Brazil 2014 or bust! Final World Cup push begins for United States national team

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Tension will be high Wednesday in Honduras, where the United States soccer team launches its final push toward World Cup 2014, as security concerns and the grave consequence of failure hang heavy over coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his U.S. 24-man assembly.

Should the United States be expected to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil? Absolutely.

Is it a slam dunk? Absolutely not.

The United States national team, under the direction of its enthusiastic, enigmatic German coach, meets an improving and confident Honduras as the “money round” of qualifying commences. Small though it is, Honduras advanced to its second World Cup finals in 2010 and qualified for the 2012 Olympics (when the United States did not).

Wednesday’s match in San Pedro Sula, the most violent city on the planet according to the U.S. State Department, is the first of 10 final-stage qualifying matches in the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean). Final round qualifying runs through October.

The Hondurans hope to maximize any edge against the more experienced Americans by kicking off at 4 p.m ET, when the heat and humidity could become problematic for the majority of U.S. men who make their living in Europe.

(MORE:  Weather for Wednesday in Honduras: a scorcher)

(MORE: Security concerns in San Pedro Sula)

The United States must finish top three in the six-team group (along with Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama) for automatic passage to Brazil ’14. The group’s fourth-place finisher gets one last chance, a home-and-away series in November against the Oceania winner (probably New Zealand) for the 32-team tournament’s final spot.

Mexico and the United States are favorites to advance, and qualification certainly has become habit here in domestic soccer’s modern era. The country last failed to qualify in 1986, so this would be U.S. Soccer’s seventh consecutive World Cup finals appearance.

While the odds favor a U.S. side blessed with Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey – not headliner “stars” in Europe, but easily in the next tier of talent, highly valued men for solid clubs in esteemed leagues of the Old World – nothing can be taken for granted. The tension here lies solidly in consequence of failure.

Such a thing would be viewed as catastrophe in U.S. Soccer, a crash in the ongoing ascent of the sport domestically.

Not all is perfect in the U.S. cause. Midfield creators are scarce and the back line still has questions as a new generation, led by center back Geoff Cameron and two young German-Americans, transitions in.

Landon Donovan, responsible for single-handedly rescuing a couple of the potentially wayward matches in the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle, can’t quite untangle his career mid-life crisis. Donovan, 30, remains on extended break and not with the U.S. team in Honduras.

(MORE: Landon Donovan’s career crisis)

Semifinal stage qualifying was bumpier than expected, beginning with a draw in Guatemala and then (egad!) a loss at Jamaica. Eventually, Klinsmann and Co. righted matters by taking good care of business at home and qualifying for the final round atop the group.

A recent 0-0 draw with Canada didn’t help assuage any concerns, never mind that Klinsmann’s “B” team was minus its top talent.

(MORE: Why the points are so important in Wednesday’s match)

Those semifinal road wobbles raised red flags of concern among media and supporters, especially as Klinsmann (pictured above, Tuesday in Honduras along with Michael Bradley) had been recruited – at almost five times the salary of his predecessor, Bob Bradley, whose base was less than $500,000 annually – to move the United States forward, off a plateau.

The United States made it to World Cup 2006 but looked immediately unsound and exited quickly. Only a dramatic, late Donovan goal in 2010 helped the United States slip into the second round. But a subsequent Round-of-16 loss left the bitter, incomplete taste of opportunity lost.

Now it’s on Klinsmann, who guided Germany to a third-place finish in 2006 but is going through his first qualifying campaign as a manager. (Germany was invited automatically in 2006 as hosts.)

(MORE: Wednesday a national soccer holiday in Honduras)

“There is no easy way, not for Mexico, not for the United States, not for anybody,” Klinsmann said via national teleconference Monday just before charter departure into Central America. “You have to get your points, you have to win your games and you have to get the job done. You have to go into every game with the expectation that it’s going to be difficult, that it will challenge you to the limits.

“That’s our approach: take it seriously every time you go out onto the field, very seriously, and be very awake and then we’ll see how it runs out through those 10 [final round] games. I told the players it’s all about alertness, commitment and determination. The way they train, the way they presented themselves already this morning, it looks like they are ready.”

(MORE: How many points will it take to get to Brazil)

(MORE:  U.S. history in Honduras? Successful – but surprisingly brief)

(MORE: Massive opportunity for U.S. defender Timmy Chandler)

(MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann addresses the Benny Feilhaber situation)

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

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If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

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

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

[ MORE: Totti leaves future uncertain heading into final Roma match ]

That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

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U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

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.”