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)

Pique with the scoop? Neymar “staying” at Barcelona

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While the entire world waits for official word — any word, really — on the possible world record-shattering transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, Gerard Pique just became the world’s most appreciated breaker of transfer news.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Pique, Neymar’s teammate for four seasons at Barca, tweeted (and posted to Instagram) a photo of himself and Neymar, captioned, “Se queda,” or, “He stays.”

[ MOURINHO: United not signing Bale | De Gea not going anywhere ]

Whether he stays or goes this summer, Neymar is about to get paid, and deservedly so. An unquestionable top-five (or -three?) player in the world, he doesn’t turn 26 for another seven months. There has to be someone awaiting the passing of the torch from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, both four years Neymar’s senior, some day soon(-ish), so it should come as no surprise that Barca appear to have moved heaven and earth to retain their Brazilian superstar.

Mourinho “guarantees” De Gea won’t go to Real Madrid

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Jose Mourinho has always said what he wants, when he wants, how he wants — especially when he’s working an ulterior motive.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Example no. 6,394: the Manchester United manager’s comments regarding the future of goalkeeper David De Gea, who has long been linked with a move to Real Madrid, which just so happens to be one of Mourinho’s former employers. Long story short, “It ain’t happening” — quotes from the Guardian:

“I can guarantee that he’s not going this season, that I can, and my feeling is it will be very difficult for him to go. Because he’s a very honest boy, very straight.”

“He was contacted for a long time [by Real]. The club was close, then we open because I always have this feeling of when a player has a desire to go I don’t like to stop players to go because in the end you don’t get what you expect from them if they want to move and they don’t.

“I don’t think the feeling from him [towards Real] is very good. I see him very happy and focused and working better than ever so for me 100% he stays with us.”

[ MORE: Man City make a dream come true… for $35 million ]

De Gea has two years remaining on his current contract (with an option for one more), which he signed shortly after United and Madrid’s deadline-day debacle of 2015.

Roma’s Moreno happy as Mexican ambassador to Serie A

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Hector Moreno knows his move to AS Roma is a big deal for him, his club, and his country.

That may seem like a bit too much aggrandization, but Moreno joins the biggest club of his accomplished European career. That club nearly ended the scudetto reign of Juventus last season, coming as close as anyone in recent history.

And he’s the first Mexican to play for Roma, a club a bit higher in the pecking order than the homes for previous El Tri members in Serie A (Carlos Salcedo went on loan to Fiorentina last season, while Miguel Layun spent time at Atalanta and Rafa Marquez played three seasons at Verona).

[ MORE: Strootman loving life at Roma ]

“I know what people expect from me, and the people in Italy will look back at Mexico as a place to find good players if I do well,” Moreno told ProSoccerTalk ahead of the club’s second Stateside match of the International Champions Cup, Tuesday versus Tottenham Hotspur at Red Bull Arena.

“Football in Mexico is lived with so much passion. It’s so important.”

What they’ve seen from the 29-year-old center back gives them every reason to be proud. Moreno has won the Eredivisie with two clubs (AZ Alkmaar and PSV Eindhoven) and was Espanyol’s Player of the Year during his first of three campaigns in La Liga.

Moreno’s offensive acumen shone through his second stint in Holland, and the center back who also plays some left back scored seven goals last season.

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

When Roma came calling, he had little hesitation.

“It’s something I have wanted my entire career, for an opportunity like this,” Moreno said. “It’s an amazing challenge to keep going forward in my career.”

Moreno captained El Tri in a 1-1 draw against the United States in World Cup qualifying on June 12, and the Roma signing was announced on June 13. Five days later, he was pushing Mexico over the line with a stoppage time goal against Portugal at the Confederations Cup.

[ MORE: Pallotta’s Roman vision ]

Again, this was about a statement for both him and his country, especially with Mexico in pole position to finish first in CONCACAF World Cup qualification and the desire to make it past the Round of 16 for the first time in seven tournaments.

“It was a great moment and the feeling was amazing because we fought so hard and we didn’t expect to lose,” Moreno said. “It looks easy to say but with Ronaldo, Ledesma, Pepe, at the end we got a result that we deserved.

“And this will probably help the team to know where we stand because in CONCACAF qualification for World Cup we are almost there and in all due respect it’s a different quality of play than CONCACAF. You can see where you stand and what you have to improve to be on the level. It is the dream forever that we can go to the fifth game, and we can do that in Russia. We’re going to work hard and I hope we can make it.”

[ MORE: Conte names Gary Cahill new Chelsea captain ]

It may surprise some to hear that Moreno also hopes El Tri’s heated rivals in the U.S. qualify for Russia as well.

“I hope so,” Moreno quickly replies. “It would make a good tournament. They always make it through and they have such a good team. It’s always (the hope) that Mexico and U.S. can meet in the World Cup, because they have such good talent as well.”

Roma faces Spurs in New Jersey on Tuesday before a July 30 battle with Juventus at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

What’s another $35 million? Man City sign Danilo from Real Madrid

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Danilo will be fulfilling his ambition to play under Pep Guardiola after signing for Manchester City from Real Madrid on Sunday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The versatile Brazilian defender, who can play on either flank as well as at center back, signed a five-year contract to increase City’s threadbare options at full back.

“There has been strong interest from other clubs, but it has always been my ambition to play for Pep Guardiola,” Danilo said. “As soon as I heard of his interest, I knew immediately I wanted to be a City player.”

City has a shortage of wide defenders after releasing Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna last month and then allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to move to Italian side Roma on Saturday. Kyle Walker, who joined from Tottenham, was the only other full back available to City manager Pep Guardiola before the signing of Danilo.

[ MORE: Mourinho quells speculation of Gareth Bale to Man United ]

“Football is very dynamic and it requires quality players in every position, so I think a player who can play in different positions at a good level has an advantage, and becomes very important for the team as well,” said Danilo, who is awaiting his British work permit. “I prefer just to play. I don’t have a favorite position. I am used to playing as right-back but any time I’m on the pitch in the starting 11, I’m always happy.

“He (Guardiola) told me I’m ready and that I can play in several positions, right back, left back, midfield. I just hope to help him out as he expects.”

Danilo is leaving Madrid two years after joining from Porto, having won back-to-back Champions League titles and the Spanish title once. Financial details of the transfer to City were not disclosed.