United States v Antigua & Barbuda - World Cup Qualifier

Michael Bradley: most indispensable U.S. national team figure

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As a country where the world class soccer talent falls at more of a drip than a steady pour, it was usually cinchy to identify the most important figure in a U.S. shirt.

It was surely Claudio Reyna for much of the last decade (even if some supporters were stubbornly and inexplicably resistant to that notion).

It was Landon Donovan for some time after that, on through the last World Cup qualifying cycle. The Donovan detractors somehow ignored the fact that he produced game-changing moments; take those away and the United States may well have hit a wall en route to South Africa 2010.

There could have been some sentiment along the way that Tim Howard was the most indispensable figure. He was certainly a critical figure since World Cup 2006, even if there has been some talented cover behind him.

About a year ago, Clint Dempsey seemed ready to stand up as “The One,” to find that proverbial place where the coach says, “We don’t pull out until Clint Dempsey gets on the bus.”  Dempsey remains a central figure, obviously.

But I’m ready to say it: The most essential man, the one key figure we should identify as one who simply must be on the field for the best chance of U.S. prosperity … is Michael Bradley.

The U.S. midfield is just different without him – and not different in a good way.

No one else comes close to linking the defense and with the attack with as much enterprise as Bradley does. Even on a tiny, choppy and slow field, the 25-year-old was able to move the ball forward in a way other U.S. midfielders could not.

Without Bradley, the United States midfield becomes a redundant exercise in holding specialists, whose fortes are tackling and simple distribution from there. Count on Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu and even Jermaine Jones, to varying degrees of success, to win the ball and then move it laterally or conservatively up the field.

Danny Williams may have more in his game, but he’s still young and it’s too early to tell where his game might go.

But none of them see the passes the way Bradley does, nor can they move the ball vertically as Bradley does. The Roma man isn’t a creative midfielder in the conventional sense, but as the top two-way man Bradley is the closest Jurgen Klinsmann has to one.

Obviously, the United States needs Dempsey, Howard and Donovan playing at top level for the best chances of safely navigating the final round qualifying. But if you have to pick one man that absolutely cannot be left behind, that’s Bradley.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during 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 Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.