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Growth is still the name of the game in MLS

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Major League Soccer embarks this weekend on its 24th season with, appropriately enough, 24 teams.

FC Cincinnati joins the league this season, with Nashville and Miami teed up to start next year and Austin coming aboard in 2021. MLS has added 11 teams in the past decade.

So it’s no wonder Commissioner Don Garber says MLS is still very much “a growth story.”

One more expansion club, to be announced by the end of this year, will bring the league to 28. Sacramento and St. Louis are the front runners.

The league won’t necessarily stop there, Garber told The Associated Press.

“The future plan is something we’re going to be working with our expansion committee on over the next year or so, and try to determine whether or not Major League Soccer is going to grow past 28,” he said. “There’s been no decision whatsoever in that regard and I’m not sure when exactly that ultimate decision will get made.”

Apart from expansion and everything that goes with it, the league also needs to make sure it is properly developing talent, wisely managing rosters and ensuring the right designated players are coming into the league, Garber said.

Cincinnati opens its first MLS season on Saturday night against the Seattle Sounders. Cincinnati did well in the lower-division United Soccer League last season, compiling a 23-8-3 regular-season record. Season ticket sales have so far surpassed 20,000.

The Philadelphia Union host Toronto FC in the league’s opening match of the season on Saturday afternoon.

KEY DEPARTURES: MLS has raised its profile on the international transfer market and in recent months has moved several rising stars to high-profile European teams. Canadian teenager Alphonso Davies left the Whitecaps for Bayern Munich, former Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams went to RB Leipzig, Miguel Almiron left MLS Cup champion Atlanta for Newcastle United and Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen is headed to Manchester City in July.

NEW COACHES: The league welcomes four new coaches this season. Ok, so Caleb Porter isn’t new, he led the Portland Timbers to the MLS Cup in 2015. But he sat out of the league last season after parting ways with the club. He joins the Columbus Crew, the team Portland beat for the league title. Also new is Matias Almeyda, the reigning CONCACAF Coach of the Year who is taking over the San Jose Earthquakes, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a former MLS MVP and recently the Boca Juniors manager who is now coach of the LA Galaxy. Frank De Boer, who has stints at Ajax, Crystal Palace and AC Milan under his belt, assumes the reins at Atlanta United following the departure of Tata Martino for the Mexican national team.

SHORTER SEASON: MLS is shortening its season by a month this year, going to single-elimination playoffs and setting the MLS Cup final on Nov. 10 – its earliest finish since 2002. Because the league has expanded to 24 teams, MLS is also expanding the playoffs to include 14 teams, seven from each conference.

The all-knockout postseason replaces the two-leg format for the conference semifinals and finals that the league started using in 2003.

Garber said the new format will reward teams for top regular-season records because they’ll get greater home-field advantage. The shorter season will also ensure down the road that MLS wraps up before the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, set to start on Nov. 21.

YOUNG TALENT: Atlanta’s Pity Martinez, the reigning South American Player of the Year, leads the 2019 class of fresh faces. Others to watch include attacking midfielder Marco Fabian, a Mexican national team regular who will play for the Philadelphia Union. Vancouver added an intriguing player in 22-year-old midfielder In-beom Hwang of South Korea. The average age of the newcomers to the league is 25, down two years from four seasons ago.

One not-so-young newbie but nonetheless a player to watch is Nani, the 32-year-old former Manchester United winger who agreed to a three-year contract with Orlando.

QUICK RECAP: Atlanta, in just its second year, won the MLS Cup last year, beating the Timbers 2-0 in front of a crowd of more than 73,000 at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Atlanta’s Joseph Martinez was the league’s Most Valuable Player, while setting the league record for most goals in the regular season with 31.

RANDOM NOTABLES: Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard is retiring after this season. The 39-year-old former standout for the U.S. national team has made 257 saves in 75 appearances with the Rapids. He joined Colorado in 2016. San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski is on the verge of matching Landon Donovan’s all-time league scoring record. Donovan had 145 and Wondolowski is sitting at 144.

Who can Premier League clubs draw in Europa League?

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Group winners Arsenal and Manchester United will avoid a loaded batch of seeded teams, while runners-up Wolves can draw a bevy of powerful teams in the Europa League Round of 32.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo can find himself drawn against former club Porto, but also could have to match wits with Ajax’s Erik ten Hag, Inter Milan’s Antonio Conte, or Red Bull Salzburg’s Jesse Marsch.

[ MORE: Man Utd pounds AZ ]

Speaking of Marsch, the Salzburg boss could go from meeting Liverpool to squaring off with Steven Gerrard and Rangers.

Gerrard could also, of course, go up against hated playing days’ rival Manchester United.

Seeded teams
Ajax
Arsenal
Basel
Benfica
Braga
Celtic
Espanyol
Gent
Inter Milan
Istanbul Basaksehir
LASK
Malmo
Manchester United
Porto
Red Bull Salzburg
Sevilla

Unseeded teams
APOEL Nicosia
AZ Alkmaar
Bayer Leverkusen
Club Brugge
Copenhagen
CFR Cluj
Eintracht Frankfurt
Ludogorets Razgrad
Olympiacos
Rangers
Roma
Wolfsburg
Wolves
Shakhtar Donetsk
Sporting Lisbon

Who can Premier League teams draw in the Round of 32?

Arsenal: APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Manchester United: APOEL Nicosia, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Wolves: Ajax, Basel, Benfica, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, Inter Milan, Istanbul Basaksehir, LASK, Malmo, Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.

Ljungberg hails ‘amazing’ teen Saka after game-changing performance

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Arsenal phenom Bukayo Saka‘s big day spurred the Gunners to a top seed in the Europa League knockout rounds.

Arsenal went behind on two deflected goals in the second half’s first 25 minutes, but Saka answered with a goal and an assist in three minutes to take a point from Belgium in a 2-2 draw at Standard Liege.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Standard Liege 2-2 Arsenal ]

Saka was at the heart of it of all good things Arsenal, the 18-year-old handed plenty of responsibility. despite his tender age.

“He was amazing,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg. “He was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and full-back. He’s a tremendous talent.”

Saka had four key passes to go with his goal and assist, winning six of eight duels while producing two tackles and an interception.

Ljungberg said Arsenal hasn’t sent its young players on loan enough, though that hardly applies to Saka given he was 17 until September.

The injured Gunners used Konstantinos Mavropanos, Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, and Reiss Nelson in the Starting XI, and brought Gabriel Martinelli off the bench.

“I feel sorry for our young players,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t been on loan, they’ve not had that exposure to men’s football. Some of them made mistakes but they’ll learn from those mistakes and won’t do them again.”

Smith-Rowe was loaned to RB Leipzig last season and Nelson starred on loan at Hoffenheim. Mavropanos played first team football for Greek Super League side PAS Giannina in his late teens.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Arsenal uses thrilling comeback to win Europa League group

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Nothing Arsenal-related is allowed to be easy, it seems.

The Gunners used a goal and an assist from Bukayo Saka to come back from a two-goal deficit and draw Standard Liege 2-2 in Belgium on Thursday, winning its Europa League group when Vitoria came back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt on a wild afternoon of soccer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Arsenal trailed on second half goals from Samuel Bastien and Selim Amallah, but rallied behind Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to score a second-straight win for interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

Saka sent in a laser cross in the 78th minute and Lacazette did quite well to power it under the bar.

He’s loving this competition, having made a serious entrance earlier in the tournament versus Eintracht Frankfurt. The 18-year-old now has two goals and five assists across all competitions this season.

The Gunners needed just three more minutes to tie the score on a day they outshot the hosts 15-11.

Saka showed his nose for goal to tie the score five minutes later with a dribble to the top of the 18 and a sly finish to the keeper’s left.

This was all happening around the same time Vitoria scored twice in three minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Eintracht Frankfurt.

Standard Liege goes from the knockout rounds to nothing in a blink, while Eintracht goes from winning the group to second.

The field for the Europa League is looking fierce, with Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg joining the competition via transfer from the UEFA Champions League.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.