancelling days off and painting new lines onto the training pitches at their Staplewood base are just a few of the ways he is trying to force Saints to become better organized as well as implement his famous high-press.

Hojbjerg has worn the captains armband for Southampton in recent weeks, and it is expected that will continue. With his straight-talking off the pitch and grit on it, he seems to have already a huge impact on those around him in his new role. This season, no other regular PL captain is under the age of 25.

The man who became the youngest-ever player for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga in 2013 said being named Saints’ skipper was the “proudest moment” of his career so far and something he could only dream about when growing up in Copenhagen.

But what does it mean to be a leader?

“If you talk in the changing room then people will stop listening then,” Hojbjerg said. “Talking has to be done on the pitch. Talking has to be done when it is tough. Talking has to be done when the moment is tight and you have to show your personality, stand true and you have to be a leader. I always say there are eleven leaders on the pitch because we all need to support each other. We all need to take responsibility for the position we are in. Whatever it is, I think I always try to give it my best and 100 percent. I know what I stand for. I know what the club stands for and what the values are. I just try to be me.”

“I cannot swear but it is really big… yeah, to be captain in the Premier League, if you would have asked me when I was 10, 15, 17, I would have taken it any day of the week. I am not saying it because I am a Southampton player and I have to show I am a club man and I am dedicated. I am saying it from my heart. It is the proudest moment of my career to be recognized as a captain at Southampton Football Club in the Premier League, at my age. But again it is not something I think of when I go on the pitch. It is something you feel in your stomach. You are a little bit excited but once the football game starts I play exactly the same.”

In just over two years at Southampton, Hojbjerg has played for four permanent managers. Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino, Hughes and now Hasenhuttl. He has tasted the high and lows of the game. From playing in the Europa League, major cup finals and semifinals and finishing in the top eight to just surviving relegation last season, the Dane has grown up on and off the pitch.

Despite his topsy-turvy start to life in England, Hojbjerg believes his decision to leave Bayern for Southampton was still the correct one.

“It is funny because you always expect when you come with that coach, or that teammate, you don’t expect that to change,” Hojbjerg said. “You come to the club with an idea of the coach, idea of your teammates and you don’t think ‘oh, but the coach is going to leave in six months or next week, or whatever.’ That was not the mindset that I came in with. But I came in with a mindset that now I am a part of Southampton Football Club. I am not a part of this coach, or this player or this sporting director. I am a part of Southampton Football Club. That was one of the big reasons that I came here. What I have felt for a long time is that even though the club, in a very short time, became a ‘big small club’ if you know what I mean, there were good traditions, good people, good experienced people who knew the club from inside for a long time. So there are values you can rely on, you could depend on and see yourself in. That was a big positive.”

Life off the pitch is settling down for Hojbjerg in England.

He lives in Winchester, a picturesque English cathedral city 15 minutes outside of Southampton with his partner and his young daughter, Rosa, and enjoys hitting up the grocery store at least once a week. When there he stocks his cart with vegetables and anything healthy he can get. He jokes when asked if he cooks: “I try to cook, but I’m not good at it. There is a thing called ketchup. It is quite useful.”

Having a child in his first few years in England has brought a whole new dimension to Hojbjerg, a young man who had to deal with tragedy at the age of 18 when his father passed away after a battle with stomach cancer.

The tough times he has been through on a personal level in the past few years have no doubt led Hojbjerg to thinking about the bigger picture more than most.

“When you get older your values and intentions become stronger, of who you are and what you want to do,” Hojbjerg said. “As you get older, you get more experienced, as you have family and have a kid, things just point in one direction to really what you want to achieve in life and in your career. I am very ambitious but I am also very realistic. I know what I want, I know what I can’t do. I will never stop until I’m finished… I think I am in a good moment, playing wise, but it is difficult to perform 100 percent when, to be fair, we are struggling in the league. I am giving my best, I am trying my best and I know I can get better but I also know I am in a very good way.”

This season the busy central midfielder has added goals and a cutting edge to his game, with a sensational strike against Brighton the highlight (also his first in the PL), plus he scored in Saints’ only win of the campaign away at Crystal Palace.

Hojbjerg also struck the post at Wembley in a recent defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and in his last four PL games he has had 14 shots at goal, one of the highest totals of any player in the league. Not bad for someone who primarily plays in front of the back four. It is clear he is doing anything he can to help drag his team out of the bottom three.

Always up for the challenge, Hojbjerg is ready to take on whoever and whatever stands in Southampton’s way this season as a great, young Dane could be the difference between them staying up or going down.

“I have a home with love, and a family. That is the most important thing. When I come here, to the training ground, I am energized and ready to go again every single day and take on whoever stands in front of me!” Hojbjerg said, holding his arms out and smiling. “That is how it is. I am ready for whoever stands in front of me.”

MLS to seek training compensation; Players oppose move

Getty Images
1 Comment

With teams spending millions of dollars annually on their youth academies, the league has decided it will now fight to recover some of that investment should a youth player sign their first professional contract abroad.

MLS announced in a statement that it will now work to acquire training compensation and solidarity payments from international clubs when players from team academies sign with clubs or transfer to other clubs abroad, while also agreeing to pay those fees when signing players from abroad. In the past, MLS had refused to pay training compensation and solidarity payments – in opposition to FIFA regulations – over fears for an anti-trust lawsuit from the MLS Player’s Association or others as well as possibly violating U.S. child labor laws, per ESPN.

U.S. Soccer even forbade these solidarity payments and training compensation on these grounds, but now have stated that they won’t enforce their decree from 24 years ago.

If a player signs their first professional contract outside of the country they were developed in, training compensation is provided to all clubs that helped develop the player between the player’s age 12 and 21 years. If a player then is transferred at any point from one country/federation into a different one (like Christian Pulisic from the Bundesliga to the Premier League), up to five percent of the transfer fee will be distributed to clubs that helped develop the player between the ages of 12 and 23.

In response to the MLS decision, the MLS Players Association has come out in total opposition of this decision, pointing out the hypocrisy of MLS choosing to apply some FIFA rules but not all of them.

In addition, the players association believes that this doesn’t work to help develop better soccer players in the U.S., only to make it harder for them to move abroad. In theory, a team abroad now will know it may have to pay thousands, or millions to sign a young American, and may hurt that player’s chances from moving to a country with a higher competition level.

“Today’s announcement by MLS regarding training compensation and solidarity payments is a step backward for the development of soccer in the United States and Canada,” the MLS Players Association said in their statement. “It is an effort by the league to inhibit player choice, does nothing to address the development of youth soccer, and makes plain MLS’ selective application of international rules to suit its own agenda.

“Despite claims to the contrary, this move is not about improving youth development. Rather, it is simply about trying to force players to sign with MLS by limiting opportunities abroad. Limiting opportunities to train and play in other environments does not further the development of young professionals. The MLSPA strongly supports efforts to improve youth development, but we do not believe that placing the burden to fund these efforts solely on players is a sensible approach. A levy on professional clubs and/or the Federation that is unrelated to individual player transactions would spread that burden across the industry, which would be a far better approach to funding development.

“The fact that training compensation and solidarity payments are paid elsewhere in the world under applicable FIFA regulations is an indefensible justification for MLS’s change in position on these issues. The league routinely ignores regulations that protect players under contract with MLS – like those requiring guaranteed contracts, prohibiting unilateral options and limiting the length of contracts – yet is now attempting to rely upon these same regulations to limit opportunities for players in youth academies.

“We will review these changes, including the Consent Decree entered into by the US Federation on this subject, and will explore all of our options with other stakeholders.”

It appears that MLS is only interested in fighting for training compensation when it benefits them. The most recent famous case is Weston McKennie, who spent seven years with FC Dallas but left on a free transfer in 2016, with FC Dallas not recouping a dime and McKennie soon establishing himself as a first team player in the Bundesliga.

In a Q&A, MLS stated that it won’t pay training compensation for players it signs through the draft or acquires into its youth academies. In addition, if a player was developed with both an MLS club and an independent youth club, MLS said it would only seek the training compensation for themselves and not for other clubs.

MLS states intention to expand to 30 teams

Leave a comment

In a move that was more a matter of when, then if, MLS announced on Thursday it plans to continue expansion to 30 teams.

The league released a statement stating that the decision to expand to 30 teams was approved by the league’s board of governors at a recent meeting in Los Angeles. In addition, the board of governors approved the MLS commissioners office to move forward into “advanced discussions” with Sacramento and St. Louis over expansion bids, enabling those market’s to make formal presentations to the league. The governors also approved a $200 million expansion fee for the No. 28 and No. 29 expansion teams, with the fee yet to be determined for No. 30.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

While it doesn’t confirm that Sacramento and St. Louis will be the next MLS expansion markets, it certainly puts them in the front seat for spots No. 28 and No. 29, with a plethora of other cities in the mix for the latter two slots and the – for now – final No. 30 spot.

As of the 2019 MLS season, the league has 24 teams. Inter Miami and Nashville SC will make it 26 in 2020, and Austin FC will make it 27 teams in 2021.

Other previous MLS expansion possible markets have included Detroit, San Diego, Phoenix, Tampa, Louisville, and more.

While MLS continues to focus on expanding across the country, it may be losing sight of some of its established teams in major markets. The Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls and New York City FC have all experienced poor attendance so far this season, and little has been said about how best to correct this problem.

There’s no doubt that soccer is big in both cities, but fans aren’t making the trek out to see their local teams play, which is a big problem in MLS, especially with the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga all expanding marketing operations into the U.S.

U.S. National Soccer Team players association speaks out against U.S. Soccer

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Even though the U.S. Men’s National Team doesn’t have to play multiple matches per year on artificial turf like the U.S. Women’s National Team, the USMNT players are taking a stand against the U.S. Soccer Federation.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

In a statement, the U.S. National Soccer Team players association said that it opposes playing on both turf or grass laid on top of turf due to player safety concerns. Since Nippert Stadium is an artificial turf surface, it’s expected that U.S. Soccer will pay to fly in and lay down grass on top of the field ahead of the USMNT’s friendly match with Venezuela on June 9.

“In the view of the Players Association, this is just one more example of a serious problem that the United States Soccer Federation is not advancing the interests of the sport of soccer or the interests of the players or the fans, but is solely focused on generating ever-increasing revenues and profits for the Federation, its employees, its sponsors, and private businesses associated with the Federation,” the the players said in its statement, after corresponding with U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro via e-mail.

The players association highlighted a section of the U.S. Soccer press release in announcing the friendly match in Cincinnati, noting the strong FC Cincinnati fan support. This backed the players association’s point that U.S. Soccer is more interested in revenues than player safety.

Even with all of our society’s technological advances, it appears that only old-fashioned planting and allowing grass to gain roots deep in the soil is the best way to ensure a strong, stable field, and not one that will come up with a quick change of direction. Issues at Yankee Stadium recently highlighted this problem.

New York City FC captain Alex Ring, who played in that match, said he slipped on some of that temporary sod and suffered an injured ankle, but soldiered on to play through the pain for the final hour of the game.

“It hurts, unfortunately,” Ring told reporters on April 6, via Front Row Sports. “What can I say? I can’t complain about the pitch, but it happens after 30 minutes and you play the whole game with a sore ankle, it’s not the best.”

While coming to Cincinnati and bringing the USMNT to cities it has never been before – this will be the first USMNT trip to Cincinnati – is an important mission for U.S. Soccer, it’s also surprising because the beautiful pitch at Crew Stadium, the heart and soul of U.S. Soccer, is right up the road. Of course, Crew Stadium’s capacity is much smaller than Nippert Stadium, which I’m sure had something to do with this decision.

The USMNT hasn’t had to play on grass laid on top of turf since the 2017 Gold Cup semifinals against Costa Rica, which was played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which is an indoor facility and thus uses artificial turf.

For U.S. Soccer, that now means all of its senior national team players are against the federation’s current position. The USWNT has made its sentiments known about playing on turf, even before Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in a match on a turf pitch in bad shape, and they’ve even recently filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging U.S. Soccer is engaging in gender discrimination against the USWNT players.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s a bad look for U.S. Soccer that all of its main players are against the federation in one form or another, and together they could use their media platforms to make an even bigger statement.

Europa League Roundup: Arsenal shutout Napoli; Eintracht, Valencia advance

Leave a comment

What road problems?

For the second consecutive match, Arsenal picked up a 1-0 win on the road, this time against even tougher competition. Arsenal beat Napoli, 1-0, and 3-0 on aggregate to advance to the Europa League semifinals. Alexandre Lacazette scored a terrific free kick from 30-yards out, taking advantage of Alex Meter shifting the wrong way.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

In the second half, with Napoli needing four goals and pushing, Arsenal relied heavily on its centerback trio of Sokratis, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Saed Kolasinac helping in defense.

It’s a reversal of Arsenal’s recent fortunes, where before Monday, they hadn’t won on the road since February, including in the Europa League to Rennes. However, the 2-0 scoreline from the first leg really gave Arsenal the push and momentum it needed to get past a struggling Napoli side under Carlo Ancelotti.

Elsewhere, Valencia took care of languishing Villarreal in style with a 2-0 victory, winning 5-1 on aggregate, but the real drama took place in Germany.

With Eintracht Frankfurt trailing before kickoff by a pair of goals, the Eagles – well, both Benfica and Eintracht are the Eagles – managed to secure a 2-0 result to advance in the Europa League. Sebastian Rode’s second-half finish off an Ante Rebec pass has kept Eintracht’s season alive in Europe, where Luka Jovic can continue to market himself to the world’s biggest clubs.