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Aston Villa comeback stuns West Brom in playoffs

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Aston Villa beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 in their Championship playoff semifinal first leg on Saturday, as the home side launched a stunning late comeback at Villa Park.

The local derby swung in West Brom’s favor early on, as Dwight Gayle finished clinically but then a stunner from substitute Conor Hourihane was followed by a Tammy Abraham penalty kick moments later to send Villa Park wild.

To make matters worse for West Brom, their top goalscorer Gayle was sent off in the closing stages after a late challenge on Villa goalkeeper Jed Steer.

Villa or West Brom will play the winner of Leeds United or Derby County in the playoff final at Wembley on May 27 for a place in the Premier League.

After a fast start, West Brom went so close to opening the scoring, as Jay Rodriguez’s superb curling shot was tipped onto the crossbar by Steer.

At the other end Abraham sent an acrobatic effort just over, then Villa made a huge mistake and they were punished.

Glenn Whelan gave the ball away in a key area and Gayle pounced to smash home the opener at the Holte End to put West Brom 1-0 up. Villa struggled to get going again in the first half after that error, with West Brom dangerous on the break.

Abraham went close twice at the start of the second half as Villa pushed hard to get level with Jack Grealish leading the charge.

Villa eventually levelled 15 minutes from time as Hourihane smashed home a stunning strike with his left foot after Grealish found him unmarked 25 yards out.

It got even better for Villa moments later as Kieran Gibbs caught Grealish in the box and the home side were awarded a penalty kick.

Abraham stepped up to slot home the spot kick to give Villa a precious 2-1 lead ahead of the second leg at the Hawthorns on Tuesday.

However, Abraham did push over Mason Holgate in the box late on and was lucky to not concede a penalty kick.

And West Brom then made their task even tougher as their top goalscorer Gayle was shown a second yellow card for fouling Steer and will now miss the second leg.

Why USMNT’s Christian Pulisic was subbed off v. Canada

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Christian Pulisic was not a happy man when he was subbed off in the second half of the USMNT’s damaging defeat to Canada in the CONCACAF Nations League.

[ MORE: What now for Berhalter, USMNT?

He didn’t look injured and after walking off the pitch he was visibly upset as Gregg Berhalter spoke to him on the bench.

But there’s a perfectly simple explanation for this: Pulisic was sick.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

USMNT head coach Berhalter revealed why he subbed out Pulisic in the 60th minute of their 2-0 defeat to Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, as Pulisic was suffering from “cold and flu-like” symptoms.

“He wanted to continue. You could see the disappointment in his face, and we had to make that decision,” Berhalter said. “We made the decision based on being not sure how much he had left. We wanted to inject some energy into the team.”

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Now, Berhalter is obviously telling the truth here, but perhaps it was a convenient excuse as Pulisic wasn’t playing his best.

Pulisic, 21, struggled against Canada and missed the USMNT’s best opportunity, as he was played in by Jordan Morris and hit his shot from 10 yards out straight at Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

In truth, it was a tough chance with the way the ball was played to him, but Pulisic knew he should have done better and moments later he was on the bench and then the USMNT were 1-0 down.

Things aren’t going Pulisic’s way right now and Tuesday night summed that up.

There is a ridiculous amount of pressure on his shoulders to single-handedly lift the USMNT out of a two-year long slump, and given the fact he has only played a handful of minutes for Chelsea over the past two months, getting a cold as he heads back to England is far from ideal.

Berhalter’s reasoning for taking off Pulisic makes sense, as he is the one U.S. player who is talented enough to make something out of nothing. But right now we aren’t seeing the best of Pulisic, and that’s probably down to his lack of playing time at Chelsea.

It’s too early to say whether or not that will impact his form for the USMNT in the months ahead, but there’s no doubting the Stars and Stripes need their best player to stand tall for the game against Canada in Orlando next month.

La Liga want to move Barcelona v. Real Madrid to avoid protests

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish soccer league wants Barcelona’s game against Real Madrid to be moved out of the Catalan capital to avoid coinciding with a planned separatist rally.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Separatist groups in Catalonia have called for supporters to rally in Barcelona on Oct. 26 when Barcelona is scheduled to host Madrid in the “clasico” match.

The league runs the top two tiers of Spanish soccer. It has called on the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) – which controls regulations and fixtures for professional and amateur games – to shift the match to Madrid. The league has also requested for the return match to be switched from Madrid to Barcelona.

The league said Wednesday it has “requested the competitions committee of the RFEF to meet and change the location of El Clasico because of exceptional circumstances beyond our control.”

Catalonia has seen violent protests for the last two days with police clashing with protesters angered by the Supreme Court’s decision to sentence nine separatist leaders to prison.

The federation said the clubs have until Monday to respond to the request to change venues.

Catalan independence flags are a regular feature at Barcelona’s home games at the Camp Nou Stadium.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise

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After years of trying, it appears that Major League Soccer is finally heading to Sacramento.

Sacramento Republic FC have long been one of the best runs franchises in the lower leagues in the United States of America and both city officials and their new ownership group have backed this push to join MLS.

It seemed certain that Sacramento would get a team in 2016 and 2017, but they’ve been left behind as plenty of other cities have been awarded expansion franchises.

A report from the Sacramento Bee states that the franchise will be announced on Monday in a ceremony in downtown Sacramento.

“Sources said league officials will hold a press conference in downtown Monday followed by a fan event in the afternoon, celebrating the franchise award. The announcement will mark the successful conclusion of a laborious five-year effort by Sacramento community leaders and various investors to secure a franchise in MLS.”

New majority owners LA billionaire Ron Burkle (who also owns the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Hollywood producer Matt Alvarez joined Sacramento businessman Kevin Nagle this spring to get the finances in line for a new soccer-specific stadium and to pay the expansion fee which is close to $200 million.

Sacramento released a statement on the speculation, after Burkle, Alvarez and Nagle had been working closely with MLS in recent months to iron out the details of arriving in North America’s top-flight.

“We share the great excitement and anticipation in our community about Sacramento’s bid to join Major League Soccer. We will continue to respect the MLS expansion process and remain confident about the future of our club and our city. We look forward to sharing more information in the days ahead.”

Nagle and Warren Smith set up Sacramento Republic FC, who began play in the United Soccer Leagues in 2014, and have built an impressive fanbase.

Burkle and Alvarez were the final pieces of the jigsaw as their cash investment will allow the construction of a $250 million 20,000 capacity stadium long planned in the Railyards district of downtown Sacramento, while the city will also add funding to the effort as they add their second major league franchise.

Sacramento Republic will have an instant rival in MLS too, as the San Jose Earthquakes are located just 120 miles south-west.

With St. Louis awarded an expansion franchise in August and to begin play in 2022, MLS is now up to 29 teams with Nashville and Miami joining for the 2020 season, plus Austin FC arriving in 2021.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber seems keen to get the number of teams to 30, with Charlotte, Phoenix, Detroit and Las Vegas all pushing hard to become the 30th franchise in the coming years.

Sacramento’s journey to MLS has been a long one, but now they are about to celebrate.

Bulgaria detains four fans following racist acts

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SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) The Bulgarian government says it has detained four soccer fans linked to making racist gestures, including Nazi salutes, during a European Championship qualifying match against England.

[ MORE: Bulgarian FA chief resigns ]

Bulgarian fans also directed monkey noises at England’s black players during the match, which was halted twice in an effort to stop the racist abuse. England won the match 6-0.

The Ministry of Interior says police have “detained four people, whose involvement in what happened is being clarified.”

The ministry says any evidence collected will be handed over to prosecutors.

In the fallout from Monday’s game, the president of the country’s soccer federation has resigned and the Bulgarian special police forces have raided the federation offices.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports