Breakfast with United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann: Today’s topic – Carlos Bocanegra’s evolving role

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I was among a small group of journalists who had breakfast recently with Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team coach whose methods and player selection tendencies can sometimes lean to the less conventional. The results so far have been mostly favorable, even if the aesthetic hasn’t always risen to expectation.

Over the next week or so, we will extract one element each day of the extremely informative conversation, where Klinsmann expanded candidly on subjects ranging from Jozy Altidore to evolving player roles to Jermaine Jones to future matches and all points in between.

Today’s topic: Carlos Bocanegra’s evolving role

Clearly, Carlos Bocanegra cannot bravely strap on the armband forever. A shame, too, because he’s a heck of a fellow, a reliable center back and a captain that U.S. soccer supporters can be proud of in every way.

But we all have calculators on our smart phones, laptops and i-Whatevers … so no supporter can ever drift far from the hard truth that their trusty U.S. captain will be 35 by the next World Cup. Ouch.

Supporters may wish away the harsh realities, hoping against hope that Bocanegra’s little hiccups on the field of late were just that – hiccups, glitches in the Matrix.

Trouble is, Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t have that luxury. “Wishing” and “hoping” cannot be variables in the player selection equation. The U.S. manager has hard choices ahead, and none seem more critical than this one. Because the final stage of World Cup qualifying looks like a bugger – and the Americans didn’t exactly waltz effortlessly through the semifinal stage, if we’re being honest.

So what does that mean for Bocanegra and his evolving role? Clearly, whether it’s on the bench or in the starting XI, Klinsmann wants the former Rangers man in the picture.

“To that group, Carlos is a tremendous leader. He leads by example. The way he is kind of fighting through his career [with Rangers and the unfortunate, forced switch into Spain] … every time he comes into camp with us, he is still a role model. That’s why it’s important to have him around.

“At the same time, I tell Carlos, ‘The other ones are knocking at your door! Geoff Cameron broke in, Clarence [Goodson] is not happy sitting on the bench. Gooch [Oguchi Onyewu] is waiting for his moment. Omar Gonzalez is a name who will become part of that future, too. … We have had Matt Besler come in. There are other center backs who want your spot. He knows that. But he is standing his ground.”

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That last part, Klinsmann said with a note of respect rather than annoyance.

For most of us, this is just delicious fodder for discussion over a good ribeye and a merlot. But it’s a critical choice for the manager – when to begin the inevitable transition? Considering all the moving parts, just what is the ideal synchronization for this switch-over, when Bocanegra becomes more valuable as a guiding shepherd than as a member of the herd?

Just guessing – well, “guessing” while listening closely to Klinsmann – it sounds like the manager hopes Bocanegra can sustain starter status through qualifying. Then, perhaps, might come the switcharoo. We asked Klinsmann if he believed Bocanegra would accept a different role?

“Those roles exist as well. I don’t know. It will be down to conversations with him. We will approach that step-by-step.”

But then Klinsmann talked about similar situations. And, without prompting, he began speaking of the chemistry, selflessness and leadership that are essential elements for any World Cup roster.

“A world Cup roster is a different animal. A World Cup roster is made out of players that are there 24-7 for the team. The chemistry is the biggest card to play,” he said.

Klinsmann believes toxic chemistry is frequently to blame as some of the talented global heavies fall out of the World Cup race earlier than they should. African teams, he mentioned, are notorious for this. Others, too.

“They can’t sustain it within their own group. … They are falling apart after the group stage. England usually falls apart. France usually falls apart. … You need to have a group of 23 guys who really are there for each other. They are pushing each other. Everybody understands his role.”

Klinsmann said that six years ago with Germany, en route to that surprising third-place finish, he left more talented players off the roster, preferring self-aware worker bees who were satisfied with support roles.

Klinsmann cited a like-for-like in Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who keeps earning call-ups but is not starting for the United States lately. No matter, in Klinsmann’s eyes, because he loves what Beckerman brings in attitude and daily training.

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“He’s a giver, and you need givers,” Klinsmann said. “When you go two months in such a stressful campaign, you can only carry along a few takers. Very, very few takers. Sooner or later, the energy [of the group] will be gone.”

In Germany before the 2006 World Cup, Klinsmann had a toughie to deal with in Oliver Kahn, a giant figure in German soccer, Die Mannschaft’s longtime No. 1.  Only, Klinsmann had to inform Kahn that he would be No. 2 in goal for World Cup 2006. Not a pleasant conversation.

“Obviously he was not happy. But he understood it. I told him to take a couple of days and think about it. We feared he would say ‘I am not part of it anymore, because I am … who I am.’  Then he came back and said, ‘I am pissed off.  I am mad at you, but I am in.’

“If you understand your role, if you become a real driving force from the bench, a real connector, a kind of a solution finder when there are problems [between players] … He became that driving force. He became that mentor. He became that pusher. Even though he was pissed as hell at me, that was OK. So there are specific roles that are even more important than guys on the field.”

Remember that was about Oliver Kahn – but it’s not hard to draw the parallels with Bocanegra. (Well, all except the huge ego part; that’s never been part of Bocanegra’s DNA.)

So has Klinsmann begun having those conversations with Bocanegra?

“No, it’s still too early for that. A lot will happen in 2013 … Hopefully, all for the better.”

MORE of the Klinsmann conversation …

 

“Emotional” Mertesacker: Send Wenger off “with a cup”

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Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker has made 220 appearances for the club, all with one man in charge of the Gunners: Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: The latest Arsene Wenger news ]

Mertesacker has won three FA Cups with Wenger, and he took up his pen — or laptop — for Sunday’s Matchday program.

The 33-year-old German says it’s down to Arsenal’s players to send off Wenger right: With two more successful rounds in the UEFA Europa League against Atletico Madrid and either Red Bull Salzburg or Marseille. From the BBC:

“We were only informed on Friday about the manager’s decision to step down at the end of the season, so it’s still quite emotional,” Mertesacker said.

“He’s been the major figure of this club for more than 20 years. He’s been so impressive for me and he has trusted me so much throughout my career, in bringing me here and making me captain even when I was injured. He also gave me a future role here at the club so I am very grateful and humbled for the opportunity he gave to me.

“There’s now an emphasis on us doing it for him too. We want to give him the send-off he deserves: with a cup.”

The French legend to end his time at Arsenal against Marseille would be delightful, don’t you think?

Watch Live: Arsenal-West Ham, Stoke-Burnley

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The Premier League has a pair of 8:30 a.m. ET Sunday kickoffs for us this morning, including one of Arsene Wenger‘s final matches at Arsenal.

There’s a London Derby between Arsenal and West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners look to stay fresh for Atletico Madrid and the Hammers aim to firm up their Premier League status for next season (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

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Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal, Elneny, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Welbeck, Lacazette. Subs: Macey, Mertesacker, Holding, Chambers, Maitland-Niles, Nelson. Aubameyang.

West Ham United: Hart, Zabaleta, Ogbonna, Rice, Cresswell, Masuaku, Kouyate, Noble, Fernandes, Mario, Arnautovic. Subs: Adrian, Cullen, Evra, Lanzini, Hugill, Carroll, Chicharito.


Stoke City’s climb out of the relegation zone will have to overcome Burnley’s desires for a Top Six place, as the Clarets can pass sixth place Arsenal with a win and a Gunners loss to West Ham (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Stoke City: Butland; Johnson, Shawcross, M.Indi, Pieters; Bauer, Allen, Badou, Shaqiri; Crouch, Diouf. Subs: Haugaard, Zouma, Ireland, Cameron, Fletcher, Ramadan, Campbell.

Burnley: Pope, Lowton, Long, Tarkowski, Ward, Lennon, Cork, Westwood, Gudmundsson, Wood, Barnes. Subs: Heaton, Taylor, Marney, Vokes, Hendrick, Walters, Bardsley.

Ligue 1: Depay’s goal streak hits 5 games; Lyon reeling in Monaco

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MONACO (AP) Lyon won at Dijon 5-2 and moved within one point of second-place Monaco in the French league on Friday.

Lyon’s sixth straight league win kept them level on points with fourth-place Marseille.

The team finishing second qualifies automatically for next season’s Champions League, while the team in third goes into the playoffs. After this weekend, there will be four rounds remaining.

Memphis Depay has scored or created 12 of Lyon’s 16 last goals.

The Netherlands forward opened the scoring in the fourth minute with a close-range volley, and set up the fourth goal for winger Bertrand Traore in the 77th.

Depay almost scored another, just failing to reach right back Rafael‘s cross in the 50th. Midfielder Houssem Aouar followed up and his strike was turned into his own net by defender Valentin Rosier.

Lyon’s other goals came from forwards Nabil Fekir in the 53rd and Maxwell Cornet in the 82nd.


MONACO (AP) — After losing the French title last weekend, Monaco is in danger of throwing away second place after losing at Guingamp 3-1 on Saturday.

The defeat leaves Monaco just one point ahead of Lyon and Marseille as the three sides chase an automatic place in the Champions League with four games left.

Monaco was thrashed by champion Paris Saint-Germain 7-1 last Sunday and the defense leaked easily again, albeit with a little help from one of its defenders.

A makeshift Monaco fell behind midway through the first half after Brazilian defender Jemerson was given a red card for stopping a shot on the line. He was sent off and veteran forward Jimmy Briand netted from the penalty spot for mid-table Guingamp.

Monaco capitulated and trailed 3-0 after 47 minutes. Defender Almamy Toure replied in vain with a consolation goal midway through the second half.


Marseille crushed Lille 5-1 to join Lyon on 69 points. Lyon, which won at Dijon 5-2 on Friday for a sixth straight win, has a better goal difference.

Marseille also has the Europa League and plays the first leg of its semifinal at home to Austrian side Salzburg next Thursday. But Lyon has only Ligue 1 to think about.

Still, Marseille is also brimming with confidence these days, especially winger Florian Thauvin.

He scored twice against Lille to extend his career-best league tally to 19. Greece striker Kostas Mitroglou also netted twice, and forward Lucas Ocampos completed the rout against 19th-place Lille.

In other matches: Amiens won against Strasbourg 3-1; struggling Toulouse beat Angers 2-0, and last-place Metz drew at home to Caen 1-1.

PSG is at Bordeaux on Sunday. Also, Nice is at home to Montpellier, and Saint-Etienne takes on Troyes.

UEFA says Europa League trophy not damaged after being stolen

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA says the Europa League trophy was not damaged after being stolen in Mexico.

The silverware was at a promotional event in the central city of Leon when it was reported by authorities to have been taken from a vehicle.

The theft came ahead of the semifinals of Europe’s second-tier club competition.

UEFA says the “Europa League trophy was in Mexico for a partner event and got briefly stolen. It was quickly recovered and has suffered no damages.”

In the semifinal first legs next week, Arsenal plays Atletico Madrid and Marseille takes on Salzburg.