USL
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

USL begins 10th season with eye on future

Leave a comment

The United Soccer League begins its 10th season on Friday with a pair of matches in the Championship; Seattle Sounders 2 will host Reno 1868 and Orange County plays host to El Paso Locomotive.

A lot has changed in under a decade. The Championship division now has 35 teams, while the third-tier League One has another dozen (with 30 more lobbying to get into it the thing).

We caught up with some USL mainstays at all levels to talk about the progress, from league president Jake Edwards to San Diego Loyal co-founder Warren Smith and Pittsburgh Riverhounds coach and serial hardware winner Bob Lilley.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

The coach is a good place to start. Lilley has won titles in the A-League with the Montreal Impact, the USL First Division with Vancouver Whitecaps, and the USL with the Rochester Rhinos in 2015. Now he’s turned around the Pittsburgh Riverhounds ahead of the 2020 season.

He sees the USL’s growth as pay-off for a generation of players, coaches, and owners who were willing to put in the time for the good of the sport, looking back fondly on the role he played in helping ambitious clubs Montreal and Vancouver win on their way to MLS.

“It’s an investment that starts out where you’re just putting pennies in a piggy bank and at some point it grows big enough that it takes on a life of its own,” Lilley said of the USL’s progress. “The increases keep getting bigger, and the last 3-5 years we’ve been really driving forward. We need to find new ways to be meaningful to our market. We need to stay aggressive, trying to keep pushing this thing forward.”

Like Lilley, Smith has done this dance and done it well in a lot of different places. Now the president of first-year side San Diego, he’s overseen the resurgence of the Portland Timbers and the growth of Sacramento Republic.

Smith makes a remarkable claim about what a USL club can mean to a market.

“The difference between us and MLS, just because of where they are choosing to have to put their teams, I think New Mexico United means more to the whole state of New Mexico than most MLS teams mean to their particular cities. We’re able to electrify communities and bring people together, uniting and celebrating the people of the region.”

To Smith and Edwards, it comes down to the variety of top minds running clubs.

Smith says that less than a decade ago, the investors in the room were coming from soccer backgrounds. Now, it’s others who see the investment as sound.

“In 2012 at the annual meetings, the room was full of soccer fans, soccer people, more soccer people than business people,” Smith said. “Since then with the success of Orlando and Sacramento, we’ve seen an influx of more experience and different sports experience. There’s a lot more sophistication, and the league has chosen a good group owners who want to grow the brand. The USL was good football then, but it’s even better now.”

Edwards said the league likes “to hang its hats” on its ownership groups, who in turn have had to learn from the successes and mistakes of their forebearers while also recognizing that this giant country has a plethora of soccer cultures.

“You’ve got to listen first and foremost,” Edwards said. “You’ve got to spend the time in the community and learn it before you launch to learn what it is they want out of a football club. You have someone who owns the team but really they own the team.

“Ultimately they’ve got to listen and be amongst the community and let the fan base have a voice. Our clubs can be such a great representation of their communities. There’s a real sense of pride people have in their communities that they might not have an outlet for, and the football club gives them that outlet. Go down and be with six or seven thousand people, and wear your colors and show your passion to be from Louisville, Albuquerque, Austin, or Oklahoma City.”

What Edwards stresses is doing expansion “the right way” over the long-term, angling to grow and grow to make a massive impression when all eyes are trained on the United States for the 2026 World Cup in North America.

“What do we want to look like when it arrives?” he asks. “We will see between now and the World Cup, a few more expansion markets like Providence, Buffalo, Des Moines, and some of you haven’t heard of yet. League One is a huge focus for us. We’ve gone from 10 to 12 teams, and now we have 30 markets that are actively lobbying to bring League One to their communities.”

Lilley says it helps that the soccer has improved tremendously since he was a player in the early 90s, pre-MLS.

“It’s just a whole different landscape now,” Lilley said. “You know the movie ‘Slapshot?’ Some of the start of me coming into the pro soccer environment — NASL was done. MISL was just shutting done — in the late 80s, some of the fights and some of the stuff going down on the field was comparable.”

The players are better, and the coaches, too. Three of his former players, in fact, have gone on to coach in MLS (Mauro Biello, Mark Watson, Nick Dasovic).

Lilley has seen the tactics grow from when he instituted a flat back four in the late 1990s after seeing it become all the rage in Europe. He’s worked past three at the back, five at the back, you name it, but it’s only in this last stage of the USL that he’s seen big changes in coaching (so credit to whom for still winning).

“From 1997 to 2010, whatever I saw from a team early in the season a lot of times it would be the same thing later in the season,” he said. “That’s not the case. I think it makes everyone better when new ideas… everyone’s trying to win and that’s the expectation of owners. It’s not okay just to make up the numbers.”

Bob Lilley
Lilley coaches Pittsburgh in the U.S. Open Cup (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lilley says that’s why he’s sure to instruct his players on being functional outside of a base system. He switches it up on them.

What drives him?

“Trying to survive,” Lilley said. “Trying to win so I can stay in it. I try to build flexibility in my team. I think part of growth is not just giving guys game but trying to give them information tactically. There’s so much tape out there, we’re always looking for an edge. Sometimes with the team, if you play the same way all the time and it’s not quite working, and then you change, you can send them in a tailspin, ‘Well what’s wrong? What did we do?’ but if you tell them you’re preparing them and looking for an edge, well, good players adapt to the environment, to the coaches, to the system, to the weather, to the referees, to the opponent. It’s hard to prepare for us because we do a lot of things well.”

So as the league drives forward into Year No. 10, there is a collection of executives, staff, and coaches who’ve been through the proverbial war and are smarter for it. There’s been attrition, of course, but now there’s stability.

And it’s Edwards’ job to remember where they’ve been as much as where they are going.

“When I think back to the wild west days, the boom or bust days, it was a core mission to get away from that,” he said. “We’ve done that, but we’re still in growth mode.”

Sheffield United – Tottenham stream: How to watch, start time, odds

Sheffield United - Tottenham preview
Photo by IAN KINGTON/AFP via Getty Images
1 Comment

Sheffield United – Tottenham Hotspur: There are European hopes dripping from Wednesday’s meeting of Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur at Bramall Lane (Watch live at 1pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

Blades’ European hopes have taken a big hit since the Premier League’s return from the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve lost two-straight league outings and have just one win from five.

STREAM SHEFFIELD UNITED – TOTTENHAM LIVE ONLINE

Spurs have taken four of six points in just two matches since the end of the break and need a win to retake seventh place from Arsenal.

Team news

Japhet Tanganga and Juan Foyth remain out for Tottenham, who is otherwise as healthy as its been since the calendar turned to 2020. Jose Mourinho has made one change as Dele Alli is dropped and Steven Bergwijn comes in.

Jack O’Connell is getting closer to a return for the Blades but Chris Wilder says they “won’t make a high risk decision on him.” John Lundstram is out injured and is replaced by Sande Berge, while John Fleck is also out injured with Ben Osborn coming in for his first Premier League start.

 

What they’re saying

Chris Wilder on the evolution of big January buy Sander Berge: “Sander is going to be a really good player for us. He’s 21 [sic], we paid decent money for him. £20m is not an unbelievable number. It is for Sheffield United, I understand that. So Sander comes with that pressure. But he’s a grounded boy and he’ll eventually play as a sitting midfield player. He’s a proper midfield player, he’s a really good kid and he always will get mine and the boys’ full backing.”

Mourinho on the struggles of big signing Tanguy Ndombele“Football is full of players who have made difficult starts and then ended well. When Luka Modric arrived at Real Madrid after six months he was labeled the worst signing in their history by the fans and the press. A few months later he was a champion, then a few months later he was European champion and then a few months later he was voted the best player in the world. So when the talent is there many things can happen with adaptation and if the talent is there anything good can happen.”

Odds and ends

The bookies aren’t so sure about this one, with DraftKings having hosts Sheffield United +225 and Tottenham +130.

Heung-min Son and George Baldock traded goals in a 1-1 November draw in North London.

Sheffield United – Tottenham Prediction

Spurs have the benefit of rest and potency up top. It’ll be a grimy one — Chris Wilder deems it so — but Tottenham gets the points 2-1.

Wolves – Arsenal preview: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Wolves - Arsenal
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Wolves – Arsenal should be an absolute belter on Saturday (start time, 12:30pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as both teams are in the hunt for Champions League qualification.

STREAM WOLVES – ARSENAL LIVE ONLINE

Nuno Espirito Santo and Wolves continue to upset the odds as they are the only Premier League team to win all three of their games since the restart and are now three points off third-place and have momentum in the race for Champions League.

As for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, they’ve bounced back after a rough start to the restart and Mikel Arteta now has plenty of options and his team look hungry.

Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore will lead Wolves’ charge, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continues to be the talisman for Arsenal.

Stream Wolves – Arsenal by clicking on the link above and here is everything you need to know ahead of the clash.


Team news

Wolves aren’t being impacted by injuries and they are fit and hungry with Santo resting Traore for moments during their first three games of the restart.

Arsenal are still without Bernd Leno, Sokratis, Callum Chambers, Pablo Mari and Gabriel Martinelli but Lucas Torreira is back fit and available. Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nkeitah were all rested for the win against Norwich.

What they’re saying

Raul Jimenez on his partnership with Adama Traore: “Every striker wants a teammate with his conditions. He can cross from anywhere, you know he’s going to be at the final line and he’s going to cross, so you have to be there at the right time to score. We train on it in the week. We talk to each other before the games, or in the training sessions, so we know where we’re going to be, his crossing and where I have to move. It’s not a coincidence, it’s something we train and work for.”

Mikel Arteta on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: “A player that is able to score as many goals as he’s done in that short space of time tells you everything about the importance that he has for us. We need players that can make the difference at any moment in the game every three days, in different competitions, and that’s a big test for him. He’s done that at different clubs, he’s willing to stay with him, he’s really happy where he is and can see what we’re trying to do. Hopefully he can evolve as well in some parts of his game that in my opinion he can improve. We are pushing him every day towards that.”

Odds and ends

Wolves are the clear favorites for this game via DraftKings (+125) but Arsenal are dangerous and could be good value at +235 for the win. +225 for the draw seems like a very good bet too, as both teams are well matched with similar attacking units but Wolves have the edge when it comes to defensive players.

Prediction

This will be a tight, tense clash and the star attackers for both teams will be key. If Jimenez and Traore are firing on all cylinders then you have to fancy Wolves, if Aubameyang and Saka are on form for Arsenal, they could edge it. With both teams hopeful of Champions League qualification, the stakes are high and I think this will be a draw. Let’s say 1-1.

Champions League, Relegation picture: What’s going on?

Champions League
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Champions League and relegation picture is pretty wild right now in the Premier League.

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

With six matchweeks remaining, there is so much to play for across the entire league. From Champions League to Europa League and a crowded and tight relegation battle, there are so many permutations.

Given the tough remaining schedules for some teams and easier slate of games for others, surely that will come into things. Pressure does strange things to teams at this point of a season though.

[ MORE: Remaining Premier League fixtures ]

Let’s take a look at the Champions League and relegation picture a little closer.


Champions League race

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 31 28 2 1 70 21 49 16-0-0 12-2-1 86
 Manchester City 31 20 3 8 77 33 44 11-2-2 9-1-6 63
 Leicester City 32 16 7 9 60 31 29 9-4-3 7-3-6 55
 Chelsea 32 16 6 10 57 44 13 8-3-5 8-3-5 54
 Manchester United 32 14 10 8 51 31 20 9-5-2 5-5-6 52
 Wolves 32 13 13 6 45 34 11 6-7-3 7-6-3 52
 Arsenal 32 11 13 8 47 41 6 8-5-3 3-8-5 46
 Tottenham Hotspur 31 12 9 10 50 41 9 9-3-4 3-6-6 45
 Burnley 32 13 6 13 36 45 -9 8-2-6 5-4-7 45
 Sheffield United 31 11 11 9 30 31 -1 7-3-5 4-8-4 44
 Everton 32 12 8 12 40 47 -7 8-5-3 4-3-9 44
 Crystal Palace 32 11 9 12 28 37 -9 6-4-6 5-5-6 42
 Newcastle United 32 11 9 12 33 43 -10 6-7-3 5-2-9 42
 Southampton 32 12 4 16 41 55 -14 4-2-10 8-2-6 40

So, yeah, this is getting bonkers. With Leicester City and Chelsea both losing this week, Wolves and Man United are just three points off third place and this is going to be extremely interesting. Man United have a very easy remaining schedule and they have momentum, while Sheffield United have some tough games remaining. With fifth-place potentially a Champions League spot due to Man City’s European ban (which they have appealed) that means Arsenal, Tottenham, Sheffield United and even Burnley are in the hunt too. When it comes to Europa League, Everton, Palace, Newcastle and Southampton still have a chance as eighth place could be a qualifying berth due to the FA Cup winners likely to finish in the top six. Simply put, the entire league aside from the bottom six are in the hunt for European action. Lots to play for.


Relegation battle

 Brighton & Hove Albion 32 7 12 13 34 44 -10 5-6-5 2-6-8 33
 West Ham United 32 8 6 18 38 56 -18 5-3-8 3-3-10 30
 Watford 32 6 10 16 29 49 -20 4-6-6 2-4-10 28

 Aston Villa 32 7 6 19 36 60 -24 5-3-8 2-3-11 27
 Bournemouth 32 7 6 19 30 54 -24 4-5-7 3-1-12 27
 Norwich City 32 5 6 21 25 60 -35 4-3-9 1-3-12 21

Things are just as interesting at the bottom of the table. Somehow Norwich are still in with a chance of survival despite losing all three of their games since the restart. They have to start winning soon though. Bournemouth and Aston Villa have some ridiculously tough games to finish with and look like they will go down but West Ham and Brighton have tough schedules too, with the latter playing Liverpool and Man City back-to-back next week so they could get sucked back into things. It looks like being three from the bottom five to go down and both West Ham and Watford have showed they have enough grit to grind out points. Can Villa and Bournemouth do the same? Will Norwich win four or five of their last six to save themselves? Things get crazy in the final weeks at the bottom and this is shaping up to be one of the best relegation battles in Premier League history as goal difference is so tight between all of the teams.

Top five Premier League players since restart

Top Premier League players
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The top five Premier League players since the restart?

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

There have been plenty of stars who have dazzled since the suspension as an extended break seems to have rejuvenated them.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Take a look below at the top Premier League players of the show so far.


Christian Pulisic

The USMNT star has scored two goals and has two assists in his first three games back, plus he’s been man of the match on the last three occasions for Chelsea. Pulisic, 21, has been lauded by Frank Lampard and he is tearing teams apart with his pace and direct running. His goal in the big win against Man City summed up his talent perfectly. Incredible pace, control and composure. Pulisic is the highest-scoring player in the Premier League under the age of 21 this season.

Danny Ings

What a season this man is having. Danny Ings has finally shaken off his injury problems and has 18 Premier League goals and has scored three since the restart. He’s also hit the crossbar, set up chances for his teammates and has dug deep to defend from the front. Ings, 27, will be linked with plenty of teams this summer but he will be worth way over $60 million by Southampton, his hometown club. The entire soccer world smiles when Ings scores. He is one of the good guys and he’s pushing hard to win the Golden Boot.

Kevin de Bruyne

It is absurd how good Kevin de Bruyne is. It really is. He’s scored three goals since the restart and his free kick against Chelsea was sublime. Add to that his perfect passing and his hunger and KDB is the reason why Man City are pushing hard to add an FA Cup and Champions League to the League Cup they’ve already won this season. Yes, they are no longer Premier League champions but winning three out of four trophies this season isn’t a bad haul. Intrigued to see if he sticks around depending on the outcome of their appeal against the Champions League ban.

Michael Keane

Scored the winner at Norwich and has held Everton’s defense together with timely tackles and blocks. Keane is finally back to his best and he’s showing the form which saw Everton buy him from Burnley for $37 million in 2017. Keane has had his critics but Toffees fans are now loving his partnership with Mason Holgate at center back and they are surging up the table because of their solid foundation. Europa League is the target for Carlo Ancelotti’s side and they are very close to achieving that.

Bruno Fernandes

Perhaps saving the best to last!? Some say that the impact Bruno Fernandes has had on Man United is similar to what Eric Cantona had and how can we argue with that? Since Fernandes arrived in January, Man United haven’t lost and look a completely different team. His two goals against Brighton were sublime and his partnership in midfield with Paul Pogba is flourishing. Defensively United look better and ahead of Fernandes the trio of Martial, Rashford and Greenwood are purring. Fernandes makes everything tick and is making every single Man United player around him better. That is why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are in the top four battle and have all of the momentum.

Honorable mention: Migual Almiron, Riyad Mahrez, Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Luke Shaw, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Ben Mee, Allan Saint-Maximin