All eyes on Arsenal-Tottenham, and MLS growth outside of Messi

Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world. From standout performances and what you might have missed to what to keep an eye on in the coming days, LME has a few things to say. This week, a preview of a crucial north London derby, the lessons Chelsea can learn from Aston Villa, another record-setting weekend in MLS courtesy of Lionel Messi and much more!

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ONSIDE

A north London derby with high stakes

With 17 points separating league leaders Arsenal from fifth-placed Tottenham, the two are in different worlds. After demolishing Chelsea on Tuesday night, Mikel Arteta’s Gunners are fighting for their first Premier League title in 20 years, and though they will be relieved that Liverpool are three points behind, perennial winners Manchester City have a game in hand and could overtake the Gunners.

On the other side of the north London derby, Spurs trail their local rivals but still have objectives of their own as manager Ange Postecoglou’s team battle it out with Aston Villa for a Champions League spot. It’s not fair to compare both projects as Arsenal are in deep into Arteta’s tenure while Spurs entered this season with a blank slate after big changes, saying goodbye to striker Harry Kane and welcoming Big Ange to his first ever season in the Premier League. In a way, both teams are exactly where they need to be.

But this does not discount the fact that Sunday’s north London derby comes with massive implications and that’s why we place this storyline in the “onside” section, because hopefully it will be a match with a tremendous amount of entertainment. At least that’s what happened last September at Emirates stadium when Bukayo Saka and Son Heung-Min each delivered a brace for their respective teams in a pulsating back-and-forth that ended in a 2-2 draw.

Goals will surely come. In fact, the last time a north London derby gave us a stalemate was in 2009.

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Arteta: Arsenal determined to win the Premier League

Mikel Arteta speaks about Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes ahead their clash vs. Chelsea.

But what about permutations? For Spurs, it’s quite simple really. If they want to hold on to the hope of Champions League football for next season, Tottenham — who trail Villa by six points and a lesser goal differential — must win. Anything less becomes a mountain too high to climb, especially as they still have to face Liverpool and Man City in the space of nine days in May and the momentum is with Unai Emery’s Villa. Spurs have matches in hand on them, but they have to make those results count, otherwise it’s of no use.

As for Arsenal, the table could look different by the time the derby’s kick-off comes and goes. It is sandwiched between Liverpool’s early kick off against West Ham on Saturday and Man City’s trip to Nottingham Forest, which is the last game of the weekend. But Arteta can’t worry about anything else but his team. He knows that all they can do is to take care of their business and the next step of this marathon.

All eyes are on a five-mile trip down to Tottenham Hotspur stadium, playing host to a north London derby with huge stakes.

Another record-breaking weekend awaits in MLS as Messi visits Revs

On April 14, Lionel Messi and Inter Miami won 3-2 against Sporting Kansas City in an entertaining evening at Arrowhead stadium, which drew a record crowd of 72,610, and included the attendance of the club’s minority owner and three-time Super Bowl champion Pat Mahomes. Arrowhead may be home to to Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, but that night belonged to Messi and MLS.

Despite the loss, it was the biggest crowd for Sporting Kansas City in its 28-year history, and it was also Missouri’s largest soccer attendance in the history of the state. It was also the fourth-highest for a single fixture in MLS history. Usually, SKC play in the much smaller 18,500-capacity Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas, but this was a special occasion. It’s the same theme for everyone when Messi comes to town.

Next up is this Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Revolution and the Patriots — both owned by Robert Kraft. Tom Brady — who won an unprecedented seven Super Bowls and created a dynasty in New England — spent last weekend watching El Clásico so let’s see if he comes to this one. The fixture will expect more than 64,000 fans, potentially breaking into the top three most attended soccer matches at the stadium. The biggest one being in 2007 when Brazil beat Mexico in a friendly, where 67,584 fans showed up.

These numbers are good news for MLS as Messi’s popularity continues to attract more people, but it’s important to continue to fight for parity when it comes to ticket sales. For this game, the prices range from $179 to $4000 when you include the secondary market, but the club has saved some aside for season ticket holders and regular attendants with the hope of balancing the hunger to see Messi and not making it financially impossible for regular fans to attend. Messi’s presence should not create an unfair playing field in terms of attendance and ticket prices because the fact remains: there will be MLS after Messi.

It’s also important to mention the high numbers of attendance in MLS outside of the Messi effect. More than 62,000 fans packed Charlotte FC‘s Bank of America stadium in their season opener against NYCFC on Feb. 24 (compared to 74,479 in 2022 and 69,345 in 2023), while Atlanta United’s Mercedes Benz-Stadium welcomed 67,727 fans to their home opener. Nashville SC‘s Geodis Park continues to average a 93%+ capacity (nearly 28,000) since opening in 2022. In July of last year, El Tráfico (the derby between LAFC and LA Galaxy) was held at the famous Rose Bowl and that drew a whopping 82,110 fans, firmly setting a new single-game attendance record for the league.

As you can see, Messi is not needed for big attendance numbers, but his presence will naturally spike it. And that’s how you grow a league: by not just relying on one superstar but rather creating a thriving soccer culture that prospers alongside Messi’s popularity…and not because of it.

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Martino: Messi’s presence transcends football

Inter Miami Head Coach Tata Martino says that Lionel Messi’s presence in the MLS transcends football in the United States.


OFFSIDE

What Chelsea can learn from their weekend opponents Aston Villa

Since the summer of 2022, Chelsea have spent more than €1 billion on player transfer fees.

One. Billion.

Now, let’s remember that despite all this spending, they ended in 12th place last season. This current campaign has them in ninth, and after being demolished 5-0 by Arsenal on Tuesday night, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have now conceded 57 goals, the most in a season in the club’s Premier League history. Cole Palmer‘s absence was clearly a factor, but it wasn’t the primary reason why Chelsea lost so badly.

And it’s not just about Tuesday. It’s fair to say that we have seen little progress (the 4-3 comeback against Man United, 6-0 victory against Everton, 1-0 FA Cup loss against Man City) but after careful review, it’s clear that Chelsea’s inconsistent identity remains.

So, I keep going back to this question: Chelsea, who are you?

The aggressive purchases tell me one side of their identity. Under owner Todd Boehly’s Clearlake Capital, Chelsea are a club who are going after any player to reach success. Given the nature of the acquisitions and how they are structured, the amortization plan (to sign expensive young players on long contracts — usually eight years — and spreading the cost, with Enzo Fernández‘s eight-year deal as part of his £106m transfer an example) is also one that may sneakily save the club financially but in the long run, it proves to be a massive gamble because, well, much can happen in eight years.

The other side of the story is their identity is the actual football. The team is full of wonderful individuals who are young and eager but also naive (the who-will-take-the-penalty dispute during their victory over Everton was a great example) and this is a problem because in this league, naivety costs you matches. I have always thought of Pochettino as a good manager, but he entered a situation that limits him. Now, it’s not to say that he is not blameless because defending — a major problem with Chelsea — has almost always been a Pochettino issue, but there are bigger factors at stake, which includes the relationship between the Argentinian manager and sporting directors Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart.

Back in January’s transfer window, it was reported that Pochettino had an “input” over prospective players but ultimately it was down to Winstanley and Stewart. There seems to be a lack of cohesion or collective understanding on what the manager and board want.

And this is where I bring in Aston Villa, who are Chelsea’s opponents on Saturday night. Similar to Chelsea in some ways (American co-ownership who are willing to spend, squad with international and English pedigree, Spanish-speaking managers who returned to the Premier League) but in terms of structure and ideology, they could not be more different.

When Villa recruited Unai Emery, they gave him the most important tool you could ever give a manager — full support for his vision. Every staff member at Villa Park works in the same direction. From Emery’s right-hand man and director Damia Vidagany to his president of operations and talent guru Monchi, the decision-based pyramid orbits around Emery and how he envisions the club’s present and future. Co-owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris see their relationship with Emery in the same way Arsene Wenger’s worked with Arsenal or Sir Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United, where success is determined on one clear mission in order to not just win but also be sustainable.

These are the reasons for Villa’s ascendance under the Basque manager since he arrived in Nov. 2022 and why they’re fighting for a Champions League spot as well as playing in a semifinal in the Conference League, the first major final-four berth in Europe since 1982. It’s why, this week, he was given a contract extension until 2027.

The biggest lesson Chelsea can learn from Aston Villa is that there has to be a blueprint where the manager’s vision is supported by the board and the club, and carried out in unison, like an orchestra.

Final word

Congrats to Inter Milan on winning their 20th Scudetto after beating their bitter rivals AC Milan 2-1 on Monday night. Simone Inzaghi’s team won the league with five games to go and 17 points ahead of Milan, who were also the closest challengers to the title, in a historic Derby della Madonnina. It was the first time the Serie A title was clinched in a Milan derby. After the victory, Inter fans left the San Siro and crowded the city’s Piazza Duomo to celebrate.