The big preview: United States-Guatemala, a shot at the World Cup on the line

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KANSAS CITY – Everyone believed things would be different under manager Jurgen Klinsmann, this talismanic figure, uniquely positioned to elevate U.S. Soccer and bring the U.S. national team forward in a stalled march toward greater global prominence.

Well, it is different –but this is not what most of us had in mind.

For the first time in a dozen years, the United States goes into its final match in semifinal round qualifying with a little nervous edge framing the night. In the run-up to World Cups in 2006 and 2010, passage into the final round of regional qualifying was assured by the semifinal round closer.

Not this year. The United States could pay the ultimate price for a slip tonight against Guatemala in the final match of semifinal round CONCACAF qualifying. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his men are heavily favored for tonight’s contest at sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park, one of the top MLS venues and one that promises to be teeming with patriotic support for the 7 p.m. ET kickoff (ESPN2).

Odds are with the United States, which needs only a draw to advance. There is even a possibility that a loss could see them through.

(MORE: the qualifying scenarios)

Most of the U.S difference-makers are here, Landon Donovan as the one exception. Otherwise, Tim Howard has been his usual steady self in goal; Livewire attacker Clint Dempsey has scored in three of five qualifiers in this round; Midfield general Michael Bradley returned to the U.S. lineup in Friday’s win over Antigua & Barbuda after missing the previous two matches due to injury.

The United States has not lost to Guatemala since 1988, with a 12-0-6 mark in that time. Plus, the Yanks are 6-0-5 all-time in World Cup qualifiers against Los Chapines of Guatemala.

The home-team support promises to be strong at Livestrong. The Heartland venue was selected specifically to allow for more precise U.S. Soccer ticket distribution control. Plus, the roof over Livestrong’s seats will help keep the pro-American ruckus reverberating with an impassioned tenor through domestic soccer’s most modern, high-tech ground.

(MORE: Klinsmann and U.S. players love this facility)

Even a slightly weakened U.S. lineup shouldn’t not have trouble creating chances against the tiny, Central American country, which also needs only a tie and will almost surely dig in defensively and look to create free kick opportunities with direct balls into combative striker Carlos Ruiz.

The Americans will miss some width in the attack due to injury absences of Donovan and Brek Shea. Plus, left back Fabian Johnson remains in Germany, ill with a stomach virus.

(MORE: The United States can figure on a physical match)

So, why the worry? Why are some media members so critical of it all, when safe arrival into the next round seems like a money-making bet?

There’s a sense that U.S. Soccer has regressed under Klinsmann, a notion that is debatable but certainly not kooky by any stretch. This small margin for error tonight, for instance, certainly is disconcerting. But people do tend to forget that regional qualifying is rarely easy for the big kids on the CONCACAF block, the United States and Mexico.

The Americans have not looked altogether convincing in this round – but they haven’t looked awful, either. Three of five goals allowed in five matches have come off free kicks, an indication that the defense, while imperfect, hasn’t been bad.

(MORE: Tim Howard says “don’t give up free kicks”)

The attack has been more concerning, with Klinsmann’s team finding just enough goals to put themselves into this favorable position. Even Klinsmann admits the team needs more bottom-line production.

The collective U.S. supporters attitude following Friday’s win in Antigua: “They needed Eddie Johnson to score in the 90th minute to beat … Antigua?”

But were there mitigating factors? Bad fields in Jamaica and Antigua? Clint Dempsey’s transfer window drama, the hold-out that reduced him to something  less than “full Dempsey” for two matches? The injury to Donovan, who has been so important to the U.S. attack for a decade now?

(MORE: Klinsmann assures U.S. will not play for a tie)

How does Dempsey feel about the semifinal round that has turned into an unexpected slog: “It’s so hard to tell,” said Dempsey, a no-nonsense Texan who is not known for riding the excuse caboose. But, he did note the lumpiness of a roster full of players who, like himself, have drifted in and out of form and fitness. And he took note of those poor excuses for fields and defensive tactics built to frustrate the Americans.

“But we’re looking forward to tomorrow,” Dempsey said from Livestrong late Monday afternoon. “Being on a good pitch, no excuses. We ought to be able to take our game to them and take our chances.”

Final round qualifying, which will include better teams – Mexico is in, Costa Rica is close, plus the possibility of improving programs in Canada, Honduras or Panama – would begin early next year.

(MORE: Michael Bradley explains why a commanding win is luxury, not necessity)

(Check back through the afternoon … we’ll have even more on tonight’s match)

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.