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Charlotte FC picks Maryland’s Ben Bender as top MLS draft selection

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Major League Soccer expansion club Charlotte FC has selected Maryland midfielder Ben Bender as the top draft pick in the MLS SuperDraft on Tuesday.

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An All-Big Ten selection in his first two campaigns, Bender was the unanimous Big Ten Midfielder of the Year in 2021 for the Terrapins. As a two-way midfield presence, Bender will provide depth for a Charlotte side that also boasts Spanish playmaker Sergio Ruiz among its attacking options.

Charlotte will begin play as the 28th club in MLS in the upcoming 2022 season, with the North Carolina club’s inaugural match on Feb. 26 at D.C. United before it hosts the LA Galaxy in its home opener on March 5.

“It’s amazing,” said Bender during the draft’s livestream. “I just can’t wait to get started, and I know that the football down there is going to be a good brand and … I just want to be a part of that.”

FC Cincinnati took Indiana University goalkeeper Roman Celentano with the second overall pick. The first two-time Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, Celentano had a career record of 37-10-5 with the Hoosiers, allowing just 33 goals in 52 matches.

When asked why he selected Celentano, Cincinnati manager Pat Noonan told MLSSoccer.com, “It’s an area of need. He provides good depth. He’s going to come in with good character, good upside. We’ve seen and heard a lot about him in the previous months, and he’s going to be a nice piece to this team.”

FC Dallas then selected Saint Louis University attacker Isaiah Parker with the third selection. In his lone collegiate season, the left winger scored three goals and added seven assists. Parker’s speed is such that he could end up playing any number of positions for FCD.

Houston Dynamo FC selected Duke forward Thorleifur Ulfarsson with the fourth pick and Austin FC selected Saint Louis defender Kipp Keller to round out the top-five selections.



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Inter Miami opened camp with new roster for 2022 MLS season

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Inter Miami CF forward Gonzalo Higuain, left and defender Aimé Mabika run after the ball during the team’s first training session prior to the start of the new MLS season at the team’s training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Monday, January 17, 2022.

Inter Miami CF forward Gonzalo Higuain, left and defender Aimé Mabika run after the ball during the team’s first training session prior to the start of the new MLS season at the team’s training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Monday, January 17, 2022.

Special for the Miami Herald

Inter Miami should have added names to the practice jerseys as the team kicked off training camp Monday. There were so many new players reporters had to rely on boot colors and hairstyles to distinguish among them.

More than half of last year’s starting lineup is gone for Season 3, including designated player Rodolfo Pizarro, 2020 MVP Lewis Morgan, defenders Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Christian Makoun, all of whom were traded or loaned. French World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi and Argentine defender Nico Figal are also on their way out.

Replacing them is a collection of young, hungry, speedy players hand-picked by chief soccer officer Chris Henderson and coach Phil Neville. After inheriting much of the club’s original roster when they took over in 2021 and not reaching the playoffs, Henderson and Neville were determined to put their imprint on the team.

They also had to reduce the payroll to compensate for MLS fines for roster rules violations in 2020.

“This is a reset button for the organization,” Neville said. “We knew we had to make big decisions and be brave, and we were willing to do that.”

Neville stressed the amount of research and vetting that Henderson and the scouting team did.

“We’re now not just signing players just because a friend of a friend knows someone who’s good or an agent is close to someone,” he said. “We’re signing someone because they’ve been watched 20, 30, 40 times by five or six people. We know about their family history. We’re not signing players on a whim. We’re signing players that fit with our team. I’ve had input. There are no excuses now.”

The season begins with a long list of questions.

How does Gonzalo Higuain look?

The Argentine forward and team’s highest-paid player came into camp fitter than last year and highly motivated. Higuain, 34, said Monday his mother’s death and other issues distracted him last season but now he has a clear head and is determined to lead the team to a playoff run. He vowed to be a more vocal leader and maintain a positive attitude.

He also hinted that he’ll assume more of a playmaker role and joked that he’d let the younger, faster players do more of the running.

“If last year at less than 100 percent I was able to score 12 goals and have seven assists, I think this year being focused I can improve my numbers and help the team reach the playoffs,” Higuain said. “A lot of my friends and teammates have left. A big change. With my age and experience I have to be a leader for these young guys.”

Neville and Higuain spoke every day of the offseason.

“We spoke about his legacy in this club,” Neville said. “He wants to be remembered as a winner. You look at how he was training (Monday) and the shape he’s in, that’s someone who has massive motivation. These players when they come in, the first player they want to meet is Gonzalo Higuain. He is the face of this organization on the pitch.”

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Inter Miami CF forward Gonzalo Higuain talks to reporters during a press conference after the team’s first training session prior to the start of the new MLS season at the team’s training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Monday, January 17, 2022. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

What can fans expect from the new players?

“Youth, energy, speed, and hunger,” Neville said. “We brought in a certain type of player with great character who wants to be part of a team. Last year I felt there were individuals who felt they were more important than the team. The best players don’t always make the best team. I’m in a miles better mindset and more confident than I was a year ago when I sat here and not knowing the players that I was coming in to manage.”

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Inter Miami CF player Ariel Lassiter kicks the ball during the team’s first training session prior to the start of the new MLS season at the team’s training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Monday, January 17, 2022. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

What’s the latest on Blaise Matuidi and Nico Figal?

Matuidi, 34, has a year left on his contract but is not in the team’s plan for this season. The club is in talks with him and his representatives about a buyout or other solution. Henderson said a statement is expected soon. Figal is being wooed by multiple clubs, Henderson said, and his future should be determined in the coming days.

What can fans expect from Robbie Robinson?

The young forward hopes to stay injury free after battling hamstring problems last season.

“I want to make my stamp this year,” he said. “This could be a really big year for me individually and for this young team, which looks very dynamic, fast, and powerful. We never lived up to what we thought we could do. We want to show what we’re capable of.”

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Inter Miami CF forward Robbie Robinson talks to reporters during the first training session prior to the start of the new MLS season at the team’s training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Monday, January 17, 2022. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

Did anyone stand out at the first training session?

“(Christopher) McVey’s come in and hasn’t said that much but just does his talking on the football field, which is the type of player I like,” Neville said. “No frills. No histrionics. No drama. Comes into work, does his job, is part of a team. You can say the same for Mo Adams, Ariel Lassiter, (Jairo) Quinteros, (Leonardo) Campana, Emerson (Rodriguez), all the new players.”

Is Inter Miami done wheeling and dealing?

No. Henderson and Neville both said there are a couple of pieces left to complete the team puzzle. They want to add a playmaker, and have been in talks with a few prospects, including Raphael Veiga of Brazilian club Palmeiras. Henderson hopes to get at least one deal done before the season opener Feb. 26, but a player or two could be added later.

This story was originally published January 17, 2022 5:49 PM.

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls and has been the soccer writer and University of Miami basketball beat writer for 25 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.





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A matter of legacy: Christine Sinclair has defined greatness in her sport

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PORTLAND, Ore. — On January 29, 2020, Christine Sinclair cemented her place among her sport’s greatest. She’d earned that place long before.

But one year ago, the world truly took notice. With her 23rd-minute goal against St. Kitts and Nevis, Canada’s captain passed Abby Wambach, claimed a record long-held by Mia Hamm, and became the greatest scorer in international soccer history. Since then, the world has been catching up, but with that 185th international goal, Sinclair gained more access to a conversation she should be defining: Is she the greatest of all time?

The whys and how comes of that conversation are too many for this post. They’re also too complex. This space is more about today, today’s honor, and the fact Sinclair is finally getting the attention she deserves. Honored by FIFA during a gala in Zurich, Sinclair was recognized before the soccer world for the pedestal she’s claimed – one that stands next to Cristiano Ronaldo’s, the men’s game’s top scorer, yet slightly above for her total. Sinclair now has 188 goals. Ronaldo has 115.

“Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to experience many successes,” Sinclair shared in a Portland Thorns FC’s statement, “from winning trophies internationally and at club level and accepting individual awards. What matters are all the moments that I have shared and the connections that I have made.

“Being the first female to win this award is an incredible honor,” she said. “I hope it inspires young girls around the world to chase their dreams and lets them know that anything is possible.”

Increasingly, that perspective has become part of Sinclair’s legacy. If you ask her about her achievements with Canada, she’ll note the gold medal and the new levels the program has reached during her 22 years as a senior international. But she’ll also talk about the generation that’s arrived, and how players like Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan, Paris Saint-Germain’s Ashley Lawrence, and Chelsea’s Jesse Fleming represent a new level for the program. She’ll talk about an environment in her home country that’s set to grow the game even more, with players like PSG’s Jordyn Huitema representing the next surge of Canadian talent. She’ll talk about what the inspiration has led to, not what the inspiration was.

It may be reductive to say that goals are inspirational — it feeds into a primacy of goals that overshadows other parts of the game — but there’s an undeniable passion that blooms from that end result. We know how hard it is to score goals, let alone 188 of them. The relief, the accomplishment, the glory – it’s a feeling that may be unmatched by another moment in sport. Yet Sinclair has been experiencing those moments at the highest levels since she was 16 years old. She scored her first senior-level goal for Canada in March 2000; a first as a professional in 2009. For over two decades, she has produced at the peak of her sport, amassing a resume that may be unparalleled.

“To say I’m proud of Christine is an understatement,” Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc said in the team’s announcement. For 16years, she was a teammate of Sinclair’s on the Canadian national team.

“[Sinclair] continues to make her mark,” LeBlanc said, “and I am happy that the football world recognizes her for the greatness we have always seen in her.”

Goalscoring is only one part of that greatness. Sinclair has shown as much over her last few seasons as a Thorn, forgoing her natural striker’s role for a place in attacking midfield. On rare occasions, she’s even dropped deeper, into a central role. She’s not just a goalscorer. She’s a soccer player, an all-around one, and although she can be valued without dwelling on goals, her scoring gives her access to the ultimate conversation.

Nothing we can say here will answer whether she’s women’s soccer’s greatest, and there’s no single opinion that should convince anyone. Ultimately, it’s not even that important. The more important thing is the respect that comes with consideration. Sinclair is undoubtedly worthy of this conversation, and she has been for some time. But since there is no settling any greatest-ever debates, having a place in the discussion is the pinnacle. Nobody can deny her place among the game’s elite, and within that group, nobody has done more to cement their spot.

“There are not enough honors and awards in the world for Christine Sinclair …,” Merritt Paulson, owner of the Thorns for Sinclair’s nine seasons in the National Women’s Soccer League, said in his club’s statement. “There never has been a more unassuming superstar. It is a privilege to call her a Thorn, and we are blessed to have her at this club.”

Today, FIFA got in on some of that privilege: the privilege of being connected to Sinclair’s legacy. She authored it herself, but when it comes to giving that legacy its due, Paulson has a responsibility, as does LeBlanc. I share that responsibility, and if you’re at all involved in the women’s soccer world — from casual conversations in bars and living rooms, to your tweets, posts and stories — you share in that responsibility, too. So much of how greatness is measured in sports is about how athletes were perceived in their moment.

In that sense, history isn’t just about hindsight. It’s about the artifacts that capture moments, and for too long, there have been too few moments devoted to Sinclair’s greatness. Now’s the time to set history right. It’s time to ensure those who’ll never see Sinclair play know how much she gave to the sport.

She is as good as we’ve ever seen, and she’s been at this level for years. She has four first-division club titles, two college championships, a gold medal, three Olympic honors and, as of today, the full recognition of the soccer world. She has the respect of those who play the game, and as of one year ago, she has her sport’s most famous mark.

She has become a reason for young players to chase their dreams and, to continue echoing Sinclair’s words, proof that anything is possible. Between Portland, Canada, and the world, she has created a legacy that’s reframed legacies in her sport. She’s taken the game to a new level.

“She is a truly humble human being, a great team leader, a phenomenal player,” LeBlanc said, “and most importantly an incredible person whose legacy has already made a long-lasting impact in Portland.”





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Report: Atlanta United to send winger Erik Lopez to Banfield on loan with option to buy

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Atlanta United’s transfer dealings are starting to ramp up ahead of the team’s return to training as the Five Stripes look toward a championship campaign in 2022. The latest report concerns a departure — Paraguayan forward Erik Lopez looks to be heading to Banfield on loan with a $1.6 million option to buy half of the player’s future value, according to renowned journalist Cesar Luis Merlo.

If the report is accurate and Banfield does decide to execute the purchase on Lopez, it would come at a considerable loss to Atlanta United’s coffers after they reportedly shelled out $3.7 million for his signing in 2020.

Of course, there are a few factors that play into Lopez’s drop in value. First, his former club, Olimpia, were in a prime bargaining position in 2020 when Atlanta United was in desperate need of a forward that could help patch up an attack with a massive void due to the loss of Josef Martinez. Second, Atlanta United was probably not so concerned about whittling Lopez’s price down too much as they knew he’d be a player that would fit under the league’s imminent U22 initiative — rendering the transfer fee relatively meaningless when it comes to roster-building budget rules. (Of course, the effects of the pandemic caused the implementation of the rule to be pushed back, forcing Lopez to miss competing with the first team the entirety of the 2020 season.) Third, he did not perform well enough to regularly break into the team. And lastly, with the financial impacts of covid still rippling throughout the sporting world, it’s a very difficult market in which to offload a player in Lopez’s circumstance. Still, if Lopez is able to finally get his career on an upward projection and market conditions improve, the remaining 50 percent of his future value could make up a good amount of the loss.

For Atlanta United, the ramifications are potentially quite large, as it opens up an aforementioned U22 roster spot for another bright young talent. The U22 designated slots allow teams to sign players 22 years of age or less to unlimited transfer fees so long as the player’s salary does not surpass the Maximum Budget Charge in a given year.

Naturally, the question of whether Atlanta United’s top reported transfer target, Thiago Almada, could fit into this slot given that the Velez midfielder is only 20 years of age. The answer to that question is almost certainly no, given that Almada would have to agree to a contract at the Maximum Budget Charge. Theoretically it is possible, but realistically it is not. In fact, in order for Atlanta United to have the ability to sign three U22 Initiative players, they are required to have one of their Designated Players to be a Young DP, which Almada would qualify.

Still, clearing Lopez from the roster will give him a chance to get more playing time at Banfield while allowing Atlanta an opportunity to fill the spot with a player who can compete at a level to make a difference for Gonzalo Pineda’s side.





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