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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.

Chairman Mubarak: Other clubs are ‘jealous’ of Man City’s success

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Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak believes that other clubs — namely those who have fallen miles back of the back-to-back Premier League champions — are “jealous” of the club’s success.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury ]

The root of the perceived jealousy is, of course, Man City’s seemingly unlimited spending power which dwarves that of just about — if not — every other club in the PL. There’s a growing sense around the league — and around the world — that clubs like City, just to name one, are doing the game a disservice by distorting the transfer market and building an infallible super-team with the aid of unprecedented financial resources.

Mubarak believes that these feelings also stem from other clubs’ failed dealings in the transfer market: spending comparable — if not more — money on players who don’t justify that price tag the same way some of City’s big-money buys have done — quotes from the BBC:

“With success, there is a certain level of jealousy, envy, whatever you call it. That’s part of the game.

“It’s not easy for our competition, we know that. But the reality is, we didn’t buy the most expensive player in the Premier League [Paul Pogba], we didn’t buy the most expensive goalkeeper [Kepa Arrizabalaga], we didn’t buy the most expensive midfielder, we didn’t buy the most expensive striker [Romelu Lukaku].

“People make decisions, they’ve got to live by them. This is a well-run club.”

City’s financial dealings have regularly been in the headlines of late, as they are believed to have circumvented FFP rules by lying about sponsorship deals so as to balance a larger expenditure on transfer fees and player wages with revenue generated by the club.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Suarez defends surgery decision after Barca lose Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez has defended himself from criticism for undergoing knee surgery that prevented him from playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

The Uruguayan released a statement Sunday saying he had no option despite the timing of the final, which Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia on Saturday.

Suarez said he had to undergo surgery “against my will” after rupturing his meniscus against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

He said the surgery earlier this month had nothing to do with a cartilage issue that he had been nursing since the beginning of the season.

Barcelona won the Spanish league but finished the season on a low after being eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League and losing the Copa final to Valencia.

Suarez scored 25 goals in 49 matches this season, second only to Lionel Messi on the scoring charts for Barcelona.

U-20 WC roundup: Mexico hammered by Japan; Italy top Ecuador

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

Mexico 0-3 Japan

Mexico’s heavy defeat at the hands of Japan means El Tri‘s stars of tomorrow, who have zero points from their first two games, cannot finish top-two in Group B and can only advance to the knockout rounds as one of four third-place teams.

Taisei Miyashiro (21st and 77th minutes) and Kyosuke Tagawa (52nd) bagged the goals on Sunday, as Japan picked up its first victory and set up an all-important finale with Italy to decide who finishes top of the group on Wednesday.

Ecuador 0-1 Italy

Andrea Pinamonti scored the only goal in Italy’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Ecuador to reach the six-point mark and guarantee themselves a top-two finish and a place in the round of 16.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Senegal 2-0 Colombia [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Poland 5-0 Tahiti [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Monday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Honduras v. Uruguay — 12 p.m. ET
Qatar v. Ukraine — 12 p.m. ET
USA v. Nigeria — 2:30 p.m. ET
Norway v. New Zealand — 2:30 p.m. ET