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Lloyd Barker: Impact’s Ignacio Piatti Shows he’s in MLS Upper Crust



There have been Montreal Impact-TFC matches that failed to live up to expectations, but when these teams have met recently, it’s proven to be a derby not to be missed. There were fireworks on the field, and there was controversy off it. The Canadian clash on Sunday ended 2-2, which was a fair result, with the stars of each team influencing the outcome.

Here are my pros and cons from the 401 Derby:

Pro: Ignacio Piatti showed once again that he is one of the most dynamic players in Major League Soccer. The Argentine’s first goal, in the 19th minute, was another highlight-reel finish to the far-post side netting, while his second was a well placed penalty in the 55th minute. Piatti improved his goals tally to 17 on the season, No. 3 in MLS, and helped clinch a playoff spot last Sunday. There are very few players in the league that bring fans to the edge of their seats when they are in possession of the ball, but Piatti is one of them. The dribbling wizard is an absolute treat to watch and he deserves a long-term contract extension.

Con: Unfortunately, the biggest negative of the day was something that didn’t occur on the field. Star striker Didier Drogba asked to be left out of the lineup against Toronto FC after being told by coach Mauro Biello that he would start the game on the bench. In 28 years on the professional soccer scene, I’ve seen and heard more stories than I can possibly remember, but I’ve never known of an instance where a player asked to be left off the team sheet because he was not named a starter. Drogba, who has since been reprimanded by the organization, has yet to make a public statement on the matter, probably because the action spoke for itself.

Pro: Despite conceding two goals, Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush remained in fine form. Bush registered five saves, including a fine diving stop on fullback Justin Morrow in the 15th minute, a kick save in the 22nd minute on Jonathan Osorio’s 12-yard attempt and on Sebastian Giovinco’s curling effort in the 69th minute. One thing is clear, if the Impact is to make a run deep into the playoffs, Bush has to maintain the excellent form he’s shown during the past several weeks. Honourable mention to defender Ambroise Oyongo, who seems to make an unbelievable block every game, just as he did in the 85th minute on Tsubasa Endoh’s close-range attempt that was sure to beat a scrambling Bush.

Con: Toronto was unlucky not to find the back of the net when Armando Cooper intercepted an errant Laurent Ciman pass and proceeded to hit the post in the 17th minute and also when Giovinco slammed his 25-yard free kick off the crossbar in the 34th minute with Bush well beaten. TFC’s goal in the 51st minute, by U.S. international Jozy Altidore, was another goal that the Impact’s back line should have dealt with much better. Morrow delivered a cross into the area toward four Impact players and with only Altidore to aim at. The cross beat Ciman and fell to Altidore, who held off a weak challenge by Oyongo before poking home his tenth goal in his last 13 appearances. The visitors’ second goal was similar to their first, in that it was a cross from the same side to the same target — Altidore — who easily won the aerial battle over Ciman and Oyongo once again. It resulted in substitute Tosaint Ricketts scoring the 86th-minute equalizer from point-blank range. On both TFC goals, Ciman and Oyongo made the same mistake while trying to deal with the two crosses. With a player of Altidore’s aerial and physical strength, the decision to try to outjump him is naive. Ciman and Oyongo should have been jumping toward Altidore, making sure he felt physical contact and unbalance him.

Pro: To be clear, Matteo Mancosu’s effective style of play is the only reason Drogba was relegated to the bench against Toronto. Drogba’s 38-year-old legs simply can’t match the youthful output of Mancosu, 31. The Italian won the penalty in the 54th minute against Toronto with his movement and quickness. In his younger days, when he tormented defenders around the world, Drogba used to have that movement and quickness, but understandably no longer does. Additionally, Mancosu’s ability to put defensive pressure on the opposition is another reason he has earned a starting place up front.

Con: I’m of the belief that referee Jair Marrufo should have called an Impact penalty in the 44th minute after Piatti was pulled down in the box from behind by Marco Delgado. Piatti was in full flight to Toronto’s goal and Delgado’s last-resort shoulder tug was just enough to stop him in his tracks. Marrufo deemed the contact insufficient, but I beg to differ. It was a big moment in the match because the Impact went into the halftime break with a 1-0 lead, but a 2-0 advantage might have been too much for Toronto to overcome in the second half.

Pro: The Impact clinched a playoff berth, but the club’s final regular-season game — on the road Sunday against the New England Revolution — will determine its post-season seeding. The Impact can finish fourth, which means hosting the knockout-round game in the first round of the MLS playoffs.

As I’ve been saying for weeks, even with one regular-season game to play, there is still plenty to play for.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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