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MLS: Five things we learned

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The second day of the 2020 Major League Soccer season was just as enticing as opening day, featuring thrilling goals, a handful of debuts and a late winner.

[ MORE: Vela, LAFC spoil Inter Miami’s MLS debut]

This is what we learned from Sunday’s action:

1) Carlos Vela is the league’s best player, and it’s not even close

Many players, coaches and followers of the league are already onboard with this idea: Carlos Vela is the best player in MLS. He is, and it’s not even close. And if one still had their doubts about the rationale, the Mexican attacker, who turned 31 on Sunday, scored one of his best goals in the league thus far:

These next-level sequences are routine for Vela. Sure, Alejandro Pozuelo quickly assembled a highlight reel of his own in his first season in the league in 2019, but the consistency from the Spaniard pales in comparison. The Cancun native is cut from a different cloth. And, if you ask Bob Bradley, he’d probably tell you that it’s an exclusive cloth.

“I have been a coach for many years and I have been fortunate to train a select group of special players,” Bradley said following Sunday’s game. “Carlos Vela is on that list with Hristo Stoitchkov and Mohamed Salah.”

2) Lucas Zelarayan fits like a glove in Columbus

Lucas Zelarayan’s arrival to the Crew didn’t get the airtime it deserved, but after his debut on Sunday, oblivious onlookers got their first taste of the Argentine’s nifty skills.

In Mexico, Zelarayan got the short end of the stick at Tigres, who boast one of Western Hemisphere’s most lucrative rosters, accumulating more time on the bench, or in club suites than on the field towards the tail-end of his stay. That may never happen under Caleb Porter’s watch, giving Zelarayan the chance to engrave his name into MVP conversation list this season. 

3) Inter Miami didn’t look all that great, offensively 

It’s totally fair game to summon the “it was the first game ever for Inter Miami” one-liner when taking a defensive posture in an anti-Inter Miami debate.

The fact that they made their MLS debut, however, doesn’t save them from being analyzed – for better or for worse. They have both feet in the arena and are fair game.

That said, they didn’t have a productive game on the attacking end.

Rodolfo Pizarro, the player that was purchased for a reported $12 million from Liga MX’s Monterrey, fell really short of the hype surrounding his league debut. The 26-year-old Mexican ended the night with two shots on target, two more than his teammate Robbie Robinson, who offered little goal-scoring threat up top. Matias Pellegrini, too, proposed little from the left flank and was subbed off in the 79th minute.

There’s no doubt that Diego Alonso will eventually figure it out in Miami. After all, David Beckham and company set him up with a decent roster, but don’t be surprised if Inter goes through a long session of growing pains.

4) Atlanta United need a proven striker to fill in for Josef Martinez

On Sunday, Atlanta United revealed that their goal king Josef Martinez tore his ACL against Nashville SC. 

The injury is, undeniably, a major blow to the Five Stripes. To make matters worse, at the moment, Frank De Boer has only one healthy striker to chose from in Adam Jahn. Jahn put together a praiseworthy season with USL Championship side Phoenix Rising in 2019, but has shown the opposite in over 100 MLS appearances.

Luckily, de Boer mentioned the possibility of signing an emergency striker. Atlanta needs to exercise that option, but they can’t afford to execute it mindlessly. In other words, if one wants to fill in the void left by a goal-scoring machine, one needs to do so with a goal-scoring machine.

With the primary transfer window not closing until May 7, the Five Stripes won’t be in a time crunch, but they will have more time to get the ideal signing down (or not). Carlos Bocanegra has done well on player recruitment, but perhaps this is his biggest challenge yet.

5) Jordan Morris needs to start for Sounders moving forward

Like any other coach in a similar situation, Brian Schmetzer had his tactical reasons to start Miguel Ibarra over Jordan Morris. It’s completely understandable.

Moving forward, though, Schmetzer won’t have any reasons to do the same. Morris, who scored two goals off the bench for the Seattle Sounders, handed the defending champions a prized victory over a new-look Chicago Fire, solidifying his place in Seattle’s starting lineup for the pair of weeks to come.

As pointed out by MLS analyst Matt Doyle, Morris, since June 23, has recorded 17 goals and 14 assists for club and country. Morris should be far removed from bench treatment. It’s pretty simple.

Social media reacts to the end of Liverpool’s unbeaten season

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The word of the day in the football world is schaedenfreude.

From metaphorically-popped bottles to Gary Neville doing the real thing, Twitter had a lot to say about the end of Liverpool’s hopes of an Invincibles season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Liverpool supporters were understandably defiant, and some celebrated their amazing run. After all, this is the club that will win the Premier League title in a landslide.

And, as you can imagine… a certain club who last went unbeaten in the Premier League had a lot to say.

Everton fan Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers was eager to have a measure of joy from the only thing his side has done better than their rivals this season.

https://twitter.com/rogbennett/status/1233838166211203072

 

Report: Atletico players angered by Klopp accusations

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Atletico Madris’s strategy at the Wanda Metripolitano on Tuesday evening were on display for all to see. When Saul Ninguez scored an early goal, Diego Simeone had what he came for. The hosts sat back and protected the lead, as is tradition.

The Spanish side, known for its defensive prowess ever since Simeone took charge, successfully absorbed the waves of Liverpool pressure en route to a 1-0 first-leg victory at home in their Champions League Round of 16 matchup against title-holders Liverpool. It was a solid accomplishment for a team that has otherwise not looked itself this season.

[ MORE: Atleti tops Liverpool | Klopp ready for leg 2 ]

Still, Jurgen Klopp was not necessarily impressed.

The Reds boss believed that some relatively recalcitrant methods were utilized as the hosts fought to maintain their early lead. After withdrawing valuable winger Sadio Mane at halftime, there were concerns that the Senegalese star was injured, but Klopp waved those away, instead revealing his true intentions behind the move.

“It’s part of football, I don’t like it,” Klopp said in his post-match press conference. Indeed, Mane had picked up a first-half yellow card on a coming together with Sime Vrsaljko, and Klopp admitted feeling the need to protect his attacker from further disciplinary action. “The [Atletico Madrid] plan was to get Sadio out of the game with a yellow card.”

“I was afraid that his opponent would go down if Sadio only took a deep breath. After 30 minutes, three Atletico players were on the ground, not even injured.”

Klopp was not the only one to notice such tactics, known colloquially by a naughty word not necessarily repeatable here. The players took a slightly more diplomatic route to the same conclusion. Atletico Madrid “started falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin” according to Andy Robertson, while Virgil Van Dijk said: “That is the way they play, that’s Spanish football.” Even some in the media were tactfully astute.

 

Still, the Atletico Madrid players did not take kindly to those accusations, according to an ESPN report out Wednesday morning. Per the report: “ESPN has been told that Atletico’s players are surprised by the complaints, and said it is important to be ‘gracious’ in defeat as well as in victory, and that Klopp should focus more on his own team’s shortcomings, given that they ‘didn’t get a shot on target in 90 minutes.’

It’s no secret how Atletico Madrid plays, yet they still found a soft spot in one of the best defenses in Europe and effectively shut down one of the more potent attacks on the continent as well. Job done by the midway point. The second leg on March 11 after “the longest halftime break you can wish for” according to Klopp, will likely feature more of the same, and should make for appointment viewing.

Klopp: ‘Really special’ Liverpool group overcame rough half

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Liverpool’s first half against Southampton underlined why many believe the incredible Reds are destined for an unbeaten season.

The Reds had some chances but not as many as the visiting Saints, but took the match into halftime at 0-0 before exploding in a 4-0 win.

Klopp called it “strange (in) that Southampton could’ve won it” despite the four-goal difference.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

That strangeness has happened a few times this year, but Liverpool always finds a way to win. In this case, it was just a matter of putting a crack in the dam.

The ensuing flood was powerful.

Mohamed Salah was electric, Jordan Henderson a force, and Roberto Firmino the straw stirring the final-third drink.

Liverpool is showing what it takes to have a chance at an unbeaten season in the congested, tricky Premier League.

The Reds, of course, are one of the two most talented teams in the top flight. Getting the benefit of luck, however you describe the word, is taking them from incredible to historic.

Consider that the expected goals table would see City leading the league by two points with a match-in-hand, but Liverpool is now over-performing expected points by more than 20!

That’s no shot across the bow of the Reds, rather an illustration of what it takes to separate two of the best-orchestrated teams in the world.

By the way, even in the xG world, the Reds were only out-performed thrice in single matches and never by a full goal. (Chelsea, Man City, Wolves).

Expected goals table
https://understat.com/league/EPL

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Ashley Young to Inter

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Manchester United is offloading captain Ashley Young, with multiple reports in both England and Italy claiming the 34-year-old is set for a medical at Inter Milan on Friday.

According to The Telegraph, the deal is worth $1.7 million, netting Manchester United a small sum of money before Young’s contract was set to expire this summer. Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport is also reporting the move. It was reported a few days ago that Young was nearing a deal with Inter through the summer of 2021.

Young has made 12 Premier League appearances for Manchester United this season, but it was unlikely the club would offer him a contract this summer, and he has been slowly phased out of the squad as Luke Shaw began to earn the lion’s share of time at left-back.

He will have plenty of familiar faces at Inter, with Former Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku and on-loan playmaker Alexis Sanchez both currently playing at the San Siro. It is unclear where Young fits in at the Italian side, with Antonio Conte favoring a three-CB system and Young’s skill set more defensive-minded, not exactly suited for a wing-back role.


According to The Guardian’s Nick Ames, Arsenal is paying special attention towards Paris Saint-Germain full-back Layvin Kurzawa, hoping to secure a deal this winter.

The 27-year-old has made 11 Ligue 1 appearances for PSG this season, sharing time with Juan Bernat at left-back. Kurzawa’s contract at PSG expires this summer and he has made just 90 appearances since joining from Monaco in 2015.

Kurzawa would be of special interest to Arsenal given the massive amount of injuries suffered by the Gunners along the back line this season. Kieran Tierney remains sidelined with a dislocated shoulder, with surgery keeping him out through March, while Calum Chambers begins ACL rehab, and both Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac work their way back from thigh injuries.

The Guardian report says the clubs have made contact but a deal is still “some way off.”


Tottenham is desperate to find a short-term replacement for injured talisman Harry Kane, which is proving more difficult than believed as the team looks to convince a player to join knowing they are only needed for a few months.

However, with Gedson Fernandes having already signe don, asking a player to agree to a switch is not the only problem they have reportedly faced. 28-year-old Porto striker Ze Luis is a target for the club according to a number of reports, including the Evening Standard. Unfortunately, it appears work permit issues are at the heart of the holdup.

Portuguese publication Record reports that Ze Luis does not possess a European passport, and as a Cape Verde international, it would seem unlikely that he would be set to earn a British work permit. Cape Verde was ranked 75th in world by the latest FIFA release, and the Premier League usually only considers players from top 50 countries.

After joining this past summer from Spartak Moscow, Ze Luis has scored seven Liga NOS goals in 12 appearances for Porto this season, earning the majority of minutes to this point before sitting the last two games in favor of Brazilian striker Tiquinho Soares.


According to The Guardian reporters Ed Aarons and Paul Doyle, Aston Villa is “close” to a deal for Genk striker Mbwana Samatta in a deal worth $11.1 million.

The deal was likely spurred on by an injury to Villa striker Wesley who suffered a knee injury that is set to keep him out the rest of the season.

Mbwana, a 27-year-old Tanzania international, has seven goals in 20 Jupiler Pro League games this season – although he has just two since the start of September – plus three more in Champions League play. He was the top scorer in the league last season, with 20 goals in 28 appearances, including a streak where he scored 10 goals in nine games through the winter.

He will also need a work permit to complete the switch, which could be an issue given Tanzania is ranked 134th in the world by FIFA, but he has 51 international caps and could be eligible for a special exemption. His status as top scorer last season, earning him the Soulier d’Ébène award as the best African player in Belgium, could be enough to trigger that exemption.