When the FA Cup fourth-round docket became concrete, there was little chance any recap of the round would start with anything other than the result of Manchester City vs Arsenal.
That little chance, fittingly, might’ve been Welsh side Wrexham AFC.
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American soccer has, had, and will have a wealth of brutal debates in its past, present, and future, mostly because the United States’ troubled history with the game and — if we’re honest — the exceptionalism that comes with having the world’s best leagues in basketball, baseball, American football, and hockey among others.
United States Soccer, however, has largely had its hands full when it comes to collecting interest in the US game outside of the men’s and women’s national teams as well as clubs in their local markets (Regional markets if lucky).
And there are very good reasons why Wrexham, the 158-year-old club taken over by “Deadpool” star Ryan Reynolds and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” hero Rob McElhenneyis capturing the imaginations of many across the soccer and non-soccer worlds.
You don’t have to like them, but you aren’t righteous if you’re actively rooting against Wales’ Red Dragons without rival reasons.
Let’s dig a little into that, and then we’ll get to that 1v2 of Premier League foes.
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Wrexham’s upset bid more believable than Hollywood, bigger than acrimony
So many times, like in Leicester City’s fairytale Premier League titlewe read and hear words about Hollywood scripts coming to life.
Those thoughts are natural when it comes to Wrexham, which boasts its Hollywood owners and a slick and heartfelt reality show “Welcome To Wrexham,” but the attention that comes with all of that is also a symptom of a team built for a promotion that carried out its quality again Sunday.
And it did it against a team just as likely for a promotion that boasts plenty of players who were in the Premier League when it was at its peak: Oliver Norwood, Oli McBurnie, John Egan, Chris Basham. Blades boss Paul Heckingbottom then called upon Billy Sharp and Max Lowe to boot.
But Wrexham is a very good team, one trying to hold off Notts County for promotion to the Football League. Its owners have paid well for experienced players and this is a team delivering on an underdog level with legit players (Elliott Lee, Ollie Palmer, and Paul Mullin are all plenty fit for the next level).
The acrimony among some in the Twittersphere towards Wrexham or those who’ve bought into their rise or rejuvenation is somewhat understandable. Major League Soccer’s rise has been incredible and rapid, but it cannot manufacture 160-year-old clubs. While the US was an early adopter and promoter of girls and women’s soccer, it had a stop-start relationship with the men’s game.
When it’s thrived, like in the first NASL and the second stage of MLS, it’s been because of the spotlight that came with the introductions of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, and later David Beckham, Thierry Henry, David Villa, and Robbie Keane. And while MLS has reached a new level with younger South American imports and MLS academy stars, pick one who pushed the league back onto the front page like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We’ll wait.
So it stands to reason that celebrities have brought Wrexham a new level of interest around the world. And the fact that these celebrities have invested in putting a good team in front of cameras gives it legs. Soccer here has earned attention on its merit, and it’s fair to wish that Sacramento Republic and Chattanooga FC could get the celebrity bumps delivered to LAFC and Austin FC. But being angry with attention going to a club deeeeeep into its second century? That’s not becoming.
Can Wrexham earn promotion? Yep. If so, is the sky the limit? Maybe not the sky, but certainly that big, nine-letter word in the hills of Los Angeles isn’t too high. And the bug caught by Reynolds and apparent in his eyes as he celebrated Wrexham goals is going to be caught by so many others as the 2026 World Cup heads for our shores. Might as well embrace it, because it’s a fast-forward button for the sport here whether your club’s barely-known or a 50-year-old Cascadian mainstay.
We might not like how big of a role a celebrity plays in our sports, but it’s very real.
Manchester City vs Arsenal does little to change Premier League title opinions
It was cagey, tense, and frankly pretty fun, but Man City’s 1-0 win over Arsenal didn’t do much to either make the upstarts change their beliefs they can win the Premier League or the defending champs believe any less in a three peat.
Man City earned its one-goal win and it was a deserved spot in the next round, but there were plenty of moments that showed Arsenal getting one or six of six points off City to keep an advantage in the title race is very realistic.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta should feel content with Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland drawing starts in this match and even better that a less-than-ideal defensive performance out of everyone not named Gabriel Magalhaes or Matt Turner was enough to keep the duo quiet.
City had strong performances from so many others including Jack Grealish, Nathan Ake, Rodri, and Ilkay Gundogan, but look at the numbers below. This was more than a feeling-out period ahead of Feb. 15 but had all those vibes.
Arsenal can love that it limited Man City to an xG lower than it produced in any Premier League match this season. In fact, City’s only produced less than 1.00 xG in the PL on a few occasions.
Bring on February 15.
Kaoru Mitoma has that special something (that Liverpool has lost)
It’s almost improbably clever, the way Kaoru Mitoma juggled around Liverpool’s defense to deal the Reds a 2-1 loss and give Brighton a spot in the next round.
And it screams from the screen that Liverpool was on the receiving end of a moment like this… again, but first give credit to Brighton for signing Mitoma and hiring a replacement for Graham Potter ready to properly deploy the Japanese star.
Roberto De Zerbi is getting a lot out of the Seagulls and Mitoma is the brightest bulb in the pack at the moment. Mitoma, 25, can’t stop producing at the moment and is delivering goals at a better rate for Brighton this season than he did last year for Royal Union Saint Gilloise.
His beautiful goal Sunday won it for the Seagulls and gives him four goals and an assist in his last six matches dating back to a Dec. 31 encounter with Arsenal in the Premier League.
While Brighton can point to Mitoma as a talisman that might drive its rise into Europe, Liverpool is wondering how it can start to conjure consistent performances like that out of someone other than Mohamed Salah.
The 30-year-old Egyptian has 17 goals and seven assists this season. He hasn’t scored in four-straight Premier League matches but is still delivering in the cup. Harvey Elliott scored Sunday and Liverpool needs him, Cody Gakpo, or another attacker to help Salah drive the bus.
Manchester United, Tottenham confirm they care to be tournament threats…
Any given weekend, Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur can look incredible or poor in the Premier League. While United is finding consistency under Erik ten Hag and Spurs are better than anyone realized under Antonio Conte, neither is at or near its recent top level.
That said, both showed this weekend that when given the opportunity to focus on a single game against an inferior opponent, there is very little hope for the latter. Man Utd pounded Reading and Tottenham was way too much for Preston. And the deeper both go, there’s little reason to doubt they could beat anyone left in the field… and Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool have already left the competition.
…While Leeds, Southampton have the potential to play spoiler
That last line cues up the reason that Leeds and Saints can both be good tournament teams, something that Southampton has shown in the League Cup as well.
Lower-half sides in the Premier League, managers Jesse Marsch and Nathan Jones can galvanize their teams not just around PL safety but also an extended Cup. Yes, both will need favorable draws to make these ideas become reality but have the X-factors — Rodrigo, Wilfried Gnonto, and Jack Harrison for Leeds, and James Ward-Prowse, Mislav Orsic, and Romain Perraiud for Saints — to deliver something extra special.
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Five things learned from the FA Cup: Wrexham, Arsenal, Man City, Mitoma, more originally appeared on NBCSports.com