Conte turns back the clock as Juventus down Palermo

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Juventus coach Antonio Conte may have returned from his four-month suspension to a slightly better team than the one he left in May, but for 90 minutes in Palermo, the Old Lady reclaimed their 2011-12 form. That’s not a good thing. Although Juventus was undefeated en route to their 28th Serie A title, they drew 15 times, often relying on opportunism and game management in place of control. In a year in which Fiorentina, Inter, Milan, Napoli, and Roma all took steps backs (or outright struggled), a draw-heavy season was enough to take the league.

That form returned today as Juventus played out a lackluster 1-0 win in Sicily. Stephan Lichtsteiner broke through for the league leaders in the 50th minute, with Juve having their win assured when Palermo went down a man in the 75th minute. Though Juventus dominated the match, they were unable to capitalize on the number of chances they created, a problem that lingers from last year.

Conte’s striking tandem perfectly exemplify Juve’s problems. Mirko Vucinic has the talent to be an automatic selection, but during his year-plus in Turin, the former Roma attacker never been able to replicate the numbers he put up in the capital. Vucinic came into today’s match with only two goals, which (unfortunately for Juve fans) were one more than his strike partner. Alessandro Matri’s inclusion continues to confuse supporters, particularly when a player like Fabio Quagliarella and his team-leading six goals may be looking for a new home in January if scoring goals can’t win more playing time.

Despite the lack of production from their strikers, Juventus had looked better this year. Though they’d already lost twice (vs. Inter Milan, at Milan) they were scoring more goals, winning more games, and were leaving fewer matches vulnerable to the type of bounces that cost them points last season. Carrying their form over into Champions League (where they won a group that featured Shakhtar Donetsk and Chelsea), Juventus looked more like a continental power than a mere domestic one. They’d taken a step forward.

In recent weeks, though, Juve’s quality had become more inconsistent. A 3-0 win over Chelsea two weeks ago was a high point, but since, they’ve only scored multiple goals in one of four games: a Dec. 1 home game against Torino were they played most of the match against 10 men. Combined with today’s performance against Palermo, the run provides more evidence that Juventus may be slipping back into their old ways.

It’s worth asking if that’s a bad thing. They did, after all, win the league playing things close to the vest. But there is the feeling that such performance is unsustainable. When Juventus lost the Coppa Italia final to Napoli last year (their only loss of the season), nobody was shocked. The feeling was more “at last” than surprise. If Juventus were to carry that same form (or, approach) into the 2012-13 season, Napoli and Inter might like their chances of taking the scudetto.

That’s why, despite Juve fans’ relief at Conte’s return, Sunday’s result might be of some concern. This was last year’s Juve, not the only that confidently played their way to an early gap atop Serie A. If that time without Conte on the sidelines proves to an an exception to the Old Lady’s danger-tempting rule, Juventus’s competitors may not be so concerned with Conte’s return.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.