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March 12, 2019

Cristiano Ronaldo Hat Trick Propels Juventus Past Atlético Madrid into Champions League Quarterfinals

High Press 10 March 12, 2019

After last week’s thrilling upsets, surely FiveThirtyEight‘s probability models would hold this week, right?

Juventus, given only a 12% shot of advancing to the Champions League Quarterfinals, did just that, throttling Atlético Madrid 3-0 on a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. They advance 3-2 on aggregate.

This is the first time Juventus has overcome an 0-2 deficit to advance in European championship soccer.

And say what you want about Ronaldo, and there’s plenty to say, but he produces on the biggest stages. This is exactly what Juventus paid for over the summer. Ronaldo’s first goal on a header in the 27th minute in between two defenders was world-class. His second (also on a header) in the 49th was classic Ronaldo. At that point, with the the game leveled at 2-2, the Ronaldo hat-trick felt all but inevitable. He secured it on a penalty kick in the 86th.


Juventus was -150 to win the match (albeit not by 3 goals), but advancing was still going to be a challenge. That is, unless you have Ronaldo.

Manchester City Obv

In Tuesday’s other game, Manchester City were 99%+ to advance and made Schalke 04 look like a rec team, swatting them away 7-0 to advance a staggering 10-2 on aggregate.

City are rolling at the right time. They had 72% possession, fired off 15 shots on goal (with 11 on target!) compared to Schalke’s 2 (1). Expect them to be odds-on favorites after the Champions League Quarterfinals draw on Friday at 6am ET.

The USWNT Gender Discrimination Law Suit: Looking at Both Sides of the Coin (Sort Of)

Katya Gokhman March 12, 2019

Making major headlines this week, the U.S. Women’s National Team  (USWNT) has filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) for gender discrimination. The suit argues that the USSF has refused to treat the USWNT equally with their male counterparts.

How much of this is true? As with most things, the truth sits somewhere in the middle.

Seeing Both Sides of a Complicated Issue

There has been an abundance of articles and deliberation on this suit. Many good points have been made from both sides. However, I wanted to provide a perspective from a female professional soccer player who does NOT play on the USWNT. In fact, I played for the sworn enemy – the Russian Women’s National team.

It provides me a unique perspective on the topic.

First, let’s try to be open minded and take a look at USSF’s perspective as to why they are NOT offering the same salaries or treatment (such as travel and accommodations) as they give the men.

FACT: The USWNT is getting paid significantly less by USSF.

ALSO A FACT: They do, as USSF mentioned, get benefits and security that the men do not.

ADDITIONALLY: The USSF single-handedly support the USWNT salaries in the NWSL pro-league while other players who do not play on the national team struggle for the scraps thrown at them by the clubs themselves. In essence, the USSF is not just paying for the players to play on the National team but they are also paying their club salaries as well, which is unheard of in the male soccer sphere in any country.

So yes, the pay structure is completely different for the women when compared to the men’s structure and, from that perspective, maybe it is a bit unfair to jump on USSF so aggressively and accuse them of gender discrimination.

And Issue of Equal Treatment, Not Just Pay

However, this is exactly why the Women’s National team is asking for “equitable” pay NOT necessarily “equal” pay. They know the structure is different and they’re not asking to be paid the exact same wages as their counterparts – they are asking to be paid FAIRLY and treated FAIRLY.

For example, the USMNT flies first or business class when traveling to international tournaments – the women fly in coach. An even more significant example, which was a big issue in the last women’s World Cup in Canada, is the fact that while the men always compete on grass fields in tournaments, the women compete on turf fields (aka fake grass). This may not seem like such a big deal but the amount of strain that turf causes on a player’s body versus grass is significant. Not only that, but the pace of the ball is completely different on turf compared to grass.

As a female who played professionally for the past 7 years, I can tell you plenty of ridiculous stories about the difference in treatment and pay between the women’s team and men’s team in the clubs I played for – surprisingly, some of the more outrageous things happening in one of the bigger and more well known European clubs. So from this perspective, I can tell you that many times the effort that we as females have to put in to be professional players is much more than our counterparts.  And I say this from all aspects – physical, mental, and, of course, financial.  Believe me when I say that almost all of us don’t play for the money.

A personal example was my past year with Anderlecht Dames, which is the professional female team of Belgian powerhouse Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht. RSC Anderlecht has a beautiful training facility that includes (aside from the fields) a gym, cafeteria, pool, rehab center, and player lounge. Oh and they’re sponsored by Audi, which meant almost every employee of the club got an Audi. Can anyone take a guess as to what the Women’s team was able to use and get? Let me just say one word – “nada.” That’s right, the 2017/2018 Belgian Women’s Super League champions were not allowed to use any of the facilities except one turf practice field and were DEFINITELY not given an Audi or any form of transportation.

That’s right, your girl right here was an avid user of the subway and bus system.

Did we get anything, you ask? We got a membership to a gym that was equivalent to an Anytime Fitness (except this one wasn’t even 24 hours, can you believe it?). What’s the irony in this? The club was willing to spend money to direct us to another gym rather than let us use the one they already had for free. But ok, fine, what about the Women’s Belgian National team? Well, sure, they’re definitely not treated badly. But let us, again, make an “equitable” comparison to the male counterparts. Samsung, one of the sponsors of the Belgian National team, gave out Samsung Galaxies to all the Belgian Men’s National team players last year. The women’s team, on the other hand, did not get any phones or accessories. But they did get something – a grocery store discount card by a grocery store that sponsored them (how fitting since…we’re females).

An Issue Across All Female Professional Sports

This is just the tip of the iceberg and I can go on with experiences that would make your jaw drop. And so, this battle that the USWNT is pursuing is a battle that all female soccer players (and female athletes) have to face. I can’t help but root for the USWNT and all they’re doing.  But looking back at my own personal experiences – if the USWNT get this win, that’s great! BUT…where does that leave the other 98% of female professional players that are not on the USWNT? Just looking at women’s soccer in the U.S. as a whole – getting to the national team (or an elite youth team) can be as much about politics as it is talent. I only say that because we have SO MUCH talent in the U.S.

When you are competing at that level, it’s not necessarily how good you are but who pushes you through.  I am not saying that is always the case but I have seen this happen way too many times.  And, of course, that’s true in any sport, male or female.  The difference, however, is that males who do not make the national team are still earning significantly higher salaries and still being treated significantly better than females in the same situation.

This is obviously a very complex problem. It extends past the playing field, but into the workforce too, where over-qualified women are also often underpaid and mistreated in many situations. This is not just a fight for female soccer players but a fight for all females. It’s a small step in a big fight and small steps do not always show the big picture right away. However, just like artists that use the technique of pointillism exemplify, when you congregate enough small dots – a bigger picture emerges. Just this past week on International Women’s day, Adidas announced that they would be giving equal performance bonus payouts to their Adidas male and female athletes on the winning World Cup teams. Kudos to Adidas for adding another small dot to the picture. Let’s hope others do the same.

 

A Look at the USMNT’s Defensive Midfield Depth: Promising Youth Pushing Seasoned Vets

March 12, 2019

Gregg Berhalter’s second USMNT camp looms in March, with his first chance to get a look at European-based players in his new system. It’s a big opportunity for fringe young players to show they belong in Berhalter’s modern tactics, and for stalwarts like John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood to protect their spots.

Perhaps most interesting is the defensive midfield position. The depth chart there depends on Berhalter’s opinion of Michael Bradley, who played 84 minutes in the January friendly against Panama, and how he sees Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams fitting into this team. This month’s camp should reveal Berhalter’s thinking further, but let’s look at the depth chart as it stands.

1. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC

Bradley is on top by virtue of his status as a definite defensive mid — McKennie could be a No. 8, and Adams could be a No. 8 or a right back still — though Bradley continues to ruffle the feathers of USMNT fans. He is perfectly capable at the international level in spite of persistent criticism, and he will give way to younger guys soon enough.

2. Weston McKennie, Schalke 04

While Schalke grinds through deep struggles in the Bundesliga (and potential Champions League Round of 16 elimination against Manchester City), McKennie is driving up his future transfer fee. He will surely play in the central midfield at the highest levels, though whether his role is as a defensive or a box-to-box mid will depend on who plays next to him and how his team is set up. McKennie could excel as part of a tandem alongside Adams or another player like Cristian Roldan or Russell Canouse.

Right now, he looks like a No. 8. Part of his development (he’s still only 20!) will be expanding the defensive nuance and awareness that will allow him to play as a 6 at the highest level.

3. Tyler Adams, Red Bull Leipzig

It’s not a definite that Adams will be a No. 8 with the USMNT, much less a true defensive midfielder. He was fantastic last year as a wingback for the New York Red Bulls in their complex press-and-possession system, and as Berhalter emphasizes pinching his full backs into midfield and having them facilitate possession.

Adams is approaching world-class in midfield for a high-level Bundesliga team, and he’s always looked best centrally. But with this iteration of the USMNT, right back has to at least be in consideration for Adams.

4. Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC

A favorite of Berhalter from Columbus and a constant figure of the post-Trinidad USMNT, Trapp’s passing and soccer IQ can help the national team. His propensity for damaging turnovers and lack of international-level athleticism makes it unlikely that he will ever be a go-to option at the top level, but he has attributes that others in the pool don’t have. He’s also experienced as a leader at the club level.

5. Russell Canouse, D.C. United

Canouse needs a standout season in D.C. to separate himself in a crowded pool. He must not have made the greatest impression at the January camp, given that Berhalter did not give him a minute in either of the friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.

Others, like Roldan, will factor in at some point. The US are stacked with midfielders who can play in a double pivot — Sebastian Lletget, Alejandro Bedoya, Marky Delgado, and plenty more will be around, as will younger guys like Keaton Parks and NYCFC‘s James Sands and assorted European-based players. Growing definite No. 6 depth will depend on McKennie and Adams’s development, and where they slide into Berhalter’s system.

Breaking Down Juventus-Atlético and Barcelona-Lyon

Tyler Everett March 12, 2019

Last week’s Champions League games once again reminded us how unpredictable things can get at this stage of the tournament.

Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are both substantial favorites, but so were PSG and Real Madrid a week ago, and we saw how that worked out.

Juventus needs a dominant, if not miraculous, performance, as it’s down 2-0 and (obviously) cannot tally any away goals in Turin. Lyon also has a tough task traveling to Barcelona. Below are breakdowns of what to expect Tuesday at Juve’s Allianz Stadium at 4 p.m. Eastern and Wednesday at Camp Nou at the same time.

Juve-Atlético Preview

Los Rojiblancos were extremely impressive in the first leg in Madrid. Considering the opponent and the way the game played out, Manager Diego Simeone’s side’s 2-0 victory was among the strongest performances of the tournament. The Italians were very fortunate the game remained scoreless until the 78th. At this point, Atleti not giving up scoring opportunities is hardly newsworthy, even against an opponent with a goal scorer like Cristiano Ronaldo. But it was the La Liga club’s offense, particularly on the counter, that turned heads, especially after halftime.

Between their dominance in the first leg and their quiet streak of stellar play – they’re unbeaten since a now-baffling 3-1 loss to RM on February 9 – it’s easy to understand why FiveThirtyEight gives Atleti an 88% chance to advance.

There’s just one very handsome catch, though: CR7. Atleti fans are thrilled that their crosstown rivals were bounced last week, and not just because of the bad blood. Simeone’s men have had plenty of UCL success in recent years, but never against Los Blancos. While they’re now out of the picture, Ronaldo is not, at least not yet.

On one hand, if there’s any team that could advance when all they need to do is hold the opposition in check, it’s likely Atlético. On the other, it’s never wise to count out a team like Juventus, which boasts a dangerous combination of desperation, homefield advantage and a transcendent player in Ronaldo. The opening minutes will be pivotal. If Juventus hasn’t managed to get on the board by halftime, I think the second half will be academic. As we’ve seen plenty of times, though, an early goal by the heavy home underdog could change the tenor of the match in a hurry.

It will be interesting to see how aggressive Atleti will be. Considering the circumstances, parking the bus is not a terrible idea. But spending 90 minutes holding on for dear life is not advisable, either, so Atlético has an intriguing decision to make regarding their approach.

Ultimately, I think the odds are stacked too heavily against Juventus. This, however, remains a must-see match, and betting on a draw (+260) feels like the smart move.

Barcelona-Lyon Preview

Maybe it was the upsets last week. Or it could be the lingering feeling that Barcelona’s tendency to turn it on and off is going to make them pay sooner than later. Whatever is, this has the feel of the game of the week, and one Barcelona could very well lose. Lyon at +950 is hard to resist in this one, and not just because the first leg ended in a draw.

For Lyon, the most encouraging thing about that game, other than Barcelona failing to get a crucial away goal, was giving themselves a chance with their captain, Nabil Fekir, unavailable. That’s got to be a huge confidence boost for a team that lacks Barcelona’s star power. The Ligue 1 side also caught a break this week in the form of an injury to Ousmane Dembélé, who is doubtful with a hamstring injury. Barcelona is just about unstoppable when the Frenchman is healthy and clicking alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, so that’s a big plus for Lyon, even though Barça remains, well, Barça.

While this game deserves close attention for the reasons above, Barcelona have the luxury of a great defense in addition to their superstars up top. Marc-André ter Stegen is a big reason why they’ve won a number of games this season without being at their best. It’s also hard to imagine another lackluster start, or any prolonged lull by Barcelona, in a game of this magnitude in front of their home fans.

So while Lyon is absolutely worth a flier at +950, I’m going to be boring, but consistent: the favorites in these two games will advance and give La Liga two teams in the Champions League quarterfinals.

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