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.

Roberto Firmino will play his last game for Liverpool as my heart aches

Goodbye, Anfield

The shelf life for soccer players might just be the shortest around. Baseball would like to get there, but in the world of football it still basically works that once you hit 30, they start counting down the clock on you. So on one hand, it seems Roberto Firmino has been playing for Liverpool forever. In another, on the stat sheet, he was really only a main cog in the lineup for six seasons, and at the club for eight total, which is barely a flash. How could it only have been both?

Firmino arrived in Liverpool with the club basically a mess. The Brendan Rodgers era was disintegrating with alarming speed, Steven Gerrard had left, and it felt like that brief window of the spring of 2014 when they actually could have, and should have, won the league, was closed forever. It was a spec on the horizon, if that. Much like everything else at the end of Rodgers’s reign, he either had no idea how to use Firmino or too many ideas on how to use him. Right before Rodgers was shitcanned we even saw Bobby as a right wing-back. What exactly was going on here?

The game today doesn’t really have space for the traditional No. 10 anymore, and certainly not in the Vin Diesel vehicle pace of the Premier League. Even central strikers aren’t what central strikers used to be, required to run and press and open up channels for others. Jurgen Klopp showed up, walking out of his lab of weirdness, and said, “I’m going to have Firmino be both a No. 10 and No. 9 at the same time!” and then cackled that maniacal Klopp laugh that we find so endearing and is probably the most grating sound in the world to everyone else.

Bobby just as off-center as Jurgen Klopp

Luckily for Klopp, and luckily for us, Bobby was just as off-center as his manager and embraced the role fully. Liverpool fans will remember it all starting with a match at Man City, with Klopp screaming at Firmino to get farther forward and to lead the line more than he was, and then he scored his first Liverpool goal a few minutes later. It felt like something was born then.

So much of Klopp’s and Liverpool’s system was dependent on the never-ending energy, ingenuity, and impishness of Firmino. He could run all day to trigger that furious press in the first couple of seasons. He was furious on the counterattack and smiled with joy in the immeasurable chaos that Liverpool were back then. When Klopp wanted more control with the ball as the team evolved, Firmino was no less comfortable dropping off the front line into that pocket between the two advanced midfielders and between the defensive lines. It seemed most matches he had this forcefield around him when he had the ball, just ghosting past would-be tacklers that just seemed to ricochet off the air around him before he slipped in Salah or Mane or finished himself.

And yet, while doing all of that he still found more than enough time to also be in the box to finish. 81 times in fact.

And even with his laundry list of duties laid out by Klopp, Firmino still found time to just make shit up. Like this:

Or this:

Or this:

And when he was truly feeling spicy, there were the no-look goals into an open net or the devilish finishes just because he felt like it.

A false 9 with all the toppings

It would probably be too much to say that Firmino invented the false 9 role, because teams had used it before, and he wasn’t just a false 9. He was the false 9 with all the toppings. He certainly made it his own, while also never hiding how much he was getting his rocks off doing all these things that weren’t supposed to come with just one player. Perhaps no player held up such a sound structure while simultaneously being completely avant-garde as Firmino.

Every fan has their favorite goals from club legends. Most might pick his winner against PSG when he had injured his eye in training the day before and couldn’t really see out of it. Or maybe this Hammer of the Gods against Stoke. Perhaps this slalom against Arsenal.

Maybe the one that clinched the Club World Championship at the end of 2019. Mine came a couple of days after that. The two goals against Leicester weren’t that special in themselves. But Liverpool flew back from the Middle East for that Boxing Day clash, away to the team that was in second at the time, and quite simply rubbed Leicester’s ass in the moonshine for 90 minutes by the tune of a 4-0 scoreline to leave no doubts that the league title was finally coming back to Anfield. It was as thorough of a dismantling of a team as we’d seen, and leading the line for it was Bobby and that Vegas-gigawatt smile that he played with.

Bobby’s game just contained too much to be held together forever. You can’t run as much as he did and do all the other things too into your 30s. Luis Diaz’s arrival last season kind of pushed Bobby to the fringes, only exacerbated by the arrivals of Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo this season. Soccer doesn’t wait and doesn’t do sentimentality very well either.

Bobby played his last game at Anfield for Liverpool last Saturday, and scored, because of course. His career as a Red will end Sunday. A career full of mischief and energy and karate kick celebrations and well-timed tackles and passes no one should have ever tried or even seen and just an utter joy that probably won’t be replicated.

Man, how could it have only been six seasons, really? Like Firmino on the field, there was just so much packed into him it doesn’t seem like it could only have been six seasons, just like it couldn’t have all been in one player.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

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.


This time for sure!

Folarin Balogun could be a crucial piece for the US Men’s National Team.

When I was growing up, it was understood that the Chicago Cubs would never have a third baseman. Or center fielder as well, but the third base gap was the more hallowed one because it followed Ron Santo. There was no universally beloved centerfielder whose legacy the team could never tread upon and thus trotted out a series of morons and fuckarounds to stand somewhere near the hot corner and do their best to not fall down (mostly failing). For a minute there, Kris Bryant, and Dexter Fowler filled those gaps, but we’re basically back to where we started.

Same goes for a Bears QB. We just were raised knowing that there would always be a black hole of despair (as opposed to a black hole of joy? DON’T MAKE THOSE JOKES). It’s not exclusive to Chicago obviously. Jets QB, Leafs goalie, Knicks…well, the Knicks. There are just certain positions on certain teams that will always be a toxic waste site.

The most recent one has been the No. 9 for the USMNT. The men’s side would never have an Alex Morgan, a pivot figure that it could always count on to find a goal, whether the team was playing well, or not. It didn’t really matter that very few international teams actually come with a dependable, consistent central striker. Spain doesn’t have one, Germany doesn’t, the Dutch questionably don’t, Brazil doesn’t really, nor does World Cup champion Argentina. It’s a hard thing to find.

But the US, well, they’ve never really had one. We romanticize Jozy Altidore because he was an automatic choice, but we all remember what it was like when he was actually lining up for the national team, and all of us asking, “Wouldn’t it be great if he were better?” He also has no World Cup goals to his name. His most important goal for the national team was probably against Spain in the Confederations Cup in 2009, and that’s a tournament that doesn’t even exist anymore.

Since then, we’ve talked ourselves into Bobby Wood or Eddie Johnson (it’s still fun to sing “We’re gonna score with our Johnson!” though) or Aron Johannsson or Jesus Ferreira or worse, somehow. We let flashes from Ricardo Pepi or Daryl Dike convince us that more was to come. We let Josh Sargent’s competent and industrious but hardly lethal performances in Qatar woo us that there could be something down the road. We deluded ourselves that Haji Wright’s stats in Turkey were meaningful. We clawed and flailed in the dark, and whatever we touched must’ve been the answer.

No more. We think. Probably. Like, there’s a good chance.

Folarin Balogun has officially switched his national team allegiance from England to the US. He’ll almost be certainly suiting up for the USMNT in their Nations League semifinal against Mexico come June. If he isn’t, then the entire program really should be shut down.

What we do know is that Balogun is the most accomplished striker that will put on the shirt, and it’s not really close.

No Yank striker has ever piled up 20 goals in a top-five European league. Altidore had a bonanza in Holland, but everyone has a bonanza in Holland. So did Johannsson. Balogun is sitting on 19 goals in Ligue 1 in France, and for a mid-table team. 19 goals in 34 games for Reims, who are in 11th. He’s an Arsenal player on loan and could rejoin the Gunners next year to back up the pretty fragile Gabriel Jesus. Or he might replace Christopher Nkunku at Leipzig and play more.

The underlying numbers are promising too. Balogun is top five in France in both shots per 90 and shots on target per 90. He gets in the right spots a lot. Perhaps a little worrying, he’s actually under his expected goals. The shots he’s getting suggest he should have scored 18 non-penalty goals, and he’s scored 13. Also, he does have six penalties padding the stats a bit. But he’s also 21, playing regularly on the top level for the first time. And either way, the US have never had a striker piling up the xG in a top-five league either.

Natural fit

He fits into the USMNT current profile perfectly as well. He has blinding pace and wants to get in behind, and it’s not like this US team is stringing together 30-pass moves to score. They want to be direct, they want to play on the break and have a striker who threatens to open up space for Pulisic, Weah, Musah, and McKennie underneath. Balogun checks those boxes.

He’s also of the age of the rest of the squad that can grow together, and was another smitten by the culture of the USMNT that seduced Musah, and Sergino Dest. It’s encouraging that this kind of thing can continue without Gregg Berhalter, which was his biggest strength. There is something permanent there now.

Yeah, caveats. Of course there are and fuck you for bringing it up. He only has one season at the top level. He misses a few chances. He’s choosing the US because he’ll walk straight into the starting lineup and will play in the next Copa America and World Cup, no questions asked, instead of waiting for a Harry Kane decline, and fighting through other competition to play for England. It happens. He doesn’t really link up play. He doesn’t press much.

What the fuck ever. He knows where the goal is. He knows how to find the spots to score. It’s still the game’s greatest currency. Or would you prefer to watch Ferreira continue to wander around midfield with his Mr. Bill-like touch? Thought so.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate for more Luca de la Torre fandom.

Here’s a shovel, Mauricio Pochettino

Mauricio Pochettino points to Chelsea’s newest manager.

If you’re a manager who loves to tell players to do one out of a club, especially as an example to the rest of the squad how things are going to work under your leadership, then boy is Chelsea the place for you. And as Mauricio Pochettino, now the new manager at Stamford Bridge, is known to wield one of the more lethal swords (what?) as he demands complete fealty from his players, perhaps he’s the perfect fit. More importantly, perhaps he’s the perfect fit to get bring ownership and board members to heel for an actual plan instead of the Vegas coke binge Todd Boehly and co. have been applying to Chelsea this season.

Thanks to Chelsea’s and Boehly’s massive outlay this season, and thanks to finishing well up the track from any European places, their transfer activity for Pochettino this summer is going to be limited. At least limited to who they can catapult over the wall before they bring anyone in, because certainly, the FFP drone cameras would be very interested in goings-on if they don’t. Before Pochettino can worry about who to bring in he must have a pretty good idea of who’s packing.

Some of those on their way will be recent purchases, and Chelsea is going to have to take a loss on most, if not all, of them. To figure out the list it’s probably best to know what Poch wants out of a team and how they play.

Pochettino’s style got overshadowed by managers at bigger clubs who won more trophies than he did, i.e. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. But Poch was just about the first manager in the Premier League to adopt a borderline-kamikaze pressing style, trying to win the back within four seconds of losing it high up the field, while keeping his fullbacks in constant motion up, and down the field. He couldn’t do this at PSG — good luck getting a front three of Mbappe, Messi, and Neymar to even spell “press” — so it’s not totally clear this is what he’d try to bring back to the Premier League, but it’s a solid bet. The way Poch would use his deepest midfielder as an auxiliary centerback with the ball to cover for the space the fullbacks would leave as they joined the attack meant that Spurs would basically flip from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 and back again. It’s actually the reverse of what Pep does with John Stones moving from defense into midfield in possession, but the effect is just about the same. A little ahead of his time, he was.

There’s a lot already in place. In Reece James (assuming he’s not seduced by the siren song of Madrid) and Ben Chillwell, Pochettino will already find fullbacks that can get into the attack and back into defense while also seamlessly flipping between being fullbacks, or wingbacks. We know Chelsea are loaded with forward players, and ones who should in theory be able to run all day in his bring-the-ruckus system. If he can convince the club to pony up to keep Mason Mount around, and vice versa, he’s got a natural #10 who can bounce between the middle and out wide.

But there are still too many players. As the video linked above shows, you can construct a squad of 45 if you wanted. Romelu Lukaku doesn’t fit here and doesn’t want to be there anyway, so that’s easy enough. João Felix doesn’t really press, so his loan is unlikely to be made permanent. Raheem Sterling might be deemed too old, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang definitely will be, and it’s likely American interests will be tuned down as Christian Pulisic might be deemed too fragile. Though on paper he would be exactly what Poch wants, but numbers have to be made up. Hakim Ziyech wanted out badly enough to even fly to Paris in January before the move fell through. Again, he’s a player who in a vacuum might flourish in a Pochettino system but also seems more likely for the door.

But all of these players had big transfer fees and big wages, and wouldn’t exactly be chomping at the bit to move on to say, Brentford, or Wolves. Finding homes for them they find acceptable won’t be that easy, which will only choke off even more of their transfers, and grow the loss Chelsea take on them.

Christopher Nkuku is already on the way to punt Kai Havertz out of the #9 role, though Havertz could be reborn in the #10 role as well. But is Nkunku enough up top? May need more.

And there are holes. If Poch still wants that midfielder who can sink into defense at a whim, that’s not on the current roster and also screams for Declan Rice. But Arsenal are also sending Rice all kinds of flowers and chocolates these days, and given what’s gone on this past season, why would he choose Chelsea over the Gunners? Moises Caicedo an alternative? If James leaves there isn’t really an alternative at right back. Is Marc Cucurella broken or can he back up Chillwell? Thiago Silva can’t really play in a back four, and Kalidou Koulibaly has had a rough go in his first season in England and is only getting more into his 30s. The defense might need some buttressing.

But the biggest question for Poch is a mentality-based one. Perhaps Chelsea are so wounded by this season the players will be open to any message as long as it’s a consistent and forceful one. But at Tottenham, Pochettino walked into a club that hadn’t won anything full of young players eager to change (for the most part). At Chelsea, he’ll find some big egos with big paychecks who have accomplished more than those he found at Spurs, and who have already gotten at least one manager fired, and a lot of them got two fired in just one season. Enzo Fernandez, Mykhailo Mudryk, Carney Chukwuemeka, and David Fofana are the types Pochettino can mold. If Poch can identify what Havertz actually is positionally and get him to blossom, and identify a younger defense, this is still one of the biggest clubs in the world. On the other side, there may be inertia baked in here that even one of the most strong-willed managers in the world like Pochettino can’t shake loose.

It’s always a fascinating summer at Chelsea. This one promises to be no different.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate to watch him wield the world’s smallest violin for Chelsea.

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.

Weston McKennie is not having a good time

Weston McKennie has been having a “slide whistle” kind of time.

Soccer moves fast, and it moves faster in the January transfer window. All the things Weston McKennie had to consider when a move to Leeds United from Juventus was probably thrown at him in a matter of days, if not hours. Questions of role, money, future, and the allure of moving to a country where he already speaks the language all would have played a role, and he only had a limited time to figure it all out considering he moved the day before the deadline. It was life on fast forward.

To boot, he was moving to a club where he knew the manager and would have been fairly confident that Jesse Marsch not only would play him regularly, but play him in his preferred spot, as a No. 8 in a 4-3-3 where he could run around a lot and get into the box and get scoring chances.

Less than a week later, Marsch was out on his ass, and McKennie’s stay at Leeds and overall career are looking a little spotty. Even spottier is Leeds’s future, because they look like dead men walking on their way to relegation. They’re only out of the bottom three by one point, and their next two games are away to Man City, and home to Newcastle. They have one draw and four losses in their last five games and have won two of their last eight. The cumulative score of their last five games? 18-5. But hey, at least they scored in each of them!

As Marsch found out, when you’re American and things aren’t going well you become a pretty easy and obvious target for fans and media alike. At least McKennie hasn’t been spouting nonsensical and self-celebratory shit in the press like his former (and future?) manager which only made him easier to pillory. But McKennie’s stay in the Premier League has been rough.

No goals and no assists for a midfielder whose main strength is how he joins the attack.

FotMob.com, a leading player-rater site, has McKennie at an average 6.4 rating for his 15 appearances in England, which is the definition of mediocre. He’s seen his shots-on-target per 90 minutes go from 0.68 at Juventus to 0.08 in Leeds. His pass completion percentage has dropped five percentage points. Perhaps worse yet, he’s getting walked in midfield a lot, losing two-thirds of his duels (per FBref.com). And he’s not the attacking force he was in both Italy and Germany with Schalke, as his progressive carries per match have been cut in half in West Yorkshire (also per FBRef.com). He has a 0.00 carries into the penalty area rate.

Circumstances have not helped. Javi Gracia, since he took over for Marsch, has used McKennie far deeper than anyone else has, playing as part of a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1, especially since Tyler Adams got hurt. It is not McKennie’s strength.

And he’s actually done all right there, considering that he’s never been a great passer or totally clued in positionally. He’s rarely if ever been asked to do these things because he’s not good at them, which is why Juventus stationed him on the right of a narrow 4-4-2 most of the time. His tackles and interception numbers are way up, but they kind of have to be considering his position on the field. You’ll run into a lot of tackles in the center of midfield, especially when you’re playing for Leeds and they don’t have the ball much, simply by accident.

But when Leeds have been torn apart right through the middle, as they have been by Crystal Palace or Liverpool, or Bournemouth, McKennie has faced a lot of arrows (go on Twitter, search McKennie, and find out in a hurry what Leeds fans think of his physique). He’s simply not equipped to handle that position, because he’s not much of a dribbler to get out of tight spaces, he’s not much of a passer to orchestrate attacks, and he just doesn’t have much experience deep in midfield to know where to be to stifle attacks against. He’ll lose control there.

McKennie is hurt by the disorganization of Leeds. They clearly didn’t have a plan when they fired Marsch, which has led them to possibly being on the brink of firing his replacement with four games to go. They don’t have a striker worth a damn that McKennie can link to or get lost in the wake of as his specialty. They look psychologically broken.

What’s worrying for USMNT fans is that two nailed-on starters (McKennie and Adams) and one big contributor (Brenden Aaronson) look pretty likely to be playing in the English Championship in the season leading into Copa America, where the national team will be hoping to make serious noise to create momentum, and buzz for the World Cup two years later on home soil.

As previously written in these halls a couple times, McKennie is a very weird player. He’s a midfielder who can’t really pass, dribble, or tackle. He just…scores goals, but that skill is so valuable a team can’t really live without it. But he needs so much around him to really flourish, which Leeds have exactly none of with Adams out. Unless the new USMNT manager is Marsch (and it probably will be), a new national team manager might consider whether they need a midfielder in the starting lineup who can pass, seeing as how Adams and Yunus Musah don’t really either.

There have been a lot of circumstances going against McKennie in the past three years of his career. He was bought by Juve with Andrea Pirlo in charge. He was fired before the end of his first season. Juventus were already in decline when he showed up and that only sped up after his arrival, which came with a flux of systems and ideas, and positions for him. He was brought to England by Marsch, and he was gone in six days, which again meant a new manager and system, and position. This happens in soccer. McKennie can either adapt his game or find a place where he can do what he does well regularly. None of that appears to be happening at Leeds.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he becomes the leading member of the de la Torre in the USMNT starting 11 fan club.