Los Angeles Soccer: St. Neots Town
Rangers FC was supposed to be sniffing after archrival Celtic FC by now, two points off the pace with two games to go and virtually no hope of claiming their 54th Scottish title this year.
Now the Blues, with Fontana's Maurice Edu a midfield fixture, are a week away from claiming a third successive championship.
Celtic's shock midweek loss at Inverness Caledonian Thistle gave control of the Scottish Premier League race to its Glasgow rival, and Rangers responded with an emphatic 4-0 rout Saturday of third-place Hearts. The Blues are 28-5-3, one point ahead of Celtic (27-4-5), and huge favorites Tuesday against Dundee United and in Sunday's league finale at Kilmarnock.
“Points can still be dropped, and we knew that possibility still existed, so it was an extra boost when [Celtic's] result came through on Wednesday,” Edu told Rangers' website. “It was an extra incentive, of course, but, regardless, we would approach all the games in the same manner, because if we don't win our games, then what happened elsewhere would be irrelevant.
“Them dropping points has given us the edge and put us back on top, so now it's up to us to go out there and secure another title. It's in our hands again, and we want to make sure that it's after the last game that we're celebrating.”
Edu has had his ups and downs this season, with form and injury, but has played in integral role in Rangers' campaign. He said that the team seemed to be “peaking at the right time.”
“The run in is so crucial, and now we're definitely showing a good level of confidence and consistency,” he said. “That's so important during this stretch of the season … We know what's at stake, having been in this position in the last two years, too. We have that little bit of experience, and I think that's helping us.”
TAYLOR TO THE RESCUE: Irvine's Matt Taylor netted his fourth multigoal game of the season to lead Rot Weiss Ahlen to a critical 4-3 triumph Saturday over Rot Weiss Erfurt that pulled it out of the German third division's relegation zone with one game to go.
Will all of Matt Taylor's goals have been for naught?
The Irvine-bred striker has been huge this season for Rot Weiss Ahlen in Germany's third division, scoring 15 goals in 28 games, but a late-season skid -- and a costly administrative violation -- could force the Muensterland club to one of the fourth-tier Regionalliga.
Saturday's 3-0 defeat at VfR Aalen dropped Rot Weiss (10-17-9) -- or “red/white” -- to 18th among 20 clubs in the 3.Bundesliga, in one of three relegation slots, one point behind SV Wacker Burghausen (9-17-10) with two games to play.
Rot Weiss has been blown out in its last two matches and lost six of its last eight league games, but it would be two points above Burghausen -- above relegation -- if not for the three points subtracted from its total last week for violating a league financial regulation. The climb to 17th or higher won't be easy.
Rot Weiss, which is 7-3-2 when Taylor scores, closes with games Friday against fourth-place Rot Weiss Erfurt (17-12-7) and May 14 at second-place Hansa Rostock (23-8-5). Both clubs scored shutout victories in the first meetings this season.
MINOR-LEAGUE FINALS: Jay Denny's Hednesford Town fell just short, but Dallas Moore's St. Neots Town added another trophy to its collection in competitions well below England's top tiers.
Matt Taylor's scoring exploits this season surely will provide options this summer. The former Chivas USA forward from Irvine has been one of the German third division's deadliest finishers, a bright spot in his club's subpar campaign.
Taylor, 29, who played at Irvine High School and UCLA, netted his 14th and 15th goals this season for Rot Weiss Ahlen, a small club in the Muenster region of western Germany that brought him in from second-tier FSV Frankfurt last August.
Since then, Taylor has tallied 15 times in 27 league games, last week adding a pair with the second goal in a 2-0 win over SSV Jahn Regensberg and Rot Weiss' lone tally in a 5-1 loss at VfB Stuttgart II.
Taylor hadn't hit the net in his five previous games, and he's scored in bunches throughout the season, with three multigoal games, five in a four-game stretch last fall, three in succession upon returning from winter break, and three in three games last month.
Rot Weiss (10-15-9), which is 16th in the 20-team 3.Bundesliga, is pretty good when Taylor scores (7-3-2) but not so fine when he's shut out (2-11-2) or doesn't play (1-1-5).
TIE IS A LOSS: Rangers FC's Scottish Premier League title hopes likely were lost in a scoreless draw Sunday with Old Firm rival Celtic FC that kept the Blues atop the standings.
Rangers (26-5-3), with Fontana's Maurice Edu in midfield, retained a one-point lead over its Glasgow rival after sharing the points in the seventh meeting this season, but Celtic (25-3-5) has one game in hand, and that's what matters most.
Fontana's Maurice Edu has emerged as a force in central midfield this season for Scottish giant Rangers FC, taking on more responsibility in attack and contributing mightily to the club's bid to win four trophies.
The Blues are out of one competition, ousted from the Scottish Cup by "Old Firm" archrival Celtic, but two championships are within grasp -- and a showdown Thursday at home against Dutch power PSV Eindhoven could send them to the last eight of the UEFA Europa League.
They can win the Scottish League Cup title Sunday, when they take on Celtic for the fifth time since New Year's, and are in command in the Scottish Premier League despite sitting two points behind Celtic in the standings.
And Edu (Etiwanda HS), whose stoppage-time goal three weeks ago sent Rangers past Sporting Lisbon and into the round of 16 in Europe's No. 2 club competition, is basking in his opportunity to play an important role for a storied European club against top competition.
"It's great getting the chance to play against the best teams in the world and test yourself against them," Edu, a U.S. national team midfielder who played in last summer's World Cup, told Major League Soccer's Web site this week. "You dream of playing in these competitions, so I'm just glad it's become a reality for me."
Injuries, mostly, limited Edu to 19 league starts in his first year and a half with Rangers, but he's made 27 starts -- and scored five goals -- in all competitions since the season kicked off last August. The goal against Sporting Lisbon was the biggest, by far, guaranteeing the SPL a second automatic berth in the lucrative UEFA Champions League.
"At the beginning of the season, the manager [Walter Smith] challenged me to get a few more goals ...," Edu said. "He's encouraged me to get forward and make late runs to support the strikers. I've been fortunate to grab a few goals. I like it because I've always seen myself as a box to box-type player. Hopefully, I can add to my tally before the end of the season."
He'll get his chance against PSV, which Rangers held to a scoreless draw in the first leg last week in Eindhoven. That gives the Blues the advantage heading into their home leg, but a tie with goals would send PSV through.
Sacha Kljestan has been in and out of RSC Anderlecht's lineup since joining the club from Chivas USA last summer, and things are going south again.
He's featuring less and less as the reigning Belgian champion hits the pivotal part of the schedule, and if that's just part of being a young pro in a competitive European environment, it doesn't make it any easier.
“It's tough to deal with," Kljestan, who has started just one off Les Mauves' eight games since the Jan. 23 return from winter break, told Major League Soccer's Web site last week. “I played 4½ years and I think I started every game but one in MLS. It takes some adjustment, but I think I have a good mentality. I fight for my place every week, and whether I'm in the lineup or not, I support my teammates. I think my coaches and teammates recognize that.”
Kljestan (Huntington Beach/Huntington Beach HS) supported his teammates from the bench in both legs of the UEFA Europa League round-of-32 loss to Ajax Amsterdam, and he didn't feature in Friday's showdown with Genk, which is tied on points with Anderlecht (both are 18-3-7) but ahead on goal difference atop the Belgian Jupiler League standings.
The club is winless in its last four games and outscored, 8-1, in that span -- after a two-month stretch with nine successive shutouts. Kljestan, of course, started during part of that streak, then sat for three games, then returned as a late substitute in two more. He's played just 54 minutes in Anderlecht's last nine games, getting 45 in his lone start, a 2-0 debacle at Westerlo two weeks ago.
Kljestan sees the bigger picture. He's experiencing Europe -- he and his fiancee, model Jamie Lee Darley, have enjoyed trips to London and Paris -- and working on his game, with hopes of going to a bigger club and playing a big role with the U.S. national team.
“We have a healthy competition in training for selection every week. I think it's making me a better player -- but obviously, I want to be on the field to help my team the most,” he told the MLS Web site. "Every day in training, I have to test myself a little more, and I think I've become a better 90-minute player in all aspects.
“In MLS, I played as more of an attacking midfielder. Here I've played as more of a defensive midfielder, so that part of my game has improved. At the end of the year, I'll be able to say that my game has become more well-rounded.”
OLD FIRM LOSS: Fontana's Maurice Edu and Rangers FC is out of the Scottish Cup following a 1-0 loss Celtic in last week's fifth-round replay, the Blues' second defeat to their Old Firm rival in 11 days.
Could the past week have gone any better for Rangers FC?
The Scottish champs bounced back from the previous weekend's debacle against Old Firm rival Celtic to claim a spot in the UEFA Europa League's last 16 -- in most dramatic fashion, and through our local hero, and doing a good deed for Scotland all the while -- then took command, in a way, in the Scottish Premier League when its hated nemesis was unexpectedly beaten.
Fontana's Maurice Edu was the hero in Lisbon, scoring in stoppage Thursday to give Rangers a 2-2 draw with Sporting. That made for 3-3 aggregate, and the away-goals tiebreaker favored the Blues, 2-1.
The victory provided Scotland a second automatic spot for the 2012-13 season in the Champions League, pushing the SPL above Switzerland's league to 15th in the UEFA table used to dole out European berths. That does one of two things: Ensures Rangers a Champions League berth even if it doesn't win the league title next season, or gives despised Celtic that berth.
Maybe that spurred Celtic's gift Sunday. As Rangers dispatched St. Johnstone, 4-0, the first-place Bhoys -- unbeaten in their last 17 -- were dismissed, 2-0, at fifth-place Motherwell, reducing the gap to their Old Firm nemesis from eight to five points. Because Rangers has two games in hand, it controls its fate. Of course, the final-stage showdown, probably in May, likely will decide the champion.
The Glasgow-based clubs meet twice before that, Wednesday in a Scottish Cup fifth-round replay and March 20 in the League Cup final.
ETC.: Former Galaxy forward Edson Buddle came off the bench to score the final goal in FC Ingolstadt's 4-1 rout at Karlsruhe, his second goal in six appearances since arriving in January. … Alta Loma's Carlos Bocanegra tested Nice goalkeeper David Ospina, Saint-Etienne's only shot on goal in a 2-0 defeat, its third in a row. Les Verts (9-8-8), once a prime player in the race, now sits nine points out of a European spot. The gap to the relegation zone is only slightly larger, at 10. … Michael Bradley watched Aston Villa's 4-1 romp over Blackburn from the bench, and Brad Friedel lost his shutout on a deflected shot with nine minutes to go. … Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan and Belgian champ RSC Anderlecht have a top-of-table clash Friday against Genk. Both are 18-3-6; Genk is No. 1 on goal difference.
Rangers FC's back-to-back Scottish Premier League titles might not get another “-to-back.” Sunday's 3-0 loss in the fourth of seven “Old Firm” meetings this season with archival Celtic FC has left Gers on the verge of elimination in two competitions.
And the Bhoys can end Rangers' title hopes in two more competitions, too.
Gary Hooper scored twice in the first 28 minutes Sunday at Celtic Park as Celtic's lead over Rangers (18-4-2) reached eight points, 64-56. The Blues, with Fontana's Maurice Edu a constant in central midfield, have two games in hand, but another loss could leave a gap too great to be bridged.
“Celtic deserved to win the game -- I don’t think we can have any complaints,” Rangers manager Walter Smith told reporters. “Our possession and defending was poor. It was as disappointing an Old Firm game since [returning to the club in 2007 after a decade away]. … The pressure is now on us to try and get a level of consistency in our game to make sure that when the next Old Firm game comes round, we’re in better shape.”
There are three more Old Firm meetings to go: in a March 2 Scottish Cup fifth-round replay at Celtic Park, in the March 20 Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park, and at Rangers' Ibrox home in the championship bracket during the SPL season's final phase. Celtic is 2-1-1 in the first four this season, with two successive SPL wins.
Rangers has won 53 Scottish League titles, but not three in a row since a string of nine ended in the 1997-98 season. Celtic has 43. The last time a club other than Rangers or Celtic won? 1985 (Aberdeen).
Rangers' first priority: getting past Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League's round of 32, a task made more difficult by last week's draw at Ibrox.
EUROPA LEAGUE: Neither Rangers nor Belgian champ RSC Anderlecht managed the kind of result their were looking for in the Europa League's knockout openers. At least Rangers remains alive.
Maurice Edu's Rangers FC and Sacha Kljestan's RSC Anderlecht return to European action this week with the resumption of the UEFA Europa Cup, the continent's No. 2 club competition.
Scottish champion Rangers is home against Sporting Lisbon and Belgian titlist Anderlecht plays host to Ajax Amsterdam on Thursday as the knockout stage begins with round-of-32 first legs. All second legs will be a week from Thursday.
Fontana's Edu, who last month returned from a knee injury, has been a fixture in central midfield for the Blues, who joined the Europa League fray after finishing third, at 1-2-3, in group play in the first-tier UEFA Champions League.
Sporting won its Europa League group and is 7-3-0 in the competition, but that was last fall. The club is in crisis after selling top star Liedson, then firing sporting director Costinha when he railed publicly against the move. The president is leaving, chief creator Marat Izmailov is looking for a new home, and manager Paulo Sergio seems to be cracking under the pressure.
Huntington Beach's Kljestan, who has been in and out of Anderlecht's lineup (and has been a late substitute the past two weeks after sitting out the previous two), went 2-3-1 in Europa group play; Ajax, like Rangers, falls from the Champions League after finishing a point behind AC Milan in its group.
If Rangers reaches the round of 16, French club Lille or Holland's PSV Eindhoven will be the foe. Anderlecht's opponent would be Russian power Spartak Moscow or Switzerland's FC Basel.
The full Europa League slate:
Manchester City (England) at Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)
Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands) at RSC Anderlecht (Belgium)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal) at Rangers FC (Scotland)
Villarreal (Spain) at Napoli (Italy)
Sporting Braga (Portugal) at Lech Poznan (Poland)
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) at Besiktas (Turkey)
FC Twente (Netherlands) at Rubin Kazan (Russia)
VfB Stuttgart (Germany) at Benfica (Portugal)
Paris St.-Germain (France) at BATE (Belarus)
Liverpool (England) at Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)
Spartak Moscow (Russia) at FC Basel (Switzerland)
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) at Young Boys Berne (Switzerland)
CSKA Moscow (Russia) at PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
FC Porto (Portugal) at Sevilla (Spain)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) at Lille (France)
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) at Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: The first four of eight round-of-16 series begin this week in the UEFA Champions League. Tottenham visits AC Milan and Schalke 04 plays at Valencia on Tuesday; Barcelona plays at Arsenal and Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk at AS Roma on Wednesday. The other four series begin next week.
BRADLEY'S FIRST: Manhattan Beach's Michael Bradley made his English Premier League debut Saturday, struggling to make an impact as a second-half substitute in Aston Villa's 1-1 draw at Blackpool.
Michael Bradley took the field, where he was greeted with cheers by Aston Villa's faithful, but was in suit and tie for Saturday's English Premier League clash with visiting Fulham.
The U.S. national team midfielder, whose family lives in Manhattan Beach, had to put off his debut with his new club until his International Transfer Certificate arrives from Borussia Moenchengladbach.
So he instead was introduced the crowd before kickoff, saluting all three sides of Villa Park, and then watched U.S. teammate Clint Dempsey beat former UCLA goalkeeper Brad Friedel to lift Fulham to a 2-2 draw.
“I have spoken to people, and the first thing they always say about Villa Park is the heritage of the ground,” Bradley told Aston Villa's Web site. “They talk about Villa Park being a traditional stadium, with a great atmosphere, and they always say the fans are tremendous, they make loads of noise and they are really loud.
“I can't wait to play to get out there and play now. I am just excited to be here and ready to get going. That's why I have come to play in the Premier League. I want to play at the highest level and test myself in the biggest of games.”
He'll likely make his club debut Saturday at Blackpool and hope to make his first home appearance two weeks later against Blackburn. His goal: Make the kind of impact former Irish star Roy Keane made in the EPL.
“I have watched all sorts of games from when I was little, and watched midfielders, obviously,” Bradley told the Guardian. “The one I looked up to was Roy Keane and the job he did at Manchester United. The way he was able to be the engine and heart of their team and help them be successful was something to aspire to.”
There were a lot of clubs looking closely at Michael Bradley, but as soon as the U.S. national team midfielder got word that Aston Villa was interested, his departure from Borussia Moenchengladbach was a done deal.
The 23-year-old midfielder, the son of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, on Monday joined Villa, arriving on loan until summer.
The Birmingham-based club, mired in a disappointing English Premier League campaign, has an option to purchase Bradley's contract, which runs until summer 2012. The announcement follows by days Pasadena's Yura Movsisyan's move from Danish club Randers to Russian Premier League side FC Krasnodar.
Bradley, whose family lives in Manhattan Beach, won't be cleared to play in Villa's game Tuesday against Manchester United, but he could debut Saturday against U.S. teammate Clint Dempsey and Fulham.
“Within the last week or so I heard that the manager [Gerard Houllier] was interested in bringing me here,” Bradley told Aston Villa's Web site. “From the moment I heard that, I was really excited and really just hoping that everything could get done. For me, the Premier League is the best league in the world. You watch a game in the Premier League, and the speed of the game, the pace and the power all stand out.
“To have the opportunity to come here and test myself at the highest level, week in and week out, is incredible, and to try to take the things I do as a player and make them count at the highest level -- it's a great challenge.”
Bradley's father was linked to the Aston Villa managerial job until Houllier, a former French national team coach, was hired in early September. The club is owned by Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner and features three other Americans: goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan and defender Eric Lichaj.
Bradley, who signed with MLS's MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) at 16, moved to Holland's Heerenveen at 18 and joined Gladbach in 2008 on a $3.43 million transfer, has quickly risen in international soccer. He enjoyed a breakthrough World Cup in South Africa and was one of few pluses this season for the German club, which sits at the bottom of the Bundesliga standings.
Bradley's representatives asked for a transfer during the Bundesliga's winter break, Gladbach technical director Max Eberl told German newspaper Express, and there was immediate interest from England's Sunderland, Turkey's Galatasaray, Italy's Palermo and several Bundesliga clubs.
Reports Friday had Bradley headed to Galatasaray on a $6.8 million transfer, but he spent the weekend in England finalizing details and taking a medical exam.