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March 24, 2019

Orlando City Tops New York Red Bulls as Kljestan Returns to Haunt Former Club

Peter Nolan March 24, 2019

Sacha Kljestan’s 73rd-minute goal had Orlando City SC singing “I Love New York” Saturday night in Harrison, New Jersey.

With Kljestan’s second half strike, Orlando secured a 1-0 victory of the New York Red Bulls, picking up their first win of the 2019 season.

Late Saturday night I caught up with Kljestan, a former Red Bulls captain, outside the visitor’s locker room of the stadium he called home from 2015-2017, and I asked the 31-year-old if this goal was somehow “special.”

“I feel really good,” Kljestan said, adding:

“I wouldn’t say extra special, more than any other goal I’ve scored in my career. But it just feels really good because the team put in a really good performance and we–we desperately needed those three points.”

The desperately needed points were unexpected as well, as Orlando City was the biggest MLS underdog this weekend, priced at +750 to win the fixture.

Orlando’s first win is a big one

Orlando has shown positive results against strong teams this year, having come from two goals down to earn a season-opening draw versus NYCFC at home in early March. However, as Kljestan noted, these three points were big.

After finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2018, Orlando came into Saturday’s match against last season’s Supporters Shield winners “desperate” to pick up its first win of the campaign. They happily headed to Newark airport on the right side of the playoff line in fifth place, one spot ahead of Saturday’s highly rated hosts, and just two points behind table-toppers DC United and Columbus Crew.

With just four games played Orlando won’t be popping any corks just yet, but both Kljestan and coach James O’Connor used the word “encouraged” when I caught up with them as they headed for the RBA exit on Saturday night.

O’Connor, the 39-year-old Dubliner who took over at Orlando when Jason Kreis, recently appointed as the U.S. U23 MNT coach, was fired last June said, “we’re very encouraged by the level of performance. I think we’ve seen some things that we can do better overall and I think, so far, we’re really encouraged.”

Kljestan, who was surprisingly left unprotected by Orlando City in the expansion draft held to stock FC Cincinnati prior to the season, echoed O’Connor’s remarks. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction,” Kljestan said. “I think we had a really good pre-season and four games in – I think we could have done better in our first three for sure, but tonight is a good performance to build off of.”

A frustrating start of season for NYRB

While encouragement was the takeaway from the visitors, frustration seemed to be the key emotion in the Red Bulls camp following Saturday’s match, even as Red Bulls coach Chris Arms admitted, “I’m happy for Sasha too, and he had a good game.”

Naturally, Armas was more honed in on his own team, telling the gathered press post-game, “…credit to Orlando, for sure. But again we were more focused on, we didn’t bring on good stuff on the night.”

“We went to a major opportunity in front of loyal supporters, people that come out and support us all the time, and we didn’t give them what they deserved.”

As he stood in front of his locker, I asked center back Tim Parker for his take on the match. “It was really frustrating,” Parker admitted. “You know, I think it was shown on the field and we’ll talk about it but it’s one of those things that we’ve kind of- we’ve got to put behind this and push forward.”

That frustration boiled over after the match when team captain Luis Robles angrily confronted the officials over what Armas said was the home team’s frustration with Orlando’s time-wasting tactics, which Armas called, “a deliberate attempt to slow the game down.”

And speaking of frustration, on a night when the Major League’s Soccer’s insistence on playing during sanctioned FIFA international breaks cost the Red Bulls three of its starting back four, Aaron Long (USA), Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica), and Michael Murillo (Panama), as well as key playmaker Kaku (Paraguay). Armas also had to deal with injuries to Conor Lade, filling in at one fullback position, subbed off in the 26th minute, and his replacement Omir Fernandez, who had to check out after 80 minutes.

Ultimately, the night belonged to Kljestan

But the hero of the evening was the returning Kljestan. And even if he wouldn’t admit to taking any extra pleasure in scoring the game-winner versus the team that cast him out just two years ago, Kljestan was happy to talk about playing at his former home base.

“It’s not so much fun to come play my old team,” Kljestan said, “but to play in this stadium. I love Red Bull Arena. It’s a special place, the field is always perfect. And it’s, it’s just a place that I get excited about playing.”

Barcelona – Manchester United Champions League Quarterfinal Combined Starting XI

Avatar March 24, 2019

Editor’s Note: In order to better gauge the quality of each Champions League Quarterfinal pairing–and identify matches with upset potential–High Press Soccer will analyze combined starting XI for the match-ups. Up next: Barcelona vs. Manchester United

For most of the planet, it’s the tastiest of this year’s four UEFA Champions League Quarterfinal fixtures, a meeting of European royalty with eight continental championships between them, and a rematch of this tournament’s 2009 and 2011 finals.

FC Barcelona and Manchester United will clash on the 10th and 16th of April for a place in the semifinals. And while both proud clubs are accustomed to spending time in the business end of this competition, they arrive at this stage in quite different circumstances.

Barca are motoring along at the top of La Liga, 10 points clear of the field and in contention for a treble. They might not be quite as all-conquering as the peak of the Pep Guardiola years, but remain an elite group illuminated by the greatness of Lionel Messi.

Meanwhile ManU are still riding the euphoria of Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s genial leadership in the ragged wake of Jose Mourinho’s latest bridge-burning departure, happy to play the plucky underdogs as they mount a late dash to make something of their 2018/19 campaign.

Injuries and Odds

Barca are generally favored, as you’d expect given these teams’ respective places in their domestic standings and the fact that the Catalans are on a 13-game unbeaten run – they haven’t lost a match since their defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Jan. 23.

Manchester United +235
 Barcelona -330

Overall, Manchester United are the underdog to advance, priced at +235 at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. They’re even the underdog at Old Trafford for leg 1, listed at +260 to Barcelona’s +100 (Draw +270).

The injury picture here is clouded by the intrusion of the international break. Man United regulars Anthony Martial, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw all departed their national team camps early or did not join them altogether due to knocks of varying severity.

In most cases that’s good news for the Red Devils, mind you – all will make the Barcelona series their top priority. It also appears Solskjaer will have Jesse Lingard available at something close to full fitness as the attacker puts a hamstring problem behind him. And Alexis Sanchez is hustling to recover from a knee injury in time to be available for selection against his former club.

Paul Pogba served a red-card suspension in the second leg vs. PSG and should be available for the UCL quarters, though he’s done his side few favors by suddenly piping up publicly about his interest in a move to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid at some point.

Barcelona’s list of casualties is shorter, but potentially more costly. Luis Suarez picked up an ankle injury in the league win over Real Betis (where Messi notched his incredible hat trick) and Ousmane Dembele aggravated a hamstring issue in the UCL defeat of Lyon, so both of them are far from certain to be ready for ManU. As always, breath will be held across the city as Messi takes the field for Argentina during the window.

*UPDATE: Sure enough, Messi picked up a groin issue in his country’s humbling loss to Venezuela in Madrid on Friday! While subsequent reports suggested it was a fairly minor injury, managing the maestro’s health now becomes another plate for the FCB technical staff to spin.

On the brighter side, defenders Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen and influential central midfielder Arthur have all recently overcome injuries and could play key roles. And while FCB face a more congested schedule in the leadup to this series, their hefty lead in La Liga gives Ernesto Valverde more room to rotate his squad down the stretch.

Combined FC Barcelona vs. Manchester United Starting XI

Both sides have utilized 4-4-2 and other looks this season, though we’ll elect for a 4-3-3 shape that’s their best, most proactive option in most cases.

As illustrious and expensive as the Mancunians’ roster may be, it’s hard for anyone to hold a candle to Barca’s. The 25-time Spanish champions boast one of the highest wage bills in the world and even when you move past names like Messi, Suarez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, individual quality abounds. This lineup reflects that.

Here’s the combined starting XI for Barcelona and Manchester United. Barcelona is blue and the Red Devils are red. For manager, I’m going with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Even in goal, where David de Gea bears a glittering resume that still isn’t enough for a segment of football hipsters who’d always pick ter Stegen and his deeply Barcelonista skill set. The Spaniard edges it here, but not by much.

Pique has struck up a sturdy partnership with Clement Lenglet at the heart of the Barcelona back line, and while they may well prove susceptible to the English archetype of the bruising target striker, they bring so many other qualities to the table as to put the likes of Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof or Chris Smalling in the shade. In the fullback slots, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto are also vintage Barca, relatively slight in stature but attack-minded two-way technicians.

Busquets is aging, yet remains a tempo-setter par excellence and has benefitted from the intelligence of the shape-shifting Rakitic, who can fill an orthodox box-to-box role or any of the many permutations of it that Barca regularly ask him to. Arthur is a younger option who may well go on to eclipse the Croatian, but for now we’ll give Rakitic the nod. ManU’s sole midfield representative is Pogba, whose form has swung wildly from anonymous to world-class over the past year or so, but has been a lot closer to the latter under Solskaer.

Up top, Suarez – should he get healthy in time – and Messi, scorer of a whopping 39 goals and 18 assists in 37 games this season, stroll straight into this XI with no questions. That final slot is a bit trickier to fill, especially given Dembele’s injury troubles. Many on the red side of Manchester would advocate for Martial, Rashford or even Lingard here. However, Lukaku is the call for me.

Yes, his first touch sometimes escapes him and he can often look labored and ponderous. But he remains the Red Devils’ leading scorer and not by accident. His physical presence has few equals and given Barca’s past difficulties against direct, muscular teams (remember the Chelsea battles of old?), the Belgian offers the No. 9’s skill set that stands the best chance of unsettling Pique and Lenglet.

As for the managerial comparison: Valverde carries a far longer and richer resume than Solskjaer. However, the quietly inspiring Norwegian will be making his return to the Camp Nou 20 years after he scored the winner there in ManU’s legendary comeback win over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, so I’ll make a modest concession to the powerful mojo contained therein.

United have the wind at their backs and will play without fear; that said, it will take all that and a great deal more to derail Messi’s quest for his third Champions League trophy hoist.

Also read:

2019 UEFA Champions League quarterfinal predictions

Juventus – Ajax combined starting XI


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