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Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

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

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Premier League player Power Rankings

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Our latest Premier League player Power Rankings see plenty of players remaining in the upper echelons.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Matchweek 12 was wild, with players from Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester City continuing to dominate our top 20. The likes of Ciaran Clark, John Lundstram and Dwight McNeil were so close to cracking the top 20…

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League. If they didn’t play in the last matchweek, they aren’t getting in this list!

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


1.  Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) – Up 2
2. Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – Up 2
3. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Down 2
4. Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) – Down 2
5. Wilfried Ndidi (Leicester) – New entry
6. Caglar Soyuncu (Leicester) – Up 1
7.  Fabinho (Liverpool) – New entry
8. Andy Robertson (Liverpool) – Down 2
9. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool) – Up 6
10. Willian (Chelsea) – Up 6
11. Gerard Deulofeu (Watford) – New entry
12. Raul Jimenez (Wolves) – Down 7
13. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Even
14. Youri Tielemans (Leicester) – Even
15. James Maddison (Leicester) – New entry
16. Marcus Rashford (Man United) – Down 4
17. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) – Up 2
18. Fernandinho (Man City) – New entry
19. Matteo Kovacic (Chelsea) – New entry
20. Richarlison (Everton) – New entry

U.S. teenager Matteo Ritaccio signs pro deal with Liverpool

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Another American making waves at a Premier League giant?

Maybe.

Matteo Ritaccio, who just turned 18 years old, has signed his first professional contract with Liverpool.

The Long Island native has been playing with their U18 academy side since the summer of 2018, as he holds an Italian passport and was therefore able to make the move to Europe from the USA.

Liverpool detailed how they have worked hard to scout and then secure the signature of Ritaccio, a midfielder.

“He had first been spotted by the Reds as a 13-year-old at a training camp for the US national team, though he also holds an Italian passport. A tough-tackling and exciting player, Ritaccio started the season in fine form for the U18s but his momentum was brought to a halt by a leg injury.”

Ritaccio is a product of the famed youth side BW Gottschee and he impressed Liverpool’s coaches with a fast start to the 2019-20 season before injury struck.

He will be back fit early in January and it will be intriguing to see how he develops.

Jurgen Klopp isn’t afraid to throw plenty of youngsters into the side, as he proved during the recent victory over Arsenal in the League Cup.

Remember the name: Matteo Ritaccio.

Everton’s Moise Kean dropped due to discipline issues

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Everton striker Moise Kean was dropped for the 2-1 win at Southampton on Saturday after being late for a team meeting.

Kean, 19, was not in the Toffees squad for their first Premier League away victory since March and Sky Sports in the UK say that was because the Italian international has been having issues with his timekeeping.

Here’s some more information from our partners at Sky Sports News in the UK:

“The former Juventus forward was late for a team meeting and as a result was left out of the squad for the 2-1 Premier League victory at St Mary’s. Sky Sports News understands it is the second time Kean has been late for a team meeting.”

It is believed the player has apologized to Silva and his teammates for being late, but he does have previous, and not just with Everton. Italy boss Roberto Mancini left Kean out of the Azzurri squad in September after he and Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo were late for a team meeting at the U21 European Championships in the summer.

Somebody get Kean a new watch, or at least set a few more reminders on his phone!

Kean arrived at Goodison Park for $33 million this summer but has yet to score for the Toffees as Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Cenk Tosun have all been preferred to him in the central strikers role.

This is a tough one. Kean is young and adapting to life in a new country, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, but rules are rules and Silva obviously runs a tight ship.

Southgate on Sterling punishment: ‘We are like a family’

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Gareth Southgate called an impromptu press conference at England’s St. George’s Park training base on Tuesday to discuss one thing.

Raheem Sterling v. Joe Gomez.

[ MORE: Sterling issues public apology ]

According to multiple reports, on Monday the Man City winger was sat in the players’ canteen at England’s training base when Gomez, the first of several Liverpool players to arrive, walked in and was laughing. Sterling then reportedly said “you’re the big man now are you?” and confronted Gomez, trying to grab him around the neck as the two were separated.

This all came after Sterling clashed with Gomez in Liverpool’s 3-1 win over City at Anfield on Sunday, as the England winger was booed heavily by the home fans and also clashed with England teammates Jordan Henderson and Trent-Alexander Arnold during the game.

After a tumultuous 24 hours, Southgate kept calm as he discussed why he had decided to punish Sterling by making him unavailable for the EURO 2020 qualifier against Montenegro on Thursday.

“I love all of my players. We are like a family. The important thing is for a family to communicate and work through problems,” Southgate said. “I don’t expect as a manager to not have to deal with issues. In the end I have to find the right solution for the group. That’s a difficult line, you try to be fair when dealing with all players. I won’t always get that right but I am the manager. Raheem is very important for us but I felt it was the right thing.”

Southgate has been criticized by the likes of Rio Ferdinand and other ex-England players for making the spat public, but others believe he has handled it well and sent a clear message out to the rest of his squad.

Sterling is England’s best player, on current form, so leaving him out is a big call for Southgate. England’s manager is a big fan of Sterling and has praised his ability on the pitch and his maturity off it in recent months.

But Sterling was wrong to go at Gomez and he has since admitted it on social media.

Southgate wanted to nip this in the bud and he is in full control of the situation. What damage this incident, and the way he reacted, does in the long-term remains to be seen. But Southgate is a man who sticks to his principles and he doesn’t want England’s players going at each other due to club matters.

If he sent out a weak message following Sterling’s actions it would have told the rest of the squad it was fine for them to act in a similar manner.