Outside The Box: Welcome to silly season

With the European season drawing to a close a couple of months late and FC Dallas playing the waiting game, we thought it was time to revisit an old friend in Outside the Box.

FC Dallas is the Copa Covid winners because if you don’t finish first, you’re last, but the MLS is Back Tournament is progressing to the knockout rounds starting on Saturday evening.

Only the three group games will count towards the MLS Regular Season standings and in-state rivals Houston still couldn’t move ahead of FC Dallas even with the extra three games.

MLS Western Conference standings after the MLS is Back Tournament’s three games are added (MLSsoccer.com)

Still, spare a thought for David Beckham’s Inter Miami who has lost all of their first five games since making a grand entrance at the start of the year.

Can we call it the Lockhart Curse until they restore the historic name to their home?

The Best League You Didn’t Watch

The EFL Championship had a completely insane finish to it’s utterly mad season. I’ll maintain that it’s the most competitive and fun league in the world regardless of the fact my beloved Luton Town played a starring role in this season’s festivities.

Leeds United finally made their return to the Premier League after winning the league while West Brom, Fulham, and Brentford went into the final day on Wednesday with the second automatic promotion spot still up for grabs.

At one point all three teams were behind. Brentford lost to Barnsley in injury time as the Tykes avoided relegation. Fulham tied with Wigan whose point deduction should save Barnsley, and West Bromwich Albion could only draw with mid-table QPR. WBA return to the top flight in a hideous throwback to their early ’90s jerseys.

The other end of the table saw eight teams at risk of relegation going into the final week. Wigan Athletic had an impending 12 point deduction related to financial difficulties that threatened to drop them from mid-table to League One. Sheffield Wednesday could still drop down as the Owls also have a potential punishment coming. The Athletic’s Matt Slater detailed the games after the games as legal challenges and appeals are prepared.

The league’s restart after the COVID-19 stoppage rejuvenated the bottom two clubs as Luton Town and Barnsley were dead and buried in March. So much so, Charlton Athletic boss Lee Bowyer said the two clubs were already relegated.

Luton Town captain Sonny Bradley drops to his knees in celebration at the full time whistle after Luton Town’s 3-2 win over Blackburn Rovers (Liam Smith)

Luton’s bizarre time started before the season even began as manager Nathan Jones left for Stoke City before the Town had even sealed their League One title the season before. He was fired from Stoke earlier this year, while Luton’s replacement wasn’t working so well. Jones was brought back and immediately turned things around with a 3-2 win over Blackburn – courtesy of two own goals and a penalty – lifting the Hatters out of the relegation zone alongside Barnsley. Bowyer was left to stew on those earlier words as his side were relegated after dropping a 4-0 result.

Another club getting some stick are Birmingham City. The Blues sold highly-rated 17-year-old Jude Bellingham to Borussia Dortmund for $25m and promptly decided to retire his number 22 jersey. In 44 appearances, he scored four goals and notched three assists. Club legend…

30 Years of Hurt

Okay, that line is from Three Lions so it’s not strictly related but Liverpool ended their 30-year wait for the Reds’ 19th league title and its first in the Premier League era.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp never disappoints in an interview and stayed true to form as he told Scousers to celebrate at home and minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 in his own way.

Beast Mode

One of Klopp’s biggest fans hit the headlines a week prior as Adebayo Akinfenwa’s Wycombe Wanderers won the League One play-offs at an empty Wembley Stadium. Akinfenwa has long been a cult hero in England with the physique of a powerlifter in a sport full of slender runners.

Four years ago Akinfenwa won the League Two playoff with AFC Wimbledon, and appealed for interested clubs to send him a message on Whatsapp after the Dons confirmed that he would be leaving. Wycombe sent that message, and this time the 38-year-old asked that Klopp Whatsapp him.

The larger than life character has had a side gig after taking over from Jimmy Bullard in recreating iconic goals from the past on Soccer AM. The Saturday morning show put out a fun highlight reel of the hits and misses.

The Bane of Spain

Real Madrid wrapped up a rather uneventful LaLiga return as the Champions League and relegation spots stayed the same for the final nine games of the season. The Spanish second division is more than making up for it with drama that has further extended its season.

Coming in to the final day of the season all 22 teams would play simultaneously with the league title, a playoff place, and two relegation spots still to be decided.

Fuenlabrada v Deportivo La Coruna was one of the most hotly anticipated games as formerly great Depor could get relegated to the Spanish third tier while the Plano-sized suburb of Madrid hoped for a second consecutive promotion campaign, and to bring LaLiga to their stadium which is named for Fernando Torres – no he never played for them but that is his hometown.

With Fuenlabrada already in A Coruna ready for the game, four tests came back positive for COVID-19 forcing the game to be postponed. To date 28 cases have been confirmed within the club.

Results elsewhere confined the former Champions League semifinalists to relegation but a win for Fuenlabrada could still snag them a spot in the playoffs. The playoffs were supposed to begin on Thursday but even the seeding is still up in the air with no resolution in sight.

Oh and then there’s this beauty…

Fans Return

Fans are beginning to return to stadiums amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally the Roja League has allowed fans subject to venue restrictions with social distancing guidelines in place.

The USL Championship returned with some fans allowed. Austin Bold was the first Texan team to permit fans with only 18 fans watching the Bold’s 3-1 loss to OKC Energy.

North Texas Soccer Club returns in USL League One this weekend with a Saturday evening start against Forward Madison at Globe Life Park. With a roughly 4,000 seat configuration for soccer, social distancing should be easy for any soccer fans making their way out to Arlington.

Fans are returning in Europe too as the Coupe de France took place in front of 5,000 fans at the 80,000 seat Stade de France. A Neymar goal was enough for Paris Saint Germain to claim their 13th French cup, although Kylian Mbappe left on crutches after Loic Perrin’s challenge which earned the Saint-Etienne captain a red card.

The Shortest Offseason

We should be deep into the American soccer season and a few weeks into preseason in Europe. Whether you’re a Eurosnob or just an early riser on weekends, the European offseason is usually the quieter time of year.

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed us of soccer for three months but we’re guaranteed a packed year and only eight days between the end of the 2019/20 and start of the 2020/21 Premier League season will not have a game take place in a major European leagues or a UEFA competition.

You can find the list of dates from July 26 to September 12 on BBC Sport.

The only dates free are:
Monday, August 24
Friday, August 28 – One USL Championship game, one USL-1 game
Monday, August 31
Tuesday, September 1 – One USL Championship game
Wednesday, September 2 – Eight USL Championship games
Wednesday, September 9 – Three USL-C, one USL-1 game
Thursday, September 10
Friday, September 11 – Two USL-C, one USL-1 game

With MLS yet to announce its revised regular-season schedule, you can expect at least Thursday, September 10 to be filled as a regular UniMas broadcast day. The two Mondays could also be filled as a report from The Athletic’s Jeff Reuter and Sam Stejskal details that each team will play six games in a four-week span from August 22.

Any Other Business

I didn’t really have anywhere to put these but former Barcelona and Man City star Yaya Toure turns up at League Two Leyton Orient. The Ivorian midfielder’s agent reached out to the club about keeping fit while travel restrictions are in place across the world.

Paul Pogba gave away a penalty as Manchester United missed out on a chance to all-but secure a Champions League spot. West Ham’s Michail Antonio converted the spot kick in the Hammers’ 1-1 draw, but the best part of the game was the camera catching Antonio joking about Pogba’s handball with Bruno Fernandes before focusing on Pogba’s expression.

What’s On

The plan is to go back to doing this on Wednesday’s so here’s a list to get you through until then starting with the Champions League decider between United and Leicester. There’s Round of 16 play in the MLS is Back Tournament, the first leg of the EFL Championship playoff semifinals, and the final of the NWSL Challenge Cup that’s been full of surprises.

Sunday, July 26:
10:00AM – Leicester City v Manchester United (EPL) – NBC
11:30AM – Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars (NWSL Challenge Cup Final) – CBS
11:30AM – Swansea City v Brentford (EFL-C Playoffs) – ESPN+
2:45PM – Juventus v Sampdoria (Serie A) – ESPN+
4:00PM – NYRB II v Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL-C) – ESPN+
7:30PM – Toronto v NYCFC (MLS) – FS1/TUDN
10:00PM – Sporting KC v Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS) – FS1/TUDN

Monday, July 27:
1:45PM – Cardiff City v Fulham (EFL-C Playoffs) – ESPN+
7:30PM – SJ Earthquakes v Real Salt Lake (MLS) – FS1
8:00PM – Pachuca v America (Liga MX) – TUDN
10:00PM – Seattle Sounders v LAFC (MLS) – FS1/UniMas

Tuesday, July 28:
12:30PM – Parma v Atalanta (Serie A) – ESPN
2:45PM – Inter Milan v Napoli (Serie A) – ESPN+
7:00PM – Columbus Crew v Minnesota United (MLS) – ESPN
9:30PM – Portland Timbers v FC Cincinnati (MLS) – ESPN

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