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)

Sweden not keen on Zlatan’s World Cup return

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With Zlatan Ibrahimovic already making his mark in Major League Soccer with three goals in his first three games for the LA Galaxy, the veteran Swedish forward is eyeing a return to international duty for the 2018 World Cup this summer.

“A World Cup without me wouldn’t be a World Cup” said Ibrahimovic, 36, recently as he also confirmed during an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show that he will be going to Russia but didn’t give specific details if it was as a spectator or a player.

Well, perhaps we won’t be having a World Cup because it appears not all of his former teammates would be on board if Zlatan took a U-turn on his decision to retire from the Swedish national team after EURO 2016.

Back-up goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson had the following to say to outlet Main Oppose.

“We managed to qualify and go through to the World Cup without him, and I think we can manage to play well at the World Cup without him,” Johnsson said. “But it’s up to the coach to see if he wants to bring him – and I am sure if he does join, he will play well. As a team, we play as a collective, all the players together. With Zlatan, as a person, as a player he’s an individualist, and the play goes around him. Instead, now, we play more the team all together.”

Boom.

Zlatan has said multiple times that he is thinking about a return to the Swedish national team squad and with World Cup squads set to be announced in around about one month from now, surely Sweden’s head coach Janne Andersson must now if he will call up Zlatan.

The positives for Sweden are obvious. The can bring in their all-time leading goalscorer to jump off the bench late in tight games to try and get them out of Group F where they face Germany, Mexico and South Korea.

The negatives are centered around what Johnsson said, with Sweden looking like a tighter unit and all pulling together to get to the World Cup after missing out on qualifying for the last two in 2010 and 2014.

Zlatan has actually only played in two World Cups, in 2002 and 2006, scoring just once, and if he does go to the World Cup he will be taking the spot of one of Marcus Berg, John Guidetti, Ola Toivonen and Issac Thelin in the squad. Berg scored eight in qualifying, while Emil Forsberg scored four and the Swedish attacking unit seems to flow a lot better from Zlatan.

Look, Zlatan will probably go to the World Cup. But it appears not everyone will be happy with this decision.

PHOTOS: Tottenham’s stunning new stadium

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Tottenham Hotspur’s new $1 billion stadium is taking shape and it is looking magnificent.

The plan is for Spurs’ new home at White Hart Lane to be ready for the 2018/19 season, with reports stating that Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will play their first couple of games away from home next season in order to squeeze in a few more weeks for construction.

Spurs’ new  home will seat 62,062 fans and will be the second-largest stadium in the Premier League behind Manchester United’s Old Trafford.

Take a look at the photos below in the spring sunshine in London, with the largest single-tier stand in Europe looking sublime as the roof panels are going on and the stadium is really starting to come to life.


Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso handed three-game ban

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After being named in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year on Wednesday, it has been a mixed few days for Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso as he has received a three-game ban with immediate effect after being found guilty of violent conduct.

Alsono, 27, stamped on Shane Long‘s calf in Chelsea’s 3-2 comeback win at Southampton last time out but referee Mike Dean missed the incident completely.

Since then Alonso has received a retrospective charge from the English FA and although the Spanish left back appealed the decision and the length of the ban, it was upheld and he will now miss Chelsea’s next three games.

Alonso will miss the clash at Burnley on Thursday, the FA Cup semifinal against Southampton on Sunday and the trip to Swansea City on Apr. 28.

Who will come in for Alonso?

Antonio Conte has already stated that Emerson Palmeri, a January arrival from AS Roma, will start at Burnley on Thursday and if the Brazilian full back impresses then it is highly likely he will stand in for Alonso in the big FA Cup semifinal on Sunday against Saints. Other options would be Davide Zappacosta playing as the left wing-back or even Cesar Azpilicueta out there.

As for Saints, they feel hard done by after Dean didn’t spot Alonso’s foul even though he was standing yards away from the incident and looking straight at it. At the time of the incident they led 1-0 going into half time and their manager Mark Hughes believes it would have made a big difference as Alonso’s cross set up Olivier Giroud to make it 2-1 and the Spaniard made a big difference from left back in the incredible 3-2 comeback victory. Still, at least Saints won’t have to play against Alonso on Sunday with revenge in the air…

PHOTOS: Liverpool unveil new 2018/19 kit

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Liverpool have gone for a “pepper red” kit for the 2017/18 season.

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On Thursday the Anfield club released their new jersey for next season with New Balance once again their kit suppliers.

The key features of this new kit is a small collar, with a fresh white and red look throughout.

Check out the images and video below.