What did we learn on Boxing Day?

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Boxing Day 2018 in the Premier League was absolutely wild. And it could turn out to be an incredibly pivotal day as we’ve now hit the halfway point of the 2018-19 season.

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Another shock loss for Man City was compounded by big wins for Liverpool, Tottenham and Man United in the top six. At the bottom, Fulham, Huddersfield and Burnley are in the relegation zone and struggling for confidence.

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Here’s a look at the key takeaways from the nine PL games played on a crazy Boxing Day.


Man City imploding

Two defeats on the spin to Crystal Palace and Leicester have Pep Guardiola and Man City reeling as they’re now seven points behind Liverpool who sit on top of the Premier League table. They’ve now lost three of their last four PL games, and perhaps some of the desire they had last season is no longer there. City’s home game against Liverpool on Jan. 3 now likely represents a final chance to peg the Reds back. That seems crazy to write with half the season left, but if City were to lose and fall 10 points behind Liverpool, the way Jurgen Klopp‘s men are playing there would be no way back. City lost 2-1 at Leicester as a stunner from Ricardo Pereira did the damage. There is no doubt that Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are struggling after their returns from injury, while having David Silva only fit enough to come off the bench and Fernandinho out shows that City aren’t coping well with injury absences, especially from a defensive standpoint. Yet with the strength of their squad this is still a huge surprise. Nobody saw this coming from City, and even Guardiola seems to look surprised although he continues to say he is happy with the way his team are playing. The same intensity levels just aren’t there, and the fact that six of his 11 defeats as a PL manger have come in December could point towards fatigue playing a huge part as he demands high-pressing and a high tempo all season long. He may well be happy, but City are losing games and making defensive mistakes that Liverpool and Tottenham are not. The reigning champs are in freefall.


Liverpool, Spurs keep on trucking

As City slip up, Liverpool and Spurs just keep on winning. Liverpool secured an eighth-straight win as they hammered Newcastle 4-0 and have now gone the first half of the season unbeaten. Spurs have won five on the spin and have scored 11 goals in their last two games as they’ve battered Everton 6-2 and Bournemouth 5-0 over the festive period. Mauricio Pochettino‘s stock continues to rise (at Man United and elsewhere) and his players have pushed Spurs up to second in the table, as they continue to defy the odds. Both Liverpool and Spurs have in-form attackers aplenty and they’re also sturdy defensively. Right now Liverpool are the bookies’ favorites to win the league and Spurs are genuine title contenders. This title race could be between Jurgen Klopp and Pochettino with Guardiola looking on enviously. With their high-tempo, full-throttle play, both Liverpool and Spurs have been relentless in recent weeks and they show no signs of taking their foot ff the accelerator. Liverpool have Arsenal and Man City coming up next. Tottenham have Wolves and Cardiff. Maybe, just maybe, Spurs are the darkhorses we should all be keeping a closer eye on.


Pogba the key man for Solskjaer

This managing thing is easy, right? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made it two wins from two to kick off his caretaker reign, as he received a wonderful reception in his first game in charge at Old Trafford. United beat Huddersfield 3-1 and the scoreline suggests an easier time for the Red Devils than it was. David De Gea made a wonderful stop at 1-0, but then Paul Pogba took the game over. He swept home to make it 2-0 and curled home a wonderful second to make it 3-0. Solskjaer said that Pogba is “happy now” and with two goals and three assists in the two games since Jose Mourinho was fired, it is clear that the Frenchman was shackled by United’s former coach. Solskjaer has United playing open, attacking soccer and the mood around United has changed completely. With games against Bournemouth and Newcastle coming up, United are well and truly back in the top four hunt. But we cannot get too far ahead of ourselves. With all due respect, they have beaten Cardiff and Huddersfield. The first big test for Solskjaer arrives on Jan. 13 with a trip to play Tottenham at Wembley. Only then will we be able to see how much these confidence-boosting wins have helped their progression.


Burnley, Huddersfield, Fulham could be cut adrift
Burnley were hammered 5-1 at home by Everton. Huddersfield have lost six straight games. Fulham haven’t won in six. They are all in real danger of being cut adrift at the bottom of the table after the festive period. And there are some huge clashes against one another coming up. Fulham’s game against Huddersfield on Dec. 29 is massive for both teams. The Cottagers were unlucky in their 1-1 draw against Wolves on Boxing Day, as Aleksandar Mitrovic went close on several occasions and Claudio Ranieri has clearly made them a better defensive unit. Huddersfield host Burnley on Jan. 2 in what will be a huge scrap and once again pivotal in deciding which team is going to dig themselves out of danger. Huddersfield are dangerous without being clinical, while Burnley’s previously staunch defensive unit now has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese. With Southampton, Crystal Palace and Cardiff City all showing signs of progress in recent weeks, that is further bad news for Burnley, Huddersfield and Fulham. Their revival for the second half of the season starts now. It simply has to.


Race for seventh place is on

Everton and Leicester were always going to be the safe bets to be the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League, and big wins for both on Boxing Day underlines their status as the favorites to finish seventh and secure a Europa League spot. Everton hammered Burnley 5-1 and Marco Silva‘s men were unlucky a few days ago to miss chances, have decisions go against them and face a ridiculously clinical Spurs. The Toffees will be right up there with Richarlison and Gyfli Sigurdsson delivering goals and assists. They just have to sort out their defense. As for Leicester, Claude Puel was under pressure this time last week. He has now led Leicester to back-to-back wins against Chelsea and Man City. What a strange game this is. The Foxes are back to being their clinical best and against the top teams they are forced to sit back, defend and then counter. That suits their players down to the ground. What doesn’t is Puel’s penchant to have his teams possess the ball and against the teams in the bottom half of the table, as Leicester often run out of ideas in attack and are frustrated. They must play on the counter more often if they’re going to seal seventh place. With Watford, Bournemouth and Wolves all in the hunt too, the battle for seventh and the Europa League has perhaps never been this muddled. It’s fantastic.

MLS to seek training compensation; Players oppose move

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.