Game winning goalscorer Landon Donovan c

Landon Donovan and Jurgen Klinsmann: nothing personal, but challenging circumstances

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Landon Donovan just might be in for a weird year ahead.

Some of that is about injuries and advancing age. Bummer, I know.  It hits everyone – the U.S. national team’s all-time leading scorer, and one of the most decorated MLS men in league history doesn’t get a pass.

For Donovan, the growing tax of sprains and strains might be difficult to deal with because he’s been such a remarkably durable figure. He’s missed time in MLS before, but almost always for U.S. national team duty. Lengthy, injury-related setbacks have been few and far between so far. But he’s 30 years old now, so dealing with docs and rehab specialist may be a bigger part of the landscape ahead.

There’s something else at work, too, less related to the inexorable sands of time.

Could we be near a time when Donovan sees his role reduced or even marginalized with the national team?

ESPN Soccernet’s Leander Schaerlaeckens posted a lengthy Q&A last week with national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann. At the caboose end were interesting comments regarding a speculative “rift” between Klinsmann and Donovan. I doubt anything acrimonious was ever at work. So I might quibble with the syntax a bit, but sniffing around this issue is good journalism. Here’s Klinsmann’s response:

No. There’s no problem at all with Landon. It’s for us way unfortunate that he wasn’t available for the last eight games, whatever reason it was. We take it as it happened and are straightforward in our relationship, and obviously we want to see him back in the team. This time it was bronchitis. The other times was other injuries that hit him. There’s absolutely no problem with Landon.

But we need Landon with the team to move forward because the train has left at 200 miles an hour and he was not on the train for eight games, which was not ideal for us but it is what it is. [Friendlies in] May and [World Cup qualifiers in] June comes quickly, and that’s when Landon needs to be there and understand where is the team. We need him here as soon and as quickly as possible.

I thought about it then, but the Olympic train was pulling out of the station (bound for that fatal curve as it came around the Nashville bend, as we know) and our patriotic gaze went elsewhere. Now I’m circling back.

Donovan has played in two of Klinsmann’s 10 matches in charge. More important, the Galaxy attacker has missed most of the training sessions and road trips. Donovan appeared in Klinsmann’s debut, which was more or less just a howdy and handshake session for all.

Later, Donovan went through about three practices and then played in the Sept. 2 loss to Costa Rica. The team went on to meet Belgium, but Donovan remained behind as part of an arrangement made before Klinsmann came on board. So that’s it. Donovan has neither played for nor trained under Klinsmann since, unavailable due to injury, illness or club needs.

I have no problem believing Klinsmann and Donovan are cool, personally. I have no doubt that Klinsmann isn’t personally put out by Donovan’s absences. The U.S. manager is bigger than that.

But …

Read those comments again. I think Klinsmann is being typically candid about things.

In his mind, something much bigger is at work, something transformative. The concepts and systems he’s preaching aren’t just schlocky motivational truisms up on the corporate pegboard. He believes in them. Plus, it’s tough getting others to buy in when someone rarely around can still be such an essential cog.

Again, that’s not Donovan’s fault. It really has been a series of bad luck or circumstance.

I assume, along with everyone else, that Donovan will be in camp in a few weeks when Klinsmann gathers his side ahead of the May-June friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.

Donovan is a smart soccer player; he’ll catch up quickly on whatever he’s missed. Clearly, Donovan starts from a point well ahead of pretty much everyone in the U.S. pool – this side of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, at any rate. Klinsmann knows so.

But …

If something happens along the way, forcing Klinsmann and Co. to motor on, “200 miles an hour” through May or June without Donovan? Given what we know about Klinsmann and his quirky ways, would anyone be floored if the coach leaves Donovan off rosters moving forward?

Klinsmann has a noted history of committing to his system and beliefs, then implementing through choices not always in line with populist or conventional thinking. Klinsmann smiles affably and confidently right through any resulting controversy or criticism.

Donovan has meant so very much to U.S. Soccer for 10 years now, from massive goals at World Cup 2002 to his critical role in qualifying for World Cup 2010. (If you don’t understand how important Donovan was to a qualifying road that got squeezed pretty good here and there, you weren’t paying attention.)

But sooner or later, Donovan’s influence will naturally fade. I don’t expect the sun to begin setting in the summer of 2012.

Then again, one good tenet of journalism says never to let your audience be completely caught off guard by something. So keep an eye on this one.

UEFA Europa League group stage: Man United, Saints handed tough draws

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal with Paul Pogba during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Premier League clubs Manchester United and Southampton were both handed tough, but exciting, draws in the 2016-17 group stage of the UEFA Europa League.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule

The draw, which took place in Monaco on Friday, saw Jose Mourinho’s United placed in Group A as they face Turkish giants Fenerbache, Dutch powerhouse Feyenoord and Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk with some big games coming up at Old Trafford.

Saints, who have reached the group stage of the Europa League for the first-time in club history, face mouth-watering clashes against Inter Milan, while they also have tough games against Czech giants Sparta Prague and the champions of Israel Hapoel Beer-Sheva.

48 teams who had qualified for the Europa League group stage were split up into 12 groups of four teams with some other big ties cropping up as Group G looks particularly strong as it contains Ajax, Standard Liege, Celta Vigo and Panathinaikos.

The Europa League final will take place in Stockholm, Sweden at the Friends Arena on May 24, 2017.

Below is the draw in full, with the opening group games taking place on Thursday Sept. 15. There are six group games in total for each team and you can see the full schedule by clicking on the link above.


GROUP A
Manchester United
Fenerbache
Feyenoord
Zorya Luhansk

GROUP B
Olympiakos
APOEL FC
Young Boys
FC Astana

GROUP C
Anderlecht
St Etienne
FSV Mainz 05
Gabala

GROUP D
Zenit St Petersburg
AZ Alkmaar
Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Dundalk

GROUP E
Viktoria Plzen
AS Roma
Austria Wien
Astra Giurgiu

GROUP F
Athletic Bilbao
Genk
Rapid Wien
Sassuolo

GROUP G
Ajax
Standard Liege
Celta Vigo
Panathinaikos

GROUP H
Shakhtar Donetsk
SC Braga
Gent
Konyaspor

GROUP I
FC Schalke 04
FC Salzburg
Krasnodar
Nice

GROUP J
Fiorentina
PAOK FC
Slovan Liberec
Qarabag

GROUP K
Inter Milan
Sparta Prague
Southampton
Hapoel Beer-Sheva

GROUP L
Villarreal
Steaua Bucharest
FC Zurich
Osmanlispor

UEFA: Top four leagues guaranteed four teams in UCL from 2018

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27:  UEFA  Champions League trophy is seen ahead of the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The UEFA Champions League will see a big change for three seasons from the 2018-19 campaign.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

On Friday it was announced by UEFA that several changes, most notably the way teams qualify for the UCL, had been approved and will take place in the next competition cycle.

The biggest change and the one everyone is talking about is that from 2018 the teams who finish in the top four of the four highest ranked UEFA nations will automatically qualify for the UCL group stage.

[ MORE: Analyzing UCL draw for PL teams ]

That means no more UCL play-off for teams who finish fourth in the Premier League.

In a statement on their website, UEFA’s General Secretary ad interim Theodore Theodoridis revealed everyone is happy with the changes.

“The amendments made will continue to ensure qualification based on sporting merit, and the right of all associations and their clubs to compete in Europe’s elite club competitions. We are happy that European football remains united behind the concepts of solidarity, fair competition, fair distribution and good governance.”

Some argue that having 16 places guaranteed to teams from the top four nations in Europe — currently Spain, Germany, England and Italy — is a monopoly and limits the chances of smaller clubs from smaller nations from qualifying.

UEFA also revealed a new coefficient system with clubs no longer having a country share tacked on to their coefficient under most circumstances, plus historical success will be weighted in the coefficient rankings to take into account past UCL and Europa League titles won.

For example, Liverpool’s coefficient will likely increase despite not playing in Europe this season as instead of the coefficient being solely made up of how they and other English teams have performed in Europe over the past few years, now their five previous UCL titles will be weighted and their coefficient will improve due to past success.

Blatter says he will accept verdict as CAS appeal begins

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter arrived for his appeal hearing against a six-year ban from football on Thursday, pledging to accept the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport

“I do hope it will be positive for me,” Blatter, sporting a light gray beard, told reporters at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) ahead of a hearing expected to last several hours.

The court’s verdict is expected within several weeks, and could be challenged in a further appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

The 80-year-old Blatter denies wrongdoing in authorizing a $2 million payment to former FIFA vice president Michel Platini in 2011. They claimed it was for backdated and uncontracted salary for work Platini did in advising Blatter from 1999 to 2002.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The so-called “disloyal payment” led Blatter to be put under investigation for criminal mismanagement by Swiss federal prosecutors last September. That investigation is ongoing.

FIFA’s ethics committee judged the $2 million deal was a conflict of interest and initially banned Blatter and Platini for eight years last December. FIFA’s appeal committee cut both bans to six years.

Platini’s appeal to CAS was already judged in May, when Blatter appeared in person as a witness. Platini promised a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal after his ban was only cut from six to four years.

Platini arrived at the hearing around midday local time to be a witness. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter’s comments Thursday suggest he would not pursue a federal case. Federal judges can intervene only if legal process is abused.

“We are football players, we learned to win but also we learned to lose and it will not be the end of the world,” Blatter said outside CAS.

The three-member panel for Blatter’s case is expected to respect the verdict of a separate panel which judged Platini.

A failure to overturn the ban for Blatter would likely end his hope to one day be named FIFA honorary president by its 211 member federations.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The case already ended Platini’s chance to replace Blatter as FIFA president, and also forced him out of European governing body UEFA.

On Sept. 14, UEFA members will elect a successor to replace Platini who had a mandate through March 2019. By imposing a four-year ban, the CAS panel ensured UEFA had to replace Platini, rather than wait for him to return.

The “disloyal payment” emerged last year when Platini was strongly favored to win the election to replace Blatter, who had announced his departure plans after 17 years as president amid pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption implicating senior FIFA officials.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Both men were questioned at FIFA headquarters last September by Swiss investigators who were waiting for them outside an executive committee meeting.

During the turmoil in world football, Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, submitted an election candidacy on the entry deadline day and won the vote in February.

Arriving at the hearing with his Zurich-based lawyer Lorenz Erni, Blatter said he hoped the CAS panel “will understand that the payment made to Platini was really a debt that we had against him.”

“This is a principle, if you have debts you pay them,” Blatter said.

NASL weekend preview: Miami, Minnesota meet playoff fortunes head on

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There are still two full months of soccer to go in the NASL’s Fall Season, but this weekend could be a major day for the title fortunes of one squad in particular.

Miami FC and Minnesota United are level on points with 15 heading into Saturday’s match at FIU Stadium.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

If you’re unfamiliar, the NASL Playoffs involve four teams: the Spring champion (Indy Eleven), the Fall champion, and two other teams with the best combined record between seasons.

Miami’s played one fewer game, and both it and Minnesota — fresh off the news it’s headed to MLS in 2017 — are seven points shy of first-place FC Edmonton.

But Minnesota is on pace to make the playoffs through combined schedule, while Miami had a poor first half and would be better served to win the Fall Season if it wants a shot at the NASL Soccer Bowl Trophy.

Saturday
Carolina Railhawks at New York Cosmos
Rayo OKC at Tampa Bay Rowdies
Minnesota United at Miami FC

Sunday
Indy Eleven at Ottawa Fury
Puerto Rico at FC Edmonton