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)

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.

Alaves eyes upset of Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The final of the Copa del Rey pits Barcelona’s star power against a tiny Basque Country club whose biggest weapons are its grit and gnawing hunger for a taste of glory.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Win or lose, Alaves is savoring the cup final on Saturday as the perfect finish to its first season back in Spain’s topflight in an decade.

[ MORE: Three key battles ahead of Chelsea-Arsenal FA Cup final ]

But to have a chance of winning the first major trophy in its 96-year history, Alaves’ ragtag collection of journeymen has to be squeezed of every ounce of effort by coach Mauricio Pellegrino to upset the cup-holders led by Lionel Messi.

One statistic illustrates how daunting their task will be: Messi, all by himself, has scored exactly as many goals as the entire Alaves squad this season, with 53 across all competitions.

“We will need to play a very complete match to have a chance, but we are a team that always competes to the maximum,” said Pellegrino, who is completing a noteworthy first season with the club.

The final will be the last competitive match at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon Stadium. An exhibition match the next day will be its farewell before demolition.

The final will also be the last match for departing Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who could bow out with a third straight Copa del Rey.

Here are some reasons Alaves can believe in an upset for the ages:

DONE IT BEFORE

Alaves has already toppled Barcelona this season.

A shocking 2-1 victory at Camp Nou on Sept. 10 was Alaves’ first win since its return to the first division following 10 years in the second and third tiers.

That surprise victory set it on its way to overachieving all campaign. It reached the Copa del Rey final by defeating the more talented Celta Vigo in the semifinals, and finished the league in a meritorious ninth place.

The bad news is that Barcelona showed no mercy back in Vitoria, where Luis Suarez scored twice in a 6-0 rout.

NO SUAREZ

But Suarez won’t be available for Barcelona on Saturday, when he serves a one-game suspension after being sent off during the semifinals against Atletico Madrid.

Luis Enrique could start Paco Alcacer in his place up front alongside Messi and Neymar.

OLD AND YOUNG

Alaves is not devoid of talent.

The 19-year-old right back Theo Hernandez, who is playing on loan from Atletico, is drawing rave reviews and interest from European powerhouses, including Real Madrid.

Marcos Llorente, a 22-year-old Madrid reserve player also on loan, has impressed as a defensive midfielder.

Captain Manu Garcia, at 31, is the only player who has been with the team through its rise from the third tier in 2013.

“Our coaches are telling us that by working as a team just like we have all year, we have a chance to win,” Garcia said.

OH SO CLOSE

Alaves came ever so close to winning the 2001 UEFA Cup when it defied expectations in its first European campaign by reaching the final against Liverpool.

Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch great Johann Cruyff, scored late to level the thriller at 4-4 and force extra time, only for Alaves to succumb on an own goal by Delfi Geli.

“I want our fans to enjoy the day,” Garcia said. “I remember (the final in) Dortmund from when I was young. I have many memories of that day and that’s why I ask our fans to be proud of Alaves, and that they make the Calderon into our stadium because that is what we will need it to be.”

MLS at Week 13: Rivalries all around, TFC goes for eight games unbeaten

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Week 13 is here and we’ve got ourselves some pretty tasty matchups, after the weekend got off to a fast start on Thursday night when the Chicago Fire downed FC Dallas.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 13 ]

Meanwhile, the match of the weekend likely comes in the form of Toronto FC taking on the Columbus Crew, as Greg Vanney’s side puts their seven-match unbeaten run on the line at BMO Field.

Several other intriguing fixtures, including multiple rivalries, will take place as well, particularly in the Pacific Northwest as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers do battle.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew — 7 p.m. EDT on Friday

It’s been seven straight matches for the Eastern Conference leaders since they last lost and Toronto FC has become the clear favorite to hoist MLS Cup through the opening two months-plus. Of course that can change in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen that with the Crew as of late, who started out hot before losing four out of their last six and falling to fifth in the East.

Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers — 2:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday

There’s nothing like a Cascadia Cup match. Although both clubs aren’t exactly up to par at the moment, it’s still a rivalry match. That has to mean something, right?

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Whitecaps have picked up some steam lately, winning three of their last four, and unfortunately for D.C. they haven’t had any similar fortunes. Ben Olsen’s group are at the bottom of the East, and had it not been for the Rapids there would probably be more attention on how poorly they are playing.

New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Jesse Marsch’s club picked up an important tie against a red-hot Toronto last time out, but now they’ll meet a familiar rival on Saturday as they try to get back to winning ways. Meanwhile, the Revs have played significantly better as of late, scoring six goals in their two most recent outings.

Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Simply put, they only good thing the Rapids have on their side is that the match is at home, where the team has captured both of their wins this season. Sporting KC, meanwhile, continues to tear it up at the top of the West.

Minnesota United vs Orlando City — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Orlando has come back down to earth recently, so it’s time for Jason Kreis and co. to reset. Adrian Heath and the Loons continue to suffer through the growing pains of being a new side, something Kreis can relate to from his time in New York, but Minnesota has shown positive signs during the young season.

Real Salt Lake vs. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Union are looking really good as of late, and the winners of four straight could very well keep it up on the road against RSL, who have struggled to pick up results for much of the season.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Cali Clasico takes shape at Avaya Stadium as both west coast sides look for bragging rights out west.

Atlanta United vs. New York City FC — 5 p.m. EDT on Sunday

It was Patrick Vieira’s side that got the best of Atlanta when the two clubs met a few weeks back, and it’s bad news for Tata Martino’s men as NYCFC has caught more steam as they continue to rack up positive results in the Eastern Conference.

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo — 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday

We’ve got ourselves a Texas Derby down in Dallas, and this could be quite the interesting matchup as both sides enter Sunday on a bit of a downturn. It’s evident both clubs have exciting offensive firepower but which side will come out on top?

Emre Can’s insane bicycle kick wins 16/17 PL Goal of the Season

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It was about as good a finish as you’ll see in any season, and Emre Can was properly rewarded by the Premier League for his efforts.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

The Liverpool midfielder won PL Goal of the Season on Friday for his audacious and seemingly impossible bicycle kick against Watford.

The goal came off a routine cross from Lucas Leiva into the Hornets penalty area, but what Can did next was simply astonishing as contorted his body and acrobatically finished an overhead kick that was the talk of the PL for the rest of the season.

Can, 23, finished the 2016/17 PL season with five goals in 31 matches for Jurgen Klopp‘s side but none can compare to what he achieved at Vicarage Road.