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.

Sir Alex’s son in trouble for saying he’d “shoot” refs

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LONDON (AP) It clearly runs in the family.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was known for having an explosive temper during his nearly 27 years at Old Trafford, and it seems he has passed it down to his son.

Darren Ferguson, who is the manager of third-tier English team Doncaster, is in trouble for saying he would “shoot” referees because of what he perceived as their poor standards.

Ferguson was charged by the English Football Association on Wednesday for remarks that “were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute.”

The 45-year-old coach has already apologized, saying it was a “tongue-in-cheek comment” and that “I do not advocate violence against officials.”

Ferguson was unhappy his team was denied a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Plymouth on Saturday.

“The referees are part-time and the standard is appalling, their fitness levels are a disgrace, I’ve had enough of it,” Ferguson said after the match.

“What can I do? Shoot them, it would be a good idea.”

Follow Live: Chelsea, Swans, Cherries in FA Cup replays

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Chelsea, Swansea City, and Bournemouth look to avoid upsets in replays of their third round FA Cup matches.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

All three matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

The Blues tangle with former Premier League peers Norwich City, this time at Stamford Bridge, in a bid to host a fourth round match with Newcastle United.

Antonio Conte‘s not messing around (too much) with the XI.

Swansea City and Wolves, meanwhile, are arguably battling for a bid in the fourth round, as a trip to Notts County is on the docket for the winner of Wednesday’s replay at the Liberty Stadium.

Bournemouth is at Wigan Athletic for a replay with the third-tier Latics, with the victor hosting West Ham United on Jan. 27.

Benevento captain Lucioni banned one year for doping

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ROME (AP) Benevento captain Fabio Lucioni has been banned one year for doping.

[ MORE: Plenty to prove for Big Sam ]

Italy’s national anti-doping organization made the decision Tuesday after the steroid clostebol was found in a sample taken after Benevento’s 1-0 loss to Torino in September.

Benevento team physician Walter Giorgione was banned for four years for administering the steroid to Lucioni in a spray.

Both Lucioni and Giorgione plan to appeal.

The 30-year-old Lucioni joined Benevento in 2014 and the defender helped the team move from the third division up into Serie A this season for the first time.

Benevento is last in Serie A with only two wins in 20 matches.

The ban is back-dated to October, meaning Lucioni can return early next season.

Everton completes move for Walcott: “I’m dead excited” (video)

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Everton continues to supply its managers with top-end talent, adding Theo Walcott to its expensive season of boys which includes Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney, Cenk Tosun, Jordan Pickford, and Michael Keane.

[ MORE: Plenty to prove for Big Sam ]

The deal is reported to be near $28 million for Walcott, who’s made only a half-dozen Premier League appearances this season but did nab three goals in five Europa League matches.

Walcott, 28, scored 108 goals in 397 appearances for the Gunners. His 19-goal campaign last season was his second-best — he scored 21 in 2012-13 — but Walcott dipped down Arsene Wenger‘s depth charge and is leaving to pursue regular football.

And his comments will be lapped up by the #WengerOut brigade at his now former club:

“The Club has won trophies but I want them to win trophies now. The manager is very hungry and it’s just what I need. I’ve had a couple of chats with him and straightaway I felt that hunger and that desire that he wanted from me. I need that and I wanted that

The move is another exciting one for Everton, which has underachieved under Ronald Koeman and now Sam Allardyce. And it’s another sale from Arsenal which gives pause: Are the underperforming Gunners going to regret the move?

In the 2005-06 season, Walcott made his Southampton debut in the Football League Championship at the age of 16, and moved to Arsenal the next season.

Walcott has eight goals in 47 caps for England, and won two FA Cups at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Montreal nabs Algerian DP ]

Here is a useful quote from Sam Allardyce:“His physical output is excellent, he would be one of our top players in that area as well, which will hopefully bring us a lot more excitement and more ability to get forward quicker and create.

And here is an utterly useless one: ““If you analyse his goal record, then we are looking at a player who contributes goals on a regular basis.”

You don’t say. To paraphrase: If you look at all his goals, he regularly scores goals. Here’s more from the player on his move.