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)

WATCH: Camila’s wicked swerving goal for Brazil

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The Tournament of Nations got underway earlier Thursday, with Brazil and Japan drawing 1-1 in Seattle.

While some in the crowd may’ve been waiting to see the United States women’s national team and Australia in the second game of the twin bill, they got an absolute treat from Brazil’s Camila.

[ MORE: Galaxy’s season-changing signing ]

The Orlando Pride midfielder is yet to scoop up 10 caps, but blasted this 25-yard goal home with a wicked outside bend.

The aesthetics are terrific.

LA Galaxy’s second Dos Santos signing is a season-changer

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Remember this day, MLS fans, as one that perhaps helped determine an MLS Cup Finalist.

The LA Galaxy have signed Villarreal midfielder and Mexican national teamer Jonathan Dos Santos, and he’s the sort of player who could alter the landscape of the Western Conference.

Like Nicolas Lodeiro to Seattle last season and New England’s addition of Jermaine Jones in 2014, Dos Santos’ move comes with the distinct possibility of elevating LA into the next stratosphere.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Arriola attracting transfer interest ]

Take the Galaxy’s history of winning, and toss in a midseason coaching improvement from Curt Onalfo to Sigi Schmid, as well as MVP-in-their-own-right caliber teammates Giovani Dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini, and Jelle van Damme.

Don’t sleep on the fact that Schmid might be gathering momentum from inheriting a talented and underachieving roster and a brand new game-changing midfielder, which feels a bit like karmic retribution for Seattle firing him and signing Lodeiro the next day last season. Seattle only went and won the MLS Cup.

Schmid has used any number of formations, but could deploy a 4-3-3 with Jona Dos Santos, Jermaine Jones, and Joao Pedro in the midfielder and Giovani Dos Santos, Alessandrini, and Gyasi Zardes up top (Sebastian Lletget could return at some point, too).

Now FC Dallas is very deep, Sporting KC looks powerful, and Seattle won it all last year — plus, may be adding Derlis Gonzalez?!? — but LA’s move to add Dos Santos creates a quartet of teams with proven mettle (Houston looks decent, too, but I have concerns about their first-time as a unit in the playoffs).

Joey Barton’s gambling ban lowered by almost 5 months

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Joey Barton’s 18-month ban for betting on almost 1,300 soccer-related events has been lowered to 13 months and one week.

Putting aside the hilarity of grown men and women discussing whether an extra week was necessary, the alteration means he’ll be eligible to return to football on June 1, 2018.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Arriola attracting transfer interest ]

While that still hampers the idea of the 34-year-old playing again — he’ll be 36 when the ban ends — it’s a significant change if he’s open to the idea of returning to the game.

Barton’s original ban expired in late October 2018, well into a season. From Sky Sports:

The appeal board also agreed: “It was clear that Mr Barton was not involved in any cheating, he did not influence any games and there was nothing suspicious about his bets.

“(The reduction) reflects the overall seriousness of the breaches and also the mitigation of Mr Barton’s addiction.”

Barton’s remarkably controversial career has including several suspensions and imprisonment, but he always found his way back to the field and was very good when in form. After time at Manchester City and Newcastle United, Barton fended off naysayers with stints at QPR, Marseille, Burnley, and a regrettable move to Rangers.

We may see him on the field in August 2018.

FIFA fines Qatar after players’ political support for Emir

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has fined Qatar’s soccer federation after national team players breached rules against political statements by displaying T-shirts of the country’s Emir at a World Cup qualifier.

FIFA says its disciplinary panel imposed a 50,000 Swiss francs ($51,800) fine and reprimanded Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host.

[ MORE: Nainggolan staying at Roma ]

The incident happened in Doha on June 13, amid a dispute with regional rivals Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Qatar’s players warmed up for a 3-2 win over South Korea wearing white T-shirts with an image of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to show their support for him.

FIFA says the charges related to “displaying a political image” and “political displays” by spectators.