Where should the USMNT players move this summer?

Juventus is favored to land Christian Pulisic

There’s going to be a lot of movement for the top end of the USMNT roster, but what would be best for them? We mean other than Ibiza or The Algarve on vacation. Though they should do that too. They’ve earned it. But after the Nations League semis and (hopefully) final, the main cogs of the USMNT will probably get to business figuring out where they’re going to ply their trade next season. There are going to be a lot of them on the move in the next month or two, given various playing situations and relegations and the general scatterbrained nature of soccer as a whole. So how should it shake out (but definitely won’t)? We got ya. Let’s kick this pig.

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The big one, the captain, still the U.S.’s most talented player (until Gio Reyna both plays regularly for Dortmund and isn’t such a pain in the ass). Pulisic has already, basically, been told to do one by new Chelsea coach Mauricio Pochettino, and quite frankly Chelsea need the money he would bring in a transfer.

The main rumor is that Juventus are very interested in Pulisic, and on the surface that sounds enticing. While Juve won’t be in the Champions League next season thanks to their points deduction, it’s still Juventus and they should still be contending for a Serie A title. Then again, a lot of what should happen in Turin rarely does lately.

It’s hard to know what kind of fit Pulisic would be at Juve because there’s so much we don’t know about them. It sure feels like Max Allegri will be booted as manager, which is probably a good thing for our Yank captain because Allegri’s latest 3-6-1 formation didn’t really fit Pulisic or would have had him playing something like a wingback, which was a major problem at Chelsea. Until we know who’s coaching, it’s hard to judge.

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If Pulisic’s best position is still on the left side of an attack, and it’s hard to know given how rarely we’ve seen him at Chelsea, there isn’t much competition he can’t stand out against at Juventus, as both Juan Cuadrado and Angel Di Maria are exiting stage left. That’s a bigger problem at Milan, another rumored destination, where Rafael Leão lives on the left and might have missed a window on a big transfer to the glitterati of Europe. Pulisic isn’t dislodging Leão.

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The problem at both is that Pulisic has never looked very comfortable with a team that has the ball a lot, and has looked much better when he can get out in space on the counter and at pace. That might be a growing problem at Newcastle, another team that’s been connected to him. That doesn’t mean he has to downgrade to a bad team, but he should be picky if he can.

Which means Pulisic should swallow his pride a bit, and opt for the move that wouldn’t even involve moving house. Brentford are going to lose a forward for half of next season in Ivan Toney, they like to play on the counter, and he can easily grab the starting berth on the left week after week. If it’s true that Chelsea will let him go for just $20 million, that puts him in Brentford’s range. While the Bees spent most of the season in a 3-5-2, towards the end Thomas Frank was using a 4-3-3 that would hit Pulisic between the eyes. He’ll never do it, but it makes a ton of sense.

Where he’ll go: Juventus

Where he should go: Brentford

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While Pulisic may be the most talented, Adams is still the U.S.’s most important. They don’t have a replacement for him anywhere, he’s the only one who can make the USMNT’s midfield go with his all-action style and endurance. And he nor the national team will be helped by him trudging around various muddy pitches of the Championship in the dark with Leeds next season. Adams turned some heads in the Premier League with his performances, but it’s still only 24 games that he played so it might be hard to convince some to take the splash.

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The obvious answer is West Ham, who will lose Declan Rice and Adams can at least run as much as Rice. What he can’t do is be three midfielders at once like Rice can, which Hammers fans would notice pretty quickly. Adams can break up play and make simple passes, but he can’t create much. He’d have to be part of a midfield overhaul at West Ham. He certainly could add to Aston Villa’s depth as a holding midfielder, which doesn’t have much behind Douglas Luiz. Some rumors have Man United circling, but again he’d be more depth there behind Casemiro and it’s unclear how Adams fits with a team that will have the ball a lot. He’s just not that good with it.

Where he should go: West Ham

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We know he’s not staying at Leeds, and Leeds fans are certainly happy about that, and one wonders if the whole experience soured him on England altogether. A stay at Juventus doesn’t seem likely. Again, McKennie is a hard player to accommodate and get the best out of. You need a set midfield behind him and allow him to sort of go off-script so he can get in the box to score, which is what he does well. Leeds had him too deep, Juve too wide.

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If he wants to try England again, Villa seem like a natural fit. Unai Emery’s 4-2-2-2 system means that McKennie could be absolved of a lot of defensive duties in the forward two of the midfield, and wouldn’t be shunted out wide as he was with Juve. Villa aren’t a possession-heavy team either, where his lack of passing skills might get exposed. There’s a foundation in the middle already there in Luis, John McGinn, and Jacob Ramsey, while they still press enough to get enough out of McKennie’s athleticism and energy (when he bothers to show it).

Where he should go: Aston Villa

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Aaronson is a different case than everyone who came before, given that it really wasn’t clear that he’s Premier League quality. Sure, he runs around a lot and is very annoying to play against, but he’s an attacker who produced one goal and three assists. Luckily for Aaronson, thanks to his relegation release clause, he should be pretty cheap.

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Still, a move to the Bundesliga seems best. Bayer Leverkusen may lose a couple forwards this summer, and that might be too tall a task for Aaronson’s limited skill. Replacing Florian Wirtz would also put him behind the eight-ball as he’s never going to be Wirtz. But they also are the most pressing team in Germany, and Aaronson needs to be in a team that presses a lot otherwise he’s wasted. Mönchengladbach are another team lower down the totem pole that press a ton and also play a 4-2-3-1 where Aaronson’s flexibility would play up. If he needs to stay in England, Bournemouth or Everton might work, especially the latter given their love of forwards who don’t score.

Where he should go: Bayer Leverkusen (it’s a pipe dream), Borussia Monchengladbach

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You might have forgotten about him, because he’s been a ghost since the World Cup. It’s likely most at AC Milan don’t even know his name, and so he’ll head back to Barcelona in the summer. Barcelona also don’t want him. He might be even harder to accommodate than McKennie, given he’s a fullback who can’t really defend.

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Union Berlin have been a rumor, and they’re now a Champions League club, and though they’re more a 3-5-2 team, Dest seems more attuned to being a wingback than a fullback. Union have gotten by this season with very adventurous players on the right at wingback in Josip Juranović and Christopher Trimmel, but the latter is 36. Maybe Union will be cannon fodder in the Champions League, but this makes too much sense for an active player with an active team.

Where he should go: Union Berlin

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Now that Valencia have almost guaranteed their safety, it’s not for sure that Musah will be going. But there have been rumors that he’d like to move to England, and even his old club Arsenal have been somewhat curious. Musah to Arsenal sounds like a dream reunion, and he could be more dynamic than the departed Granit Xhaka while maybe not being as forceful. Like a lot of his national team teammates, Musah is not a great passer, though maybe playing for Mikel Arteta would be the perfect place to work on that. There is a dream of a Partey-Musah-Ødegaard midfield–one destroyer, one dribbler, one creator, that perfectly links. And yet it seems a stretch, and Musah would likely be more of a squad player in North London. He’s also been briefly mentioned as a cheaper alternative in Liverpool’s midfield revolution, but some of the same issues there.

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If Musah could be convinced to lower his sights, playing at Brighton to fill in for their midfield departures this summer seems a great option. He’ll still get Premier League wages, a good chance at playing every week, and playing for a team and manager that doesn’t hesitate to hit the gas. One season or two there could prime him for a move to the top six as well.

Where he should go: Brighton

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This is the most fun one, because he has way more options. Being in the top five in goals in Ligue 1 will open some doors, as well as being just 20 years old. Balogun might have his sights set on the Premier League and those kinds of wages, but he can go anywhere. He’s been talked about as a replacement for the Chelsea-bound Christopher Nkunku, which would feed well into his pacey/get-behind-the-defense style. If Everton had more than a nickel he’d be the perfect guy to finally cure their scoring woes, but they don’t so that’s out. He may dream of Man United, but Marcus Rashford kind of takes their running-in-behind role and they want something more of all-rounder at the No. 9. Don’t rule this out though. Brentford need someone to take Toney’s spot while he’s suspended, but he’s probably out of their price range.

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Milan would be an interesting call, given Olivier Giroud’s age and how he’d dovetail with Leao. But Balogun hasn’t really played as a central striker on his own, more so either on the left of a three or with a partner. Which makes him the perfect replacement for Nkunku, who was the same kind of tweener between a wide and center forward.

Where he should go: RB Leipzig

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate, especially when Musah ends up at Anfield and he writes an article about how great it is.

Today is the end of an era for Ted Lasso, no matter what fate awaits the beloved Midwestern coach

Is this it for Ted Lasso?

I can’t remember looking forward to a single episode of a television show more than this week’s season-three finale of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso since “Felina”, the series finale of Breaking Bad, which aired on AMC on Sept. 29, 2013. Literally a decade ago, my roommates and I during my senior year of college watched Jesse Pinkman drive away in the El Camino. Sorry, you had more than a dozen years to watch the epic from start to finish. Your loss. But you’re here to read about AFC Richmond and the Emmy-award-winning series that’s more so about the people that work in sports than the football (soccer) itself.

Has this season been as spell-bindingly good as the previous two? No. But that’s whatever comedic equivalent exists to climbing Mount Everest. The first two seasons were easy-watches, the epitome of binge-watching because of how long every episode was and the originality of the content, elevating Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt’s characters that first appeared in ads for NBC Sports to literally and figuratively the Premier League. Season three has been great, with the most satisfying moments in the series hopefully awaiting this week. However season three sticks the landing will be the lasting memory of this block of dozen episodes, instead of the journey to get here, like seasons one and two.

Of the storylines surrounding the season finale, the only one that isn’t straightforward involves Richmond owner Rebecca Welton, who’s gone from pestering boss to trusted confidant. Now her evil side might show again in a takedown of her ex-husband Rupert Mannion. The love triangle between Jamie, Keeley, and Roy should have a touching conclusion no matter where it ends. And somehow, Nate will be likable again. Oh yeah, and the show’s namesake, with Coach Lasso’s future atop a possible Premier League-winning club in doubt of his own accord, after his rare usage of profanity at the end of the penultimate episode brought his insecurities involving his son to the surface.

Ted Lasso’s future remains unclear

The future of the series beyond season three has been heavily speculated with fans unclear as to whether this week’s episode is only goodbye for a little while, or permanently. And my prediction is both. Ted Lasso the character ends after this week’s episode as either Roy Kent or Nathan Shelley will be at Richmond’s helm moving forward, while Lasso moves back to America to be a bigger presence in his son’s life and will only make cameos from here on out. There’s little chance Ted Lasso, as a show, ends. The emotional investment from the show’s fan base will make it next to impossible to not cash in more in a post-Ted Lasso-AFC Richmond, with a Champions League campaign likely afoot, for at least one more season. It would be weird to have the character the show is named after not central to every episode, but Lasso’s influence would be everywhere.

Not only would a Ted Lasso-less Ted Lasso be the end of an era for one of the best shows on television or a streaming service, but it’d also double as the end of an era for sports television. The only sports television show that comes close in terms of quality is Friday Night Lights. NBC had a book and movie to help inspire characters and storylines for its amazing five-season run. Ted Lasso had minuscule source material. With the critical acclaim Ted Lasso has received, I’ve pondered if it’ll open the door for more mainstream sports shows. And just like Million Dollar Baby didn’t course-correct Hollywood, Ted Lasso serves more as a great comedic show with some scenes about soccer, not a soccer show with a little pizzazz.

No matter how season three ends, Ted Lasso is firmly placed as a top-two sports television show of all time. If my theory of Lasso moving back to the Kansas City area holds true, why wouldn’t he try to become the head coach of Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City? He’s a manager with Premier League experience, and MLS clubs have taken way bigger fliers in the past. Maybe Lasso wouldn’t want to lead a team without Beard and Kent by his side. However, Apple TV does have rights to MLS Season Pass, so corporate synergy for the win! And it would be a weird twist to end the character’s arc that makes sense. I’ll have my popcorn ready to see how this all unfolds.

Here comes Newcastle… maybe

Newcastle celebrates a major W over Leicester City, qualifying the club for a spot in the Champions League.

As Manchester City have bulldozed their way through the second half of the season that gives off the feeling that they’re simply strolling to a Treble, if bulldozing, and strolling can be the same thing, there’s been a question of what anyone can do to stop them in the years to come. Sadly, for everyone outside Newcastle, they’ve grudgingly had to admit that one possibility is to be owned by your own Middle Eastern government and to be a sportswashing vehicle for a different regime soaked in blood. It’s not quite that simple, but the money afforded to Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia certainly is a big step. And they took another one yesterday.

Newcastle qualified for next season’s Champions League with their scoreless draw with Leicester City, and in one measure they’re actually ahead of Man City. It took the latter three seasons under their ownership to crack the top four, and Newcastle has done it in their second. City, of course, then added two league titles in the next three seasons after that, which no one is expecting Newcastle to do, because when City did it, there wasn’t a Man City like this in the way.

Just looking at simple, on-the-field squads, there’s also a key difference between that City team of 2011 and this Newcastle team. The former had a raft of players in their primes or just about to enter it. Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, David Silva, Carlos Tevez, James Milner were all between 24 and 27, and ready to grow (if you can actually believe that Milner was once in his 20s). Sergio Agüero was added in the summer after that 3rd place finish, and he was of the same age window. Same goes for Samir Nasri and Micah Richards.

This Newcastle team…is kind of old? Its spine is not, as Sven Botman, Bruno Guimarães, Joelinton, Joe Willock, and Alexander Isak are between 23, or 26. That’s a good start. But the rest of their key contributors are, seemingly, on the downside of their careers, even if they’ve just got on the other side of the crest. Dan Burn is 31. So is Fabian Schär. Kieran Trippier is 32. That’s three-fourths of the normal back four and the team’s best chance-creator in Trippier. Callum Wilson, who supports Isak, or can pair with him, is in his 30s too. Miguel Almiron is about to enter his 30s.

Exceptional performances

Most of these guys have had career seasons. Trippier certainly has more freedom than he ever did at Atletico Madrid, but his chance-creation from right-back has been galactic. Can he do it again at 33 with Champions League games thrown in? Schär has played 1,000 more minutes this season than he ever has. Burn hasn’t played this much in five years when he was in League One. Wilson has clearly benefited from playing with better players than he did at Bournemouth and has been a consistent Premier League goalscorer. He put up another shot per 90 this season more than ever before, will that continue as he ages?

Here comes the money

The fear among fans and observers is that this isn’t much of a problem for Newcastle, because they can just buy a whole new team. And they will. They’ve spent somewhere around $339 million in the past two seasons, or basically half a Chelsea.

What’s actually frightening is that Newcastle’s front office, headed by ex-Brighton director Dan Ashworth, is that their best buys have been the ones that flew under the radar. Isak was the big ticket item this season at $75 million, and he’s been good. But Botman and goalkeeper Nick Pope cost a combined $50 million or so. Last season, Guimarães cost around $45 million, and he’s the unquestioned heartbeat of the team. Trippier cost $15 million. So did Burn. Maybe they’ve spread the money around instead of fishing in the “Neymar” pond, but they’ve gotten most of it right. Money + smarts = problems for everyone else. We don’t need to discuss the purchase of Anthony Gordon, though we can for a chuckle. Dude can’t turn left.

But depending on how much of a problem they diagnose their age in certain spots around the field, it’s hard to blend a host of new players together while also playing twice a week pretty much every week. It’s possible, but it’s a new level of strata for the club.

Still, there’s an element of foreboding with Newcastle, that they’ll just be the next state-run monster roaming the countryside that other teams can’t run with aside from City and if Manchester United get taken over by Qatar. And that the Premier League will just be a proxy war for esteem and acclaim by oil states.

Maybe. Newcastle still have some ways to go to build the depth to do that, and even City didn’t get it right for about 10 years until Pep Guardiola was given a couple seasons to restructure the club. Eddie Howe is a very good manager, but he’s not that. Newcastle need depth on the wings — which they tried to address with the purchase of Gordon which… ha— and in defense, especially at fullback. They need a plan when Guimarães isn’t around, because they were a completely different team when he was hurt, or suspended.

It’s a step in the right direction for sure, and a big one. But we all might still have a season or two before Newcastle are the next club that Real Madrid and Juventus are trying to get thrown out of European competition for whatever reasons they can make up.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate to see his Alexis Mac Allister shrine.

What’s next for Arsenal?

A dejected Gabriel Jesus of Arsenal hides his face during the Premier League match at the City Ground, Nottingham.

When you’ve spent 248 days on top of the Premier League (somewhat aided by the World Cup break, of course), getting not just passed but utterly dusted in the last month or so of the season can feel pretty deflating. That’s where Arsenal find themselves, and certainly conceding the title by getting one’s ass handed to it by City and by Brighton at home and then confirming Nottingham Forest’s survival by looking utterly toothless doesn’t leave the heart full.

But when the mess is cleaned up and the hangover treated with some B-12, Arsenal should look at the season fondly. No one thought they’d be here, and they flashed some truly wonderful soccer on their way to being runners-up. And in the Guardiola Era, that might be all any team can really hope for. Should they get to 84 points next weekend, it’ll be their third-highest total in the Premier League ever. Such is the way that City have warped what it takes to win a title that 84 points can be seen as low.

Arsenal made progress this season

Like last season, Arsenal’s depth caused them to cough and wheeze pretty heavily at the end of the campaign. Last May it cost them a Champions League spot to Spurs — which seems utterly unfathomable now and basically a waste of both clubs’ time — and this time around, the title. Compare the squads between City and Arsenal, and not only the difference in talent in some spots but how City were better able to spread around minutes. In all competitions, Arsenal had 10 players play over 2,000 minutes. City had 14. Doesn’t sound like much, but look who surged at the end, and who didn’t.

Clearly, Arsenal were not the same without William Saliba. Saliba last appeared in the league in Arsenal’s 27th game in the Premier League, where they collected their 66th point, good for 2.4 points per game, good for a 91-point pace. That is likely where City will end up. In the 10 games since, Arsenal have collected 15 points, or a 57-point pace, which is decidedly mid-table (still way better than Chelsea though!). The whole thing collapsed without him, and the 18 goals conceded in those 10 games pretty much say everything.

Looking forward, clearly Arsenal need to do better than having Rob Holding coming in for Saliba when the latter can’t play. And it’s not like Arsenal will get a break in the midweek next season, because Champions League games will require the A-team most nights as well.

Where does the Gunners go from here?

Still, finding a defender to be first off the bench isn’t as simple as merely throwing up a “Help Wanted” sign. True quality players will want to play regularly, and anyone comfortable with being on the bench to start probably is either a youngster coming through or an older player ready to admit where they are in the world. Arsenal’s system also really requires three centerbacks to play at once, as Oleksandr Zinchenko moves into midfield from left back and usually Ben White forms the three from right back with the ball. Depth here will be paramount. USMNT fans will be hoping that Auston Trusty enters the chat after a season on loan with Birmingham, but that seems like a huge jump.

Moving farther up the field, it has been an open secret that the Gunners are the favorites to land Declan Rice from West Ham, the players’ favorite transfer of moving to a bigger club and bigger salary without actually having to find a new house. And no team could be hurt by signing Rice. It’s just a little unclear what Rice’s role would be.

For West Ham, because they have to have him do so, Rice does everything. He plays the holding midfielder and attacking midfield roles all at the same time. If any Arsenal supporter is worried about what Rice’s odometer might look like playing 3,000 minutes season after season while having to cover the whole field, we won’t stop them.

Arsenal shouldn’t need Rice to do all that. For England. Rice is simply a #6 behind two attacking midfielders, which he’s marvelous at. And perhaps Arsenal will use him there, though that’s where Thomas Partey plays (unless he’s off to prison). Or maybe Mikael Arteta was so horrified by Partey’s Deadhead in the parking lot performance against City in April that he just wants an upgrade. Or perhaps Rice is replacing Granit Xhaka, who’s off to Leverkusen, as a pure #8. He could do that, though doesn’t seem the best use of his skills. A double-pivot with Jorginho in a 4-2-3-1? Clearly there’s some reshuffling coming, because this is the one spot where Arsenal are old. Party will be 30 next season, Xhaka was already in his 30s, Jorginho is 31. Rice can’t really be the only addition in the middle. Another chase for Moises Caicedo from Brighton seems certain, and talk around Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus has been audible as well.

Need more up front than Trossard and Saka

The depth problems may be more acute up top for Arsenal, where they really only have Leandro Trossard to back up both Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. While Saliba’s injury was clearly the biggest factor, Saka crunching a little under the weight of the most minutes he’s ever played for Arsenal — as well as carrying a major role for England at the World Cup — blunted the attack, too. Arsenal will hope Fabio Viera can prove to be trusted to deputize for Martin Odegaard more often behind whoever is playing forward.

Ah, that forward. The question Arteta probably asks himself in the truly darkest hours when staring at the ceiling is can he trust Gabriel Jesus to be the unquestioned leader of the line? Jesus is top-ten in shots per 90 and shots on target per 90, so he gets in the right spots. No one shoots more regularly from closer to the target (10.4 yards on average) than Jesus. So considering all that, his finishing rate–12 percent of shots and 30 percent of shots on target resulting in 10 goals–seems a touch low. Secondly, and more importantly, Jesus has never managed more than 2,000 minutes in a season, which is only about 2/3rds. Some of that was due to being a role player at City, and he was unfortunate with a bad injury in this term in North London. Eddie Nketiah has one less goal in 500 less minutes. Are these two enough to fight on a Premier League and Champions League front?

Most Arsenal hopes right now are pinned to just how young they are. Saliba is 22, Saka 21, Odegaard 24, Martinelli 21. Natural growth should lead to improvement, so says logic, but any sports fan will tell you how nonlinear growth can be. Trying to run with City for a season has broken a couple teams in the recent past, with so much having to go right for a season to even be close that it can’t possibly continue for another season. Arsenal would do well to heed that lesson.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate to see his Arsenal supporting college roommate yell at him.


Ilkay Gündoğan joins the chorus line and cinches another title for Manchester City

Ilkay Gündoğan (left) celebrates his goal.

A lot of the joy of sports comes from watching men and women do things we can’t possibly do, or would never have been able to do. We live to be amazed, and sometimes can’t even conceive of how a particular play is made. The logistics just don’t add up, with where the ball was landing or the speed it was traveling, the amount of defenders in the way, or whatever else.

And then there are the feats that just look like they would lay us up for months at a time. Witness Ilkay Gündoğan score this goal that would have had most of us launching our groin into space while our right hip went on strike:

Gündoğan never even looks at the goal, just knows where it is, and even takes a bad first touch (there’s no way he meant to pop this up behind him). And yet it doesn’t matter, as he can improvise this flick facing the wrong way with a defender on his back, and put it pretty close to the corner for good measure.

This is the most deflating thing about playing City. Everton had actually kept them pretty well wrapped up all the way to halftime, and yet there are always at least six guys on the field who can just come up with some individual piece of brilliance you can’t plan for. And that’s with City resting a bunch of players for their Champions League semifinal second leg on Wednesday against Madrid.

That goal, and then the second that Gündoğan added later (leading to a hilarious picture of Jordan Pickford), would wrap up the title for City after Arsenal were humped by Brighton 3-0 at home. This is becoming a habit for the City captain, who scored twice in the final game last season to secure the Premier League for his employers (grumble, grumble). The German kind of floats under the radar at City even despite being captain, not as celebrated as Haaland or De Bruyne or Rodri or being as expensive as Grealish or Mahrez. He wasn’t even seen as stitching everything together in the past as the Silvas, Davids, or Bernardos.

But there he is again, fourth in minutes this season for City outfield players, being the perfect compliment to De Bruyne and Rodri in midfield with the ability to play as the deepest or join the attack to score goals, and every goal he scores seems to be vitally important. Just in the past month, he’s opened the scoring against stubborn sides like Sam Allardyce’s version of Leeds or Everton today. He’s often the final piece against teams that are just bunkering down against City, the player they can’t seem to pick up or stop.

Gündoğan is out of contract this summer, and the rumors have percolated that Barcelona are hot on his tail even though they don’t have any money (not having any money apparently doesn’t matter as long as you believe you have money). He’ll turn 33 next season, and maybe City want to start getting younger in some spots. Maybe he just wants a new challenge. It never feels like City will miss any player who leaves, given their depth and ability to replace anyone with anyone. And yet Gündoğan feels like one they may have wished to hold onto a little longer should he depart for Spain.

He certainly has a habit of putting the final touches on their biggest accomplishments.

The Toronto Maple Leafs disappoint their fans by winning

The Maple Leafs avoided elimination — for now

No one does a post-mortem like the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the past six years, it’s been an April tradition. The Leafs spit up all over themselves in the playoffs, and then the next week the rest of the playoffs are drowned out by the wailing from southern Ontario about who needs to be traded, who needs to be fired, who needs to be signed, and why the NHL needs to do more to bend the rules to those in blue more often. It’s what they do best, as it’s their natural state. Leafs Nation doesn’t want to win so much as to tell everyone what they think it takes to win.

But no, after a shaky first period, the Leafs gained control of Game 4, finally got a bounce in a puck that hit the ref’s skate and banked perfectly to William Nylander in the slot, as well as a big goal from Mitch Marner. And then they were able to hold on without asking rookie Joseph Woll to do too much in net.

Which means they very well might be saving this for the Toronto crowd, in most ways more delicious than simply getting swept. They’ll make their fans watch. Or better yet, they’ll win Game 5 and actually give their fans hope. Or what looks like hope, but is really a ruse they try to pull on the rest of the hockey world so they can justify nailing themselves to the cross even more even if we saw through the act long ago. Their various video bloggers will be drinking two gallons of their own piss instead of one soon enough.

The shots of Maple Leaf Square might convince the uninitiated that Leafs’ fans are relieved to get one win, to not have to suffer the embarrassment of being swept by a No. 8 seed, and to have just the tiniest bit of hope restored with a home game coming. They have to win at home after losing twice, right? Anything could happen after that, right?

Don’t be fooled, it’s not how they’re built. Leafs Nation’s favorite time of year is right after the team beefs it. That’s when they’re at their best, declaring their highest-paid players are failures and soft and need to be removed for players who get it, and then acting incredulous when other star players take a pass on playing in Toronto. The week after a Toronto exit is a holiday, full of everyone “knowing” the answer and how the rest of us just don’t understand what it means to be a Leaf. Which is strange for an area that hasn’t actually seen a winner in 56 years. How is everyone so sure what it takes?

Edmonton Oilers dominate, even series vs. Golden Knights

Speaking of more dumb hockey-ness, the Golden Knights got a blue and orange foot shoved up their ass and into their ribcage last night to the tune of a 4-1 score that wasn’t that close. And as the Knights are wont to do, more so than any other team it feels like, they took a playoff loss in the classiest way possible:

This will be yet another chance for George Parros, who heads the Department of Player Safety, to show the world what the maximum fine is for a player, the same amount Alex Pietrangelo will tip whoever washes his car next week. Which is why you don’t hire a former goon to decide what needs to be wiped from the game.

There is nothing hockey about this. It’s a vicious attempt to injure and nothing more. What could warrant a suspension other than a player going out of his way, chasing an unsuspecting player, and trying to knock him out of the rest of the playoffs across the ice from the puck?

But no, Parros will bend to the ancient hockey tradition of “message sending,” the canopy of the truly idiotic that keeps the game in the dark. Which will probably turn Game 5 into mayhem, which might be what the NHL wants anyway.

There was more horseshit in the last two minutes of this one, as there always is when one team gets powdered in a playoff game, especially when that team is the Knights. Which is a keen ploy, doing anything that will have the refs in Game 5 on high alert and calling penalties left and right. A team definitely wants to put the Oilers on the power play as much as they can. Cornwallis is fainting at the genius of the strategy. Not like that unit has become self-aware or anything.

The San Siro crowd delivers

Switching to soccer, I can get snobby about the atmosphere at sporting events in North America and how canned and tame it can feel a lot of the time. And this is why, courtesy of both Milan and Inter Milan fans before yesterday’s Champions League semi-first leg:

Claudio Castagnoli once again shows his strength on AEW Dynamite

And finally, pro wrestling:

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

Real Madrid and Manchester City trapped each other, or so they’d have you believe

Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (l.) and Real Madrid’s David Alaba at the end of the UEFA Champions League, semi-final, first leg match.

When you’ve been as dominant in the Champions League as Real Madrid have for the past decade, or as dominant in the Premier League as Manchester City have, you can convince everyone that whatever you do is part of the plan, part of a higher genius we can’t quite understand. It must be, otherwise, how do they both keep winning? If luck is any part of it, the universe only becomes colder and more confusing.

Sure, in yesterday’s Champions League semifinal first leg, Madrid would have expected to have to defend for long stretches. No one is going to dominate the ball against City, and Madrid’s midfield containing the AARP legs of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos (as brilliant on the ball as they can be) was never going to try to press City high up the field. They were going to have to bunker down at times. But the first 20 minutes of yesterday’s match were pretty excessive. This momentum chart on FotMob gives you some idea of just how pinned Madrid were.

Madrid didn’t have a shot at all in the game’s first 36 minutes. They couldn’t break through City’s press at all, often turning the ball right back over and not only being pushed into their own half but just around their own penalty area. To the untrained eye, or to the un-Ancelotti-pilled eye, it looked like Madrid was getting their ass kicked up to their ears.

Ah, but this is Madrid. This is the Champions League. There’s a black magic we can’t understand, can’t quantify, right? We’ve seen this before. What it looks like isn’t what it is. It’s never not part of the plan for Madrid.

This is the soccer observer version of, “I’m not owned!” But it’s right to feel this way because…

Because for Madrid, it takes one Modrić flick that he really shouldn’t be capable of at 37, one great Camavinga run, and a finish from Vinicius Jr. that would be best described as a sound cannon. All part of the plan.

You’re lookin’ at me, I’m lookin’ at you…

And from there, the roles flipped. Madrid suddenly had most of the ball, City looked pretty jittery, and here was Madrid dusting themselves off after a rocky opening that they went through simply to up the degree of difficulty.

But this is the finished version of Guardiola’s City, right? They’re actually happy to cede control of the ball for stretches while now being convinced that doesn’t mean ceding control of the match, no? That’s how they just tore Arsenal to shreds just a couple weeks ago. It’s how they turned Bayern Munich into paste. They can do this, they want to do this, this is their new style.

Except getting outshot from the time Vinicius Jr. scored to their equalizer 7-2 probably isn’t the idea. Controlling the match without the ball means not giving up chances, doesn’t it? Isn’t this actually just being second-best?

Well, here’s City’s argument that it was all part of their plan too:

Kevin De Bruyne sees Vinicius Jr.’s sound cannon and raises an Armageddon meteor. I’m a sucker for any thunderbastard that only elevates off the ground due to the spin and velocity, not the angle it was launched. It’s simply too powerful for gravity to get a hold of.

From there, the match was sort of the immovable object and irresistible force or some variation, as both teams were either too wary of getting lured into what they were sure was another trap from the opponent that may or may have not actually been set. City also seemed to tire, with Pep making no substitutions and have had the more taxing schedule leading into yesterday.

It is a better result for City, as they’re heading home. While Madrid can rest the whole team on the weekend as La Liga is already decided, Guardiola’s refusal to use any subs probably means he’ll send out a heavily rotated team at Everton on Sunday even though they still have a title to clinch. We know which basket Pep’s eggs are really in.

But Madrid have reached this status in the Champions League where no one can be convinced that anything has ever gone against their plans or wishes. They’re Hannibal always ready to reach for his cigar until proven otherwise, and even then most of us won’t believe it. But then, City are too now. Is there a GIF of two Hannibal Smiths pointing at each other?

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he tries to convince himself that either Milan team would have a prayer against these monsters.

The Gang Enters The Soccer Tournament

Wrexham co-owners Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds celebrate on an open-top bus during a victory parade for the team.

This is a fever dream for soccer, or a fever nightmare depending on what team you root for. The Soccer Tournament, or TST for short, was announced this week as a 32-team showcase taking place in early June in North Carolina. Based on The Basketball Tournament, it’s a winner-take-all, 7-on-7, $1 million event featuring celebrities, and high-profile retired professionals, with competitors coming from several parts of the globe to participate. Let’s get weird with some of these matchups!

Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, the German giants who are currently fighting for a Bundesliga title, facing Hoosiers Army, a group of Indiana soccer alumni. Rounding out Group A are Newtown Pride FC, a small club team from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Kingdom FC, a team organized by Cody and Paulie Califiore, the former soccer-playing brothers best known for multiple stints on Big Brother and The Challenge. Nothing says preparing for next season’s UEFA Champions League like that trio of opponents. It gets weirder.

Wrexham will face off with USWNT alumnae 

America’s darling Wrexham A.F.C., who would get smashed by every Major League Soccer team, will face competition from the United States. Who exactly, how about alumnae of the United States women’s national team? Yup, captained by longtime USWNT defender Heather O’Reilly, the squad full of women who represented their country at the highest level will go face-to-face with Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. It’s the soccer crossover we never knew we wanted. Also in Group E is second-division Italian side Como, with player-coach Cesc Fabregas. The former Arsenal and Chelsea star is part of the team’s ownership group when not putting on his cleats again. A few other professional teams are participating in TST as well including Premier League sides Wolverhampton and West Ham United, Club Necaxa from Liga MX, Hapoel Tel Aviv from the Israeli Premier League, and Charlotte FC from MLS.

Famous faces from the USMNT will also be involved

There are also several teams with United States men’s national team alumni participating. USMNT legend Clint Dempsey, alongside former Yanks’ teammates Eddie Johnson and Jermaine Jones are in Group G. One of the most anticipated games of the group stage will be their showdown with Sneaky Fox FC, led by former USMNTer Mike Magee with star-studded teammates Landon Donovan, Nick Rimando and Alan Gordon. A third team in Group G will have USMNT representation with AJ DeLaGarza and Lee Nguyen on Zala FFF. In Group B, Blade & Grass FC will be led by recently retired Stars and Stripes alumni Brek Shea and Geoff Cameron.

Group F might be the most unique of the bunch with Conrad and Beasley United having the most recognizable soccer stars in the group of former USMNTers DaMarcus Beasley and Jimmy Conrad, alongside Canadian legend Dwayne De Rosario. Hashtag United will be a bunch of social-media stars coming together and Gracie FC will be the Brazilian first family of jiu-jitsu putting their soccer skills to the test. Rounding out the group is Nati SC, a group of players that helped Cincinnati FC reach the MLS from the lower levels of American soccer with special guest star Chad “OchoCinco” Johnson. This will be an entertaining four days, I have no doubts. 

FIFA wants to promote women’s soccer — as long as there’s money in it

Gianni Infantino says FIFA will be ‘forced not to broadcast’ this summer’s Women’s World Cup in the ‘big five’ European countries if bidding outlets do not improve on ‘disappointing’ and ‘unacceptable’ offers.

“FIFA is a non-profit organization” is one of the biggest oxymorons in the world. You don’t get a good portion of the organization indicted for corruption if the body is mainly focused on merely the health of the sport and building it from the bottom up. Gianni Infantino’s latest episode of throwing his toys out of the crib over the TV rights to the women’s World Cup this summer is only the latest example.

A bit of background is necessary. The TV rights and sponsorships to the women’s World Cup used to simply be bundled with the men’s World Cup. When Fox won the rights to broadcast, for example, it got both. That muddied the waters on what each tournament was making, which FIFA used as cover for the dwarfing of the women’s prize money by the men’s because it didn’t have exact figures for either. You would have thought it could just as easily be an excuse to equal them out, and certainly the fairer one. But this is FIFA, where logic and decency go to be brutally murdered.

World Cup broadcast rights separated out

Anyway, this upcoming World Cup is the first one where the broadcast rights have been separated out, and FIFA still hasn’t struck a deal with anyone in the big five nations of Europe. Infantino went on to blast the meager offers FIFA has gotten for the rights, and is threatening to not put the games on European TV at all if the organization doesn’t get a proposal it feels is fair.

On the surface, this might seem like a worthy quest from FIFA’s president. But you really only have to dig to the spoon-level under the surface to see that Infantino only has FIFA’s accounts in mind. The supposed purpose of FIFA, laughably buried under its greed and corruption, is to promote the sport. So getting the biggest tournament on the women’s side of the game on TV across the world would be the surest way to promote the game. It really shouldn’t be about how much that check is for.

And if FIFA has to take a loss on the tournament, through beefed-up prize money and such? Who outside of Zurich gives a flying fuck? Isn’t the point the governance and administration of the game? It’s a pretty sure bet that FIFA can take the hit ($7.6 billion in revenue in 2022).

How much the tournament is worth to TV networks in Europe is a little harder to gauge than it might be here. Games will be on in the middle of the morning, which is better than the middle of the night as a good portion of the tournament will be in the U.S., but it’s still hardly primetime as last summer’s Euros were. If games are still heavily watched, networks could make a pretty penny through advertising and the low rights fees they’ve paid. But those are heady profits not going to FIFA, which you can bet is Infantino’s real bitch.

No one benefits from the games being blacked out 

The tournament is just over two months away now, and while it would be great if networks in the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, and Germany were throwing full shipping containers of cash for the rights, not putting the tournament on TV helps exactly no one. It doesn’t help promote the women’s game, it does a disservice to established fans who can’t simply fly off to Australia and New Zealand, and it provides fodder for those who would shit on the women’s game simply for sport. Everyone loses, though perhaps there is a part of Infantino that is using this whole charade as cover for his real aim of confirming that it’s not worth putting the time and money into the women’s game that the organization he presides over should.

Sadly, this can be the open market sometimes, and if this is what FIFA is being offered then that’s what it’s being offered. Getting on their high horse when they’ve been the ones who have failed to properly run, promote, or administer the women’s World Cup in the past is an empty gesture. The lowball TV offers only hurt FIFA–the prize money has already been promised and set aside–and perhaps a second straight tournament of boffo numbers would cause the bidding war in 2027 that FIFA so desires to line its own pockets. These things can take time, but Infantino can’t satisfy his constituents with promises of slow growth in the future.

UEFA lost money on the last Euros, for as much of a success as it was. But it will get a better TV deal for the Women’s Champions League in 2025 because of it, and the individual leagues have gotten or will get better TV deals from the momentum. That’s how this works.

But when you’re FIFA and Infantino and have become accustomed to getting all the cash you want, legally or not, as soon as you want it, nothing else will do.

Joe Pavelski returns in style

Back on these shores, the NHL playoffs entered its second round. The best story was the return of Joe Pavelski, who missed almost all of the first round after Mathew Dumba of Minnesota decided to bulldoze him in Game 1 and knocked him out. Not only did Pavelski return, but he also scored four goals (no stroking though). His fourth came on this Brett Butler-like bunt at full speed, which tied the game at 4 and sent it to overtime, where the Stars eventually lost:

Pavelski, even at 38, remains the game’s best deflection…dude? That’s got an alliteration, let’s go with it. No one’s ever been better when posted in front of the net and has a teammate’s shot headed at him. He always seems to get a stick on it. This was on the rush with him moving at a high rate of knots, making it all the more impressive.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

Pep Guardiola is about to complete his masterpiece

Manchester City has a Pep in its step

My brother had a college friend who had an overarching theory of Led Zeppelin. This isn’t much of a surprise, as I assume college students for some 40 years all had their own theory of Led Zeppelin. I remember telling a friend that I had to have a serious talk with him, made it sound really grave, the subject of which was merely that I thought I had to change my favorite Zeppelin song to “Ten Years Gone.” He understood, and we discussed it at length with nary a complaint. To at least three generations, thoughts about Zeppelin took up a lot of space.

Anywho, the theory went like this: The first four albums, the numbered ones, are the band trying out one aspect of their capabilities (including pretty much stealing songs, but that’s another discussion for another time). Zeppelin I is their blues album. II is the first step into more straight-laced hard rock. III is the acoustic album. IV is the bombastic, epic, storytelling album. Houses of The Holy was the band’s dress rehearsal to put it all together, and Physical Graffiti is when they put it all together correctly (and Presence is the underrated drug hangover). Take it for what you will, I’ve always found this thread interesting.

Pep Guardiola’s Man City title-winning teams are like Led Zeppelin albums

You can kind of view all of Pep Guardiola’s Man City title-winning teams in the same fashion, if you’re bored and weird and with far too much time on your hands like I often find myself. The 2018 and 2019 champs were basically his Barca and Bayern teams imported to the Premier League, tiki-taka come to England. The 2021 winners were the apex defensive team, thanks to the implementation of Rúben Dias and the development of Rodri. Last season’s conquerors were probably the closest soccer will ever get to positionless basketball, with no central striker and Pep encouraging everyone to be everywhere. This is where he also started to play with João Cancelo moving into midfield from a fullback position when in possession, which is now the fashion in a lot more places.

The first half of this season was about adding the final ingredients or touches. Erling Haaland up top, a fortification of the 3-2-5 formation with the ball, and the pièce de résistance, being able to play on the counter. Previous Man City teams sought to control games by having the ball and having the ball only, with Pep wary of anything else. If they had the ball, nothing bad could happen.

While Haaland certainly didn’t make Man City any worse, the first half of the season was a question if he had made them any better. Video game numbers for him to be sure, but City still played basically the same way with him just ending up on the end of everything instead of a rotating cast applying the final touch.

But we saw the final stroke come to the fore in City’s demolition of Munich in the Champions League, where much to the shock of everyone, City were more than happy to let the Germans have the ball. They were delighted to play on the counter. Backing up, sitting back a little meant that Haaland suddenly had the space he had become such a terror in with both Salzburg and Dortmund, getting to run directly at defenses. Combine that with Guardiola honing Haaland’s game so that his link-up play improved and they could take even more advantage of teams they caught upfield, and you get…well, you get this:

To go back to the basketball comparison, City festooned Arsenal’s guts around the Etihad with a two-man game, easily keeping Arsenal outside their castle walls and then springing lethal counters simply through Kevin De Bruyne and Haaland frolicking in an acre of space around the halfway line. With Thomas Partey in need of a compass and Rob Holding being completely overmatched, De Bruyne and Haaland ran wild in the space behind Arsenal’s midfield and in front of their defense. It’s exactly what they did to Munich.

What this City team is now is the team that can play it any way you want it, which is basically how Real Madrid keeps winning the Champions League. Decide you’ll park the bus and keep 10 behind the ball and they’ll play around and through you. Want to hit them on the counter and they have two holding midfielders — with John Stones pushed up and in from fullback — to stifle it. Try and press them and they’ll either play through that or they can go long to Haaland. Decide you want the ball and try to play your way into it and they can defend expertly and then do what they did to the Gunners. It is everything that Guardiola has spent the past five years creating. It feels like now there is no problem they don’t have an answer for.

All that stands between them and a treble is some Madrid Black Magic in the Champions League semifinal, or maybe United in the FA Cup final. United have beaten them this season… but they also gave up six to them. What was it Morpheus said about the agents? “They are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors and they are holding all the keys.”

While Arsenal will have trouble sitting down for a week or two after Wednesday’s treatment by City, they should take solace that they’re here at all. To run with City for even a season you need a deep squad in which 10 or 11 guys are playing the best soccer of their career. Arsenal managed that for three-quarters of the season, but they’re just a little young and just a little thin to keep it up over nine months. Once William Saliba got hurt, once Bukayo Saka had a dip in form along with Partey, Arsenal didn’t have anyone behind them to step up. Look at City, where they’ve barely needed Phil Foden or can flip-flop Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva on the right of the attack or Julian Alvarez can be a bit part player or they can just toss Cancelo out of the club for being a prick halfway through and not even notice. That’s the size of the challenge.

This is Pep’s Physical Graffiti, and Haaland and De Bruyne just authored his “Ten Years Gone.” (“In My Time Of Dying” is also an acceptable analogy).

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate to watch him come to terms with the Europa League next season.