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 …

 

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

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Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.