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MLS roundup: Red Bulls, Orlando, Atlanta all win big

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A full slate of Major League Soccer games came our way on Champions League final day, so if you missed any of the action while Liverpool secured the European crown. There was plenty of movement made, with the Eastern Conference getting a new leader for a short time and the West seeing a number of playoff teams go down.

Atlanta United 2-0 Chicago Fire

Josef Martinez is back to scoring in bunches and the defending champions was back on top of the Eastern Conference – for a short time – as they beat Chicago 2-0. Martinez scored his second brace in a row, giving the Venezuelan six goals in his last five games and into double digits on the full league season with 10.

The clean sheet is also the second straight for the club and eighth on the year, helping to bounce back from a two-game losing streak to temporarily claim the top spot in the conference (D.C. United since jumped back on top, but Atlanta closed the gap to just one point). Frank De Boer‘s back line looks to be gaining traction, conceding just three goals over the last nine matches.

NY Red Bulls 4-0 Real Salt Lake

RSL’s road woes continue as they were trounced at Red Bull Arena. The game was 0-0 at the break, but a 58th minute own-goal broke the deadlock and it got out of hand as Daniel Royer doubled the lead a minute later, Michael Murillo made it three on a deflection, and Omir Fernandez capped it off with seven minutes to go.

The win leaves New York unbeaten in five and pushed them to fourth in the Eastern Conference, three points off the leaders.

Montreal Impact 0-3 Orlando City

Orlando City went on the road and got a massive win over a playoff team as they got all three in the first half and held on from there. Nani opened the scoring from the spot for his 100th career goal, while Tesho Akindele tapped in at the back post past the half-hour mark for the second and Will Johnson’s diving header capped off a beautiful flowing move for the third minutes before the break.

The win broke a 4-game duck against the Impact for Orlando City and avenged a 3-1 loss at home earlier in the season. Montreal managed just a single shot on target out of its nine total efforts, without Ignacio Piatti for the first time in what will be a long injury layoff.

D.C. United 1-1 San Jose Earthquakes

D.C. United maintained its spot atop the Eastern Conference, but the gap is now just a single point as the home side was forced to come from behind to secure a draw against San Jose. Chris Wondolowski can’t stop scoring after setting the career MLS goalscoring record, bagging a goal for the third straight match with his 37th minute header, assisted by USMNT call-up Nick Lima.

That forced D.C. to play from behind, and they earned a draw on Luciano Acosta’s 67th minute equalizer, with the 25-year-old pouncing on a save spilled by Daniel Vega. There were 36 total shots ripped off by the two teams combined and 12 of them on target, but the two goalkeepers combined for 10 saves.

Columbus Crew 2-2 NYCFC

The home side blew a pair of leads in a 2-2 draw with NYCFC. Gyasi Zardes struck from the spot in the 28th minute, and again Columbus took the lead in the 61st minute when Pedro Santos was left all alone at the far post. It wasn’t enough though, as Valentin Castellanos blasted a long-distance rip to equalize with 14 minutes to go.

The draw spoiled Zack Steffan’s sendoff with Columbus with the goalkeeper headed to U.S. national team duty before departing on a transfer to Manchester City. It also kept Columbus from moving into a playoff position, potentially jumping three teams with a win.

Houston Dynamo 1-1 Sporting KC

Two goals six minutes apart shared the spoils in Houston as the Dynamo fail to keep pace with the Western Conference leaders. Sporting KC jumped in front in the 63rd minute as Yohan Croizet chipped a charging Joe Willis on the break to open the scoring. Houston pulled back level in the 69th minute with a fabulous volley that found the top corner, but they were unable to finish the full comeback.

That left Houston in fourth in the West, three back of third-placed Seattle and four behind the second-placed LA Galaxy. Sporting KC also missed a big opportunity to pull closer to the playoff positions, currently in 10th with 15 points. Kansas City has just one league win since late March, leaving them four points back of a playoff spot.

Colorado Rapids 3-1 FC Cincinnati

The Rapids shook off a 72nd minute visiting equalizer to claim a critical victory and pull two points from dragging themselves off the bottom of the East, beating fellow basement-dwellers FC Cincinnati 3-1.

With the hosts holding a 1-0 lead, Kekuta Manneh came off the bench to level the score in the 72nd minute, but that lasted just a single minute as Colorado went back in front via Nicolas Mezquida. The winning goal came from a tight angle to the right, with the shot clattering off the hands of goalkeeper Spencer Richey. Diego Rubio put the game away with eight minutes remaining with a header off a corner. Cincinnati would have pulled off the bottom of the East with a win, but instead it’s Colorado who earns the spoils to pull within two points of Portland.

FC Dallas 2-0 Seattle Sounders

A pair of own-goals five minutes apart has FC Dallas up 2-0 at the break. The first came off Xavier Arreaga as Ryan Hollingshead delivered a header in the 33rd minute, and soon after Brad Smith deposited one into his own net on a Michael Barrios cross.

Portland Timbers 0-0 LAFC

The late Saturday night start is just under way at Providence Park.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.