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Major League Soccer

The Biggest Rivalry in Major League Soccer

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The Seattle vs. Portland rivalry is the absolute top competition between any two of clubs in Major League Soccer. The passion of the fans and the level of competition even draws comparisons between rivalries of some top clubs in Europe. I’m not saying this rivalry is on the same level as El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, but there is something to be said about a soccer match in America that brings out over 65,000 people to watch. If you have ever had a chance to even watch one of these games, you will find yourself feeling like you are watching the English Premier League on a Saturday morning. Trust me, the atmosphere is that electric.

The first ever match between Seattle and Portland was back in on May 2, 1975; in the Timbers’ inaugural game. Seattle defeated Portland 1–0 in front of 8,131 at Portland Civic Center. But the rivalry pre-dates the current teams in both cities, back to the North American Soccer League days, and has since grown into one of the largest and most bitter rivalries in American soccer. Alan Hilton, a former English international and ex-Sounders coach, has compared the rivalry to those seen in the EPL. As of now, Seattle leads the all-time series 42-29-9 heading into the 81st meeting between the two clubs this upcoming Sunday. And like I mentioned before, this rivalry goes beyond the two club teams.

The Seattle Super Sonics and the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA had a fierce rivalry before the Super Sonics moved to Oklahoma City a couple of years ago. Even before that, there were the Portland Buckaroos and Seattle Totems of the minor-league Western Hockey League in the 1960s. When you have two great sports towns with awesome fans separated by only 170 miles, you are going to have some sports rivalries develop.

The fans of both teams are as passionate as any in the league and they have truly heightened the ceiling on this derby match. Seattle’s “Emerald City Supporters” and Portland’s “Timbers Army” will be in full force this upcoming Sunday as the two teams square off once again on ESPN. Recent events fueled by some fans have only increased the buzz behind the game.

Major League Soccer fans will remember “The Billboard” incident back in 2011. That sign shown in the image was not located in Portland, but in Seattle and it did not sit well with Sounders fans.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has openly stated he wants to continue to build regional rivalries and he has definitely found a game to set the bar in the Pacific Northwest between Seattle and Portland.

Sunday will mark one of the biggest games in the history of the rivalry. U.S Men’s National Team star Client Dempsey will be making his home debut for his new club in the most meaningful match of the year against their top rival at home. In addition to that, the Sounders need to string together a couple of wins to even keep them in the race for the playoffs and the same goes for Portland.

Everything is on the line on Sunday for this MLS derby and everyone should be watching. The energy, passion, and noise of the crowd is easily translated through the television into your family rooms and I urge all soccer fans to check out the game. The bar has been MLS fans. Let’s all sit back on Sunday, enjoy the match and then aim to have this kind of support in other markets across the country.

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Italy

Where does Andrea Pirlo rank amongst the greats of his generation?

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Andrea Pirlo

If you asked any football fan to list the top players of the century, there is surely no doubt that Andrea Pirlo would be near the top on the majority of them. 

Having announced his retirement from the game aged 38 earlier this month, the Italian has amassed over 20 winners’ medals, including the Champions League in 2003 and 2007, and the World Cup in 2006.

He has been named Serie A Player of the Year on three separate occasions as well as being named in the FIFPro World XI in 2006, and the UEFA team in 2012.

Pirlo was instrumental in guiding Milan to the 2005 Champions League final, although they lost on penalties – he stated that he considered quitting after that game given the way Milan lost the match, having gone 3-0 up, showing his passion and will to win.

He was then was voted the third best player at the following year’s World Cup as Italy won the competition.

As a player, Pirlo never relied on physicality, and was not a heavy goalscorer, with his highest tally in any campaign being for Milan in 2002/03, where he scored nine goals.

That was only his second season at Milan, having been transferred from close rivals Inter for £10 million.

His move coincided with the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti, who was one of the biggest influences on Pirlo’s development as a player.

Under Ancelotti, Milan and Pirlo won the Serie A, Champions League, Coppa Italia and the UEFA Super Cup all in a four-year spell.

In terms of his playing style, it was his passing that set him apart from the majority of players, as well as his vision, which made him into one of the world’s greatest deep-lying playmakers.

Probably the two closest comparisons to Pirlo in terms of modern-day players are Xavi and Andres Iniesta, both of Barcelona.

Pirlo nearly joined Barcelona under Pep Guardiola in 2010, but Milan refused to sell him despite the Italian’s reported interest in the move. Had he made the move to Spain, Pirlo could have added another dimension to what was already an unstoppable Barcelona side.

He, instead, made the move to Italian giants Juventus, where, despite being at the age of 33 when he signed in 2011, was still a star performer for a side that has dominated Italy for years.

He won four consecutive Serie A titles with the Bianconeri, and carried on playing for his national team until Euro 2016, albeit less regularly towards the end of his career.

His non-selection for that competition by the now-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte signalled the end of his international career, with his record standing at 116 games, 13 goals for his country.

The peak of Pirlo’s career came before his move to New York City last year, although he still made 60 appearances for the club up until his retirement.

In terms of where he ranks amongst the greatest of this generation, you could argue for numerous players to take that accolade.

Pirlo and Xavi were match winners and were crucial in any success their team had – you could argue that Xavi had the toughest task in being the man, alongside Iniesta, entrusted with transforming Barcelona into a tiki-taka style team under the stewardship of Guardiola.

However, Pirlo was unable to settle fully at Inter, leaving to join rivals Milan, and even despite his impact on the club over the years, the Rossoneri board let the Italian go on a free transfer in 2011, where he continued to thrive at Juventus.

The likes of Lampard and Steven Gerrard, as well as Zinedine Zidane, cannot be underestimated based on their contributions to their clubs, but overall Andrea Pirlo would rightly be near the top of any list of the greatest midfielders of this century.

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Major League Soccer

Why it’s right place, right time for New York City’s Jack Harrison

Alexis Monteith

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In his controversial book Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that one of the major factors behind success is being in the right place at the right time.  Of course, there is no denying that there are always other factors at play. In the case of a career in football, being in the right place at the right time can only be useful if it is exploited by performance.

New York City FC’s 20-year-old winger, Jack Harrison, is one of the most talked about players in North America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) at the moment. In 2016 Vice Sports produced a feature on the English-born player entitled “This British 19-year-old is the future of MLS”.

Indeed, a lot has been said by the media concerning the performances of Harrison over the past two years. He is currently on eight goals and five assists in 18 games since the start of his second season in New York.  But his story is not just about numbers.

The English-born fan favourite is known for getting his home crowds out of their seats with scintillating runs, creativity and exciting dribbles. When Harrison is in possession of the ball he has a dogged determination to move it as directly towards goal as possible, making short work of his opponents along the way.  A 2016 MLS Opta Spotlight revealed that the young winger was among the most direct dribblers who possessed the highest ball carrying distances in the league.

Naturally, there are those who point to his success at New York City and ask what’s next for the exciting starlet.  More than just being the “future of MLS”, Harrison has what it takes to realistically aspire to Europe’s top leagues.  Such is his talent that, according to Empire Of Soccer NYC coach Patrick Vieira recently expressed surprise that Harrison has not yet been called to the England Under-21 squad. Others have suggested he would be an asset to the United States Men’s National Team, for which he is eligible to play in a few years.

While the pundits and reporters seem to have exhausted the discussion of how Harrison’s performances promise him a bright future, few have looked at how he is perfectly poised in the right place, at the right time, to exploit his current success.

MLS is certainly not considered to be the best league in the world although its quality and popularity in North America has risen in recent years. Nevertheless, being at the New York club gives Harrison an edge over many other talented young players in the United States and in Europe seeking to realize their potential.

One reason for this, is that NYC currently boasts outstanding talent. Since joining the team, Harrison has been playing alongside international legends like ex-Barcelona and former Spanish international David Villa as well as Italy’s renowned playmaker Andrea Pirlo, formerly of Juventus and AC Milan. Frank Lampard of England and Chelsea fame was also a teammate.  Even in the world’s top clubs it is usually only the most elite of young players who have the opportunity to play alongside such famous names.

Also in this team is Venezuela’s Rangel Herrera. The 19-year-old, who played a critical role in taking his country’s Under-20 team to a World Cup final. The experience on and off the pitch that Harrison stands to gain from recognized teammates of this caliber cannot be overstated.

It does no harm to his resume that, as reported by mlssoccer.com, an internationally revered figure like Frank Lampard has publicly praised Harrison calling him a “revelation”. According to the Telegraph, last year, a very telling endorsement also came from David Villa, who said “I’ve spent a lot of years in this game, and he has something important that only a few players have.  When he has the ball at his feet, you get the sensation something is going to happen.”

In a Men In Blazers interview , Harrison made special mention of Lampard who mentored him during his time at NYC. Lampard offered support while they were both recovering from injury. He imparted personal advice to the young man on resilience and self-confidence that he himself had received from Jose Mourinho years before.

An ESPN article quoted Harrison on the the impact of David Villa on his personal growth as a footballer. “Just watching him, you learn so much,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done that already last year, and I’m hoping to keep improving.”

The young footballer’s exposure to such a high level of talent, professionalism and maturity gives top clubs who are looking at him something else to appreciate beyond his performances on the pitch. Many promising young players owned by Manchester City, NYC’s sister club in the City Football Group, have not had the opportunity to play alongside and learn consistently from world class players like Villa, Lampard and Pirlo, even though Manchester City is a much bigger club. Even fewer of them have had their marketability enhanced by public compliments from famous teammates.

Harrison also profits from the Patrick Vieira factor. As fortune would have it, Vieira replaced former NYC coach Jason Kreis before the start of the 2016 season when Harrison arrived at the club as a rookie.  Although New York City represents Vieira’s first senior level coaching job, there is a lot he can contribute to Harrison’s career.  Firstly, he brings his own valuable playing experience as a revered French footballer who played and trained under coaching icons like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Fabio Capello at AC Milan and Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan.

The new coach has brought his winning mentality to New York City and has pushed Harrison to relentlessly pursue improvement. “Jack still has parts of his game he needs to develop,” Vieira was quoted as saying by mlssoccer.com“He needs to learn more about himself as a player, as a person and as a man as well and he will need time to do that.”

The World Cup winning Frenchman also brings something extra. In his previous position he was in charge of Manchester City’s footballing academy, considered to be one of the best in the world. At the time his duties involved communicating the club’s playing philosophy to younger players. Under the previous Manchester City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, this was a philosophy similar to that of current City boss, Pep Guardiola, involving possession and exciting passing.

The playing qualities of this philosophy are sought after by some of the best clubs in Europe.  Jack Harrison, while far removed from the elite academy of Manchester City, is receiving that same training and approach to football through Patrick Vieira, who has brought his City experience to the club. If and when Harrison is ready to make a move to Europe he could fit almost seamlessly into the system of Manchester City or the European clubs to which City loans its players. Indeed, he would be ideal for consideration by progressive clubs that embrace a possession-based game.

The City Football Group gifts Harrison with an impressive network of clubs in Europe, including soon-to-be sister club Girona FC in La Liga and a number of other sides in Holland, France and Spain, to which City are loaning players. Being a part of this group offers him the perfect springboard for a leap to the big leagues.

In keeping with the theme of right place and right time it is interesting to note that destiny brought Jack Harrison to NYC because of an unlikely twist in his story that took place years ago. From the age of six to the age of 13 Harrison was part of the Manchester United youth academy with well-known players like Marcus Rashford and James Wilson.

As his mother explained in the short documentary feature Jack Harrison:Road To City, she saw greater opportunities for his education in the United States and pointed out to him that very few players who attended the academy made it to a successful level. Her argument ultimately convinced the young man and she moved him to the United States for his schooling.

Ironically, Harrison left what others would have considered the perfect place for his footballing development, but through continuing effort as a teenager he eventually found himself at New York City, a team with nowhere near the reputation of Manchester United, but offering him the same and possibly even more in terms of his future development. It is a position that he might not even have arrived at had he stayed in Manchester.

Harrison still has a long way to go to becoming world class.  It is a fact of which he is well aware and it is something that his coach Patrick Vieira has emphasized to him.  But through hard work, fortune and a decision made by his mother years ago, he has found himself in the right place at the right time to make use of great opportunities. With further perseverance, the correct decisions and a bit of luck, the Englishman in New York can go so much further.

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Major League Soccer

Should MLS introduce promotion and relegation to its league system?

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In many football leagues around the world right now, teams at the top of their league are battling for a title. This will happen next fall in Major League Soccer. Teams around the world who are at the bottom of their leagues are also playing meaningful games right now. In fact, they are playing the most important matches of their seasons.

This is because they are fighting to avoid getting relegated to a lower division. And teams at the top of lower divisions are fighting to move up, like Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion have both recently done.

But this won’t happen in the United States, because teams at the bottom of MLS are guaranteed their spot in the league, while clubs outside of MLS are unable to win a spot by their play on the pitch and the excellence of their clubs.

Why is the absence of promotion and relegation a problem? The current soccer pyramid in the United States allows for a monopoly at the top, where gatekeepers decide who is in and who is barred from Major League Soccer. This lack of competition is a problem, because it can reward inferiority, failure, and lack of ambition.

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People in the U.S. should have the opportunity to buy or create a club, and with ambition, passion, and excellence, take it as far is it can go. The American Dream is not available to them, in this part of society. As things stand, the system is closed to most clubs having a chance to advance in this way.

Also, the system is set up in a way that wrongfully ignores tradition. Why was New York City Football Club created, when the Cosmos still play football in New York? Shouldn’t FC Cincinnati have a chance to secure a spot in a division one league, by the club’s demonstration of excellence and passion on and off the field? And I’d love to see a club with a history like Bethlehem Steel play in a top division of U.S. soccer, or at least have the chance to do so.

Fans would benefit from promotion and relegation in many ways. One of the most significant ways is that every single game matters in such a system. I am not against the MLS. In fact, I’m a passionate supporter of Sporting KC, my hometown team. But the tension in many of their games is nothing like the tension I experience as a supporter of the Arsenal, where each and every game matters. And that tension is part of what brings out passion and excellence in a club, as well as a league.

I’d love it if MLS became a true division one league, with a creation of an open pyramid that perhaps includes leagues like the North American Soccer League, Premier Development League, and National Premier Soccer League. The pressure in an open system forces the best from players, coaches, and their clubs. Those that can’t measure up go down, with other clubs taking their place by what they’ve done to secure promotion.

If the United States is going to go deeper in the World Cup, let alone win it, promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer is a key element for actually doing so. It would be good for clubs, good for players, good for fans and supporters, and good for soccer at all levels.

It might be complicated to transform our system this way, and there are certainly economic issues. But we need promotion and relegation to truly compete with the world’s best at the beautiful game. The United States should play the world’s game the world’s way.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by tepid00

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