FC Saarbrucken
Photo by Oliver Dietze/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Fourth-tier Saarbrucken, Canada’s Froese return to German Cup fairytale

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Three of the four German Cup semifinalists are monsters of the game. Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Bayer Leverkusen sit first, fourth, and fifth in the Bundesliga.

The fourth semifinalist is also a table-topper; FC Saarbrucken finished in first place in one of five fourth-tier Regionalliga divisions. When it squares off with Bayer Leverkusen on June 9, it’ll do so just started training Thursday and having not played since March 7.

“It is in unbelievable,” says Kianz Froese, the club’s Cuban-Canadian playmaker and a former Vancouver Whitecaps product.

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“We got 9,000 people to our last Pokal game. They sold out tickets right away and people were selling them on the secondhand market for like 1,000 or 2,000 euros. It’s in the blood, It’s in their body, and we have a small stadium. That’s happened multiple times. We have minimum 4,000 fans every game and it’s fourth division.”

Saarbrucken is a city of 200,000 on the French border, closer to Belgium and Luxembourg than Frankfurt.

FC Saarbrücken is its biggest football club. A member of the inaugural Bundesliga, they were relegated after the 1963-64 season and last played in the top flight during the 1993-94 season. The club has played in the 3.Liga and 2.Bundesliga in this century, but swooned as low as the fifth-tier between 2007-09. It’s expected to play in 3.Liga next season as a promoted side.

Its home, the Hermann Neuberger Stadium, holds less than 7,000 fans and under 600 covered seats. The stadium has come alive this season as Saarbrucken led its division right into the coronavirus pause, though that almost feels secondary to what it’s done in the German Cup, knocking off two 2.Bundesliga sides and top tier clubs Koln and Fortuna Dusseldorf to stand one win away from a final.

“We have a player who played at Real Madrid with some of the superstars and when he talks about it he says it’s a highlight in his career,” Froese said. “Every game was kinda like a final. You’d win and you wouldn’t really believe that you won it. … In the region there’s like a million if you count the outskirts of Saarland. There are many other little teams in the area. But our fan base is very traditional. We have fans who are generation after generation.”

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Kianz Froese
Froese (2nd from left) drives between Düsseldorf’s Markus Suttner (left) and Zanka (Photo by Oliver Dietze/picture alliance via Getty Images).

As sports around the world waited to hear whether their seasons resumed, Saarbrucken was left to wonder whether it would get the opportunity to chase more history. It was easy to keep perspective. Though undiagnosed, Froese was one of nine players who suffered from COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks.

“For two weeks soon after (the Fortuna game), it was pretty bad I must say. We had all the symptoms. We now get tested every five days,” Froese said. “We all weren’t sure so it was day-by-day but obviously the health of your family and friends and the world is more important. At that stage our focus shifted more to humanitarian thoughts than to sports.”

Now the club has a June 9 date for their test at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen, who will bring Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, and as many as five more matches of preparation to the field against a Saarbrucken team who may not be able to play a warm-up against anyone other than themselves. They’ve been in small groups at best ahead of their first-team training session Thursday.

“That is a challenge,” Froese said. “We are just training between us. Then we’ll play some games between us again because we can’t have other kinds of opposition I don’t think. We can only train by running and the gym. We won’t have any game rhythm when we go to play them. It’s not going to be easy but it’s doable. It’s not going to be something that’ll be easy.”

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Froese’s journey to Die Molschder has been anything but straight-forward. Debuting for the ‘Caps reserves at age 17 and making his first MLS appearance a year later, Froese earned caps for Canada against Ghana and the USMNT in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

After spending most of 2016 in the USL with Vancouver’s reserves, he struck out for Germany (“I was a pro player, I was in MLS, but I didn’t feel like I had chased by dream”). He had trained with German clubs like Mainz and Freiburg when he was younger.

He took a chance with Fortuna Dusseldorf’s second team and secured a pro contract with the first team. Injuries and the first team’s promotion kept him with Dusseldorf II, where he scored 16 times with six assists in parts of three seasons.

Froese’s path to the first team was hurt by Dusseldorf’s promotion to the Bundesliga, so he moved about 300 kilometers south to Saarbrucken.

Friends and family have grown enamored with his club’s incredible season, which took a delirious turn when Froese assisted a goal in regulation and scored in the shootout while his keeper Daniel Batz stopped one penalty in regulation and four more in penalty kicks.

The announcer cried, “David against Goliath, and David’s winning 1-0.” It was stunning stuff, his mother Esperenza getting updates from friends in Cuba as Saarbrucken moved on to the semifinal round with a 1-1 (8-7) win.

[ MORE: Bundesliga transfer targets to watch ]

Froese’s perspective in speaking about his season is incredibly chill. His 10 assists are a career-high and he’s set a German Cup record for most assists by a player outside the Bundesliga, but he’s not terribly concerned about what’s next.

“If a club wants me in a higher division that’s cool, but for me I need to go out and personally enjoy it,” he said. “Because I don’t know if I’m gonna ever play again at this level against such a good opposition, so heavily watched. At the end of the day it’s my journey. It’s just kinda dreamy sometimes but it’s cool.”

Froese constantly mentions how the game goes quickly and chances aren’t guaranteed, referencing the big picture. He was altered by the passing of his father Joe on Sept. 8, 2018, and proudly shared his father’s obituary.

Joe Froese’s tale is a remarkable story that informs Froese’s considerate and deliberate nature in conversation. Joe Froese was “committed to practical ways of promoting environmental sustainability, peace, social justice, and shared wealth.”

The elder Froese bicycled across the U.S. and Canada, wrote a book about Cuba, “was arrested for helping to turn a buffalo loose at a nuclear weapons base in South Dakota, designed and introduced solar ovens for widespread use in Eritrea and Cuba, and participated in post-earthquake housing construction in Nicaragua” (Kianz, for his part, is involved with an organic coffee and condiment farm in Cuba).

“My dad passed away two years ago and from a personal perspective it’s given me an idea of how important it is to enjoy life,” Kianz Froese said, referencing the coronavirus pandemic providing eerie similarities.

“But I had this experience before because I slowly watched the life of my father pass away. Life goes by quite quickly. I knew when I was coming here everyone was going to say, ‘Oh fourth division. That’s not much. blah blah.’ It became less relevant what people thought of me and my personal journey became more relevant. I enjoy playing soccer and being in Europe, learning new languages, and challenging myself. Here is where the best of the best usually are, and I wanted to see where I line up.”

[ MORE: How to watch Bundesliga in the U.S. ]

There’s little doubt that this latest part of his journey is almost too silly for an author working in fiction. Froese’s Saarbrucken have conjured four upsets with the Cuban-Canadian playmaking featuring prominently.

It’s almost too much for the brain to manage in the moment.

“We win these games and we start crying,” he said. “It means a ton to us. I’ve watched the coach cry, I’ve watched every single player cry with me as we all hug each other on the field. These are moments that money can never ever buy and only sports give that.”

He knows the odds are stacked against Saarbrucken when Bayer pays a visit in early June. The lack of preseason alone is a huge ask, not even considering Bayer’s status as a constant European competitor.

So Froese and his team will take it as it comes. For the player, he knows nothing’s guaranteed and that his ride from teen debutant in Vancouver to top assist man in the German Cup has been anything but straight-forward.

“Soccer is a crazy thing,” he said. “Who knows if the club will even offer me a new contract and who knows if somebody else is going to come and sign me? The game is just the game. It’s fast. What are the odds? It’s really hard to say. You’re playing roulette. It’s like walking into a casino and throwing your life on the line and seeing where you land. All you can say is you know you have a family and you love them and we’ll see where it continues. That’s the art of the game.”

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+