United States v Jamaica - World Cup Qualifier

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)

Chelsea confirm Diego Costa available for selection

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Diego Costa is once again available for Chelsea.

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In his press conference on Friday, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte revealed that Costa would be available for selection against Hull City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Costa, 28, is Chelsea’s leading scorer in the Premier League with 14 goals and five assists and he also leads the PL charts in scoring. However, he was not in the squad for their 3-0 win at Leicester City last weekend after news broke of a possible training ground bust up with Conte and his staff amid a back injury.

Since then reports have stated that clubs from the Chinese Super League were offering Costa over $368,000 per week which may have unsettled him, but after training on his own earlier this week and then rejoining the team in the past few days he is now ready to return and lead Chelsea’s title charge once more.

Speaking to the media, Conte revealed that Costa is no longer struggling with a back issue and is fully fit to participate for the Premier League leaders.

“I think the player wants to stay at Chelsea, he is happy to stay here and play for us,” Conte said. “I don’t see any problem with our team. I heard a lot of speculation about Diego, but now the most important thing is he trained with us this week, he does not have any pain in his back and can play.

This is a massive boost for Chelsea as they look to extend their seven point lead at the top of the table, but Conte wouldn’t confirm if Costa was fit enough to start against Hull.

“Diego is an important player for us. We all know this. When he stays in a good form he has always played for me,” Conte said. “I will see on Sunday [if he starts against Hull]. I don’t want to give an advantage to our opponents.”

With Costa’s mind seemingly back on matters at Chelsea despite a monster contract offer from China lingering in the background, news that he is back fit and ready to score goals will send a shudder of disappointment through Chelsea’s title rivals in the Premier League.

Mourinho reveals why Memphis had to move on

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03:  Memphis Depay of Manchester United in action during the Wayne Rooney Testimonial match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on August 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Memphis Depay spent 18 months at Manchester United but it just didn’t work out for the Dutch winger.

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Memphis, 22, will officially join Ligue 1 side Lyon on Friday as the clubs agreed a $18.4 million with a buy-back clause reportedly inserted. 

The Dutch international scored seven goals in 52 appearances in all competitions for United, yet he has appeared just eight times this season and has failed to score for the Red Devils.

Speaking to the media on Friday ahead of United’s clash at Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Mourinho revealed that Memphis’ attitude was always exemplary even though chances to play were at a premium.

“He was a fantastic professional. If somebody thinks it didn’t work because he was not a great professional it is totally wrong,” Mourinho said. “One thing is some picture that somebody takes with him in an amazing car or dressing in a very specific way but the image is totally wrong. The guy is a fantastic professional, he is a kid who respected everyone. A kid that worked hard to have more chances. A kid that was frustrated because he was not having that. I only have good things to say about him. I think this is much more important.”

But why did Memphis’ time at United run out?

“If I can find a little reason it is to say that he is a player form one position, the only position, where we have overbooking,” Mourinho explained. “He is a winger and wingers is what we have more. It is the position to have chances. Where it is more difficult to be the next choice. It is a position where we never have problems. We have Lingard. We have Mata. We have Mkhitaryan. We have Martial. We have Ashley Young. We have Marcus Rashford. It is a position where we have like six possibilities. Even Rooney played a few times from the left.

“It is a position where we even have difficulties when we want to do rotation. Even when I was doing rotation and trying to rest players and trying to play some in the Europa League and another one in the League Cup and another one in the FA Cup, even when I was doing rotation I had like seven guys for two positions. For me, I will stay with these two things: on one side he is a fantastic professional. By the other side we had too many players in his position.”

Okay, so Memphis was up against strong competition to get minutes at United but is there a potential he could return to Old Trafford with talk of a potential buy-back clause in the deal?

“Of course. Potentially he is a very good player. I think when Mr. Van Gaal decided to buy him he did well,” Mourinho said. “He knew him very well from the national team. He was very young when in the World Cup he had flashes of top quality. He was playing well in Holland. We know the Dutch league is not the same but he was showing very good things. I think Mr. Van Gaal and Manchester United did very well to buy him. He didn’t succeed in his 18 months, I would say, but he is very young but it is important for the club to keep control of this talent and we all wish he plays very, very well at Olympique Lyon. And why not to come back? Because everyone here still likes him.”

So, the door is well and truly still open for Memphis at United and if he rips it up at Lyon for the rest of this season and maybe the start of the 2017-18 campaign, perhaps he will be back at Old Trafford once and for all. Yet there will be a lingering feeling of “what if” for United’s fans and the Dutchman as he showed flashes of brilliance in his time in the Premier League but could never hold down a consistent spot or position in United’s lineup.

Memphis is set to make his debut for Lyon on Sunday against Marseille as they currently sit 11 points behind Ligue 1 leaders Monaco but have a game in hand.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

[ MORE: Jones labels Howard’s comments “dangerous” ]

The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 05: Sebastian Rudy of TSG Hoffenheim is challenged by Douglas Costa of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Allianz Arena on November 5, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25