Last stand in Denver? United States meets Costa Rica, with so much on the line in World Cup qualifying

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DENVER – Dicks Sporting Goods Park outside of Denver seems an unlikely place for a U.S. Soccer last stand – and yet here we are.

Technically, this does not qualify as “do-or-die” in ongoing World Cup qualifying; Jurgen Klinsmann’s team could fall tonight and then again Tuesday down in Mexico, and still have seven matches in this final round to gather up 15 or 16 points probably required for safe arrival into a seventh consecutive World Cup.

But this sure feels like a last stand considering injuries and absences to important figures, bubbling locker room issues and a final round schedule set-up that had this one tagged “critical” long ago. It has the weight of an Alamo-type stand, and the team would certainly drag a battered psychological state out of Colorado with anything less than victory here against Costa Rica.

(MORE: US team news, notes and quotes from Thursday’s final prep)

It’s no big stretch to say that Friday, in a very cold Denver suburb, the United States will either regain its footing in a march toward Brazil 2014 or see the effort possibly be mortally wounded.

So, yes, a sold out DSG Sporting Goods Parks in Denver (fairly light in U.S. national team history) is the site for the most pressure packed World Cup qualifier in at least 10 years. Kickoff tonight is set for 8 p.m. locally (10 p.m. ET) on ESPN.

“We’ve always come through when there’s pressure on,” veteran midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said. “It’s always been that way when I’ve been there, it won’t be any different come tomorrow. We embrace the pressure. We know we are at home, we know we need three points. It’s a very important match, even though it’s very early in the tournament. Everyone knows that. In qualifying you need to win your home matches, for sure. Tomorrow will be no different.”

The team chemistry isn’t right; we can still debate the level of tumult, but it’s safe to say there are issues that need sorting. A provocative Sporting News story put some things on the table, and at a nervous time when the United States faced a near must-win match anyway.

Lose tonight and the very real possibility exists of being 0-3 in final round CONCACAF qualifying; the Americans began this round with a loss in Honduras – where the young back line could not quite pass the test – and do battle down in Mexico next week at Azteca Stadium, where they have never won in World Cup qualifying. Never.

(MORE: Digging into the “Why?” over Klinsmann and his critics)

The sear of concern is particularly intense along a U.S. back line, where three starters are injured. Plus, former captain and stabilizing arm Carlos Bocanegra is not part of this camp, the latest in a series of Klinsmann’s controversial roster or lineup choices.

Tim Howard’s injury absence isn’t making anyone feel better about things, although backup Brad Guzan is having a wonderful season at Aston Villa and sure looks up for the job. As for Guzan playing behind a young and untested defense? He calls that a “Saturday.”

The mood of the camp seems typically relaxed, and even Klinsmann seems underwhelmed by all the ongoing talk of his performance. His response is more or less a shrug and smile and to say something about this being part of his job.

(MORE: Klinsmann responds to criticism and player unrest)

Besides, veteran players like Michael Bradley have come to his defense. So has Herculez Gomez. And from the center of it all, Bocanegra even had positive things to say about it all.

The U.S. attack, at least, is mostly intact, Landon Donovan and his ongoing sabbatical as the one obvious exception. Clint Dempsey has overcome a recent injury with Tottenham and looks set to start. He leads the team with six goals in 2014 qualifying, and has been named captain for this one.

Past the injuries and whispering malcontents in their midst, there is reason to like the U.S. chances here. The weather is to their liking; with more players who earn their living in Europe, they are presumably better equipped to deal with temperatures in the 30s and potential precipitation.

The United States’ dominance in home qualifiers cannot be understated. They have not lost one of these since 2001; the unbeaten streak has reached 22 matches (a 20-0-2 record).

(MORE: Most pressure on a World Cup qualifier in a decade)

The United States is 5-0-2 against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifiers at home. This Ticos version launched the final round with 2-2 draw at home against Panama, so there’s pressure in the Costa Rican camp, too. Plus, leading scorer Alvaro Saborio may have an injury concern, depending on which report you believe.

Either way, the Ticos have other attacking options.

(Look for more later today at ProSoccerTalk, including a lineup prediction)

Premier League Power Rankings

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Which players are on fire in the Premier League?

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Players from Tottenham and Liverpool feature prominently in our latest top 20 after four wins from their last five for both teams, while some of Manchester United’s stars continue to rise.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Up 5
  2. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Up 1
  3. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham) – Up 5
  4. Paul Pogba (Man United) – Up 9
  5. Marko Arnautovic (West Ham) – Up 10
  6. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Down 6
  7. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City) – Down 3
  8. Jesse Lingard (Man United) – Down 6
  9. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) – Up 2
  10. David De Gea (Man United) – Even
  11. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – New entry
  12. Anthony Martial (Man United) – New entry
  13. Leroy Sane (Man City) – Up 1
  14. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – Down 4
  15. Raheem Sterling (Man City) – Down 9
  16. Ederson (Man City) – Down 7
  17. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – New entry
  18. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – New entry
  19. Antonio Valencia (Man United) – New entry
  20. Bakary Sako (Crystal Palace) – New entry

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Aubameyang to Arsenal; Sturridge to leave

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Borussia Dortmund are not happy with Arsenal over Arsene Wenger‘s comments about their star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

[ MORE: Sanchez to United “likely”

The Gabonese striker, 28, was left out of their squad last weekend due to disciplinary problems and it is believed a fee of $76 million would be enough for Dortmund to sell the top scorer in the Bundesliga last season.

Arsenal have been linked with a move for the striker with Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United “likely” to happen, but when asked about Arsenal’s reported interest in Aubameyang on Thursday, Wenger was coy on any deal.

However Dortmund’s sporting director, Michael Zorc, was not, as he hit out in a magazine interview.

“We find it disrespectful to speak about players of other clubs”, Zorc said. “There is no contact with Arsenal. We assumed that Arsene Wenger would have enough to do to take care of the performances of his own players.”

Dortmund’s manager, Peter Stoger, has since said he assumes that Aubameyang will stay and learn from his latest mistake, which was being late for a meeting.

What could the forward bring to Arsenal if he did leave Dortmund? Goals. And lots of them. It has been reported that the Gunners could offer Olivier Giroud as part of the deal, which could soften the blow of Aubameyang’s exit for the Germany giants, and if there’s a chance this deal can get done, Arsenal should do it.

Despite issues with his behavior off the pitch, Aubameyang has always delivered on the pitch. He has scored 141 goals in 212 games in all competitions, including 21 in 23 games this season and 40 in 46 appearances last season.

With Sanchez on his way, Aubameyang’s arrival, and reuniting him with Henrikh Mkhitaryan (who looks set to join Arsenal from Man United) could get the Arsenal fans back on board (still a big maybe…) after a disastrous start to 2018 for Wenger’s men.


Daniel Sturridge is said to be interesting both Sevilla and Inter Milan.

The Liverpool forward, 28, is in serious jeopardy of not making England’s squad for the World Cup this summer as he continues to warm the bench at Anfield with Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane ahead of him in the pecking order. Jurgen Klopp just doesn’t have a need for Sturridge’s style of play and prefers the movement and industry of Firmino instead of Sturridge’s instinctive finishing.

According to Sky Sports, La Liga side Sevilla want to take Sturridge on loan for the rest of the season, while the BBC say that Inter Milan are also interested in a loan move for Sturridge.

The main issue here is that Liverpool are only interested in a permanent deal for Sturridge, who they value at $45 million. Given the fact that he has suffered multiple injuries over the past three seasons and has 18 months left on his current contract it is highly unlikely anyone will stump up that kind of cash, despite his obvious top-class finishing ability.

Sturridge will surely move on in January with his World Cup spot on the line. Sevilla are in the Champions League last 16 and in La Liga’s top four, while Inter are pushing for the Italian title. Either would welcome Sturridge’s predatory instincts and it appears that if the Englishman wants to stay in the PL he will have to settle for a move to a team in midtable or battling against relegation. A move abroad could be the smart play on his behalf.

Teething problems intensify the VAR debate

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It doesn’t matter if you are a fan of VAR or you aren’t. It’s going to happen. Get used to it.

With Video Assistant Referees trialed in English soccer for the first time over the past few weeks during both FA Cup and League Cup games, the debate has intensified around its value and how it should be used.

First off, let’s define exactly when VAR will be used. According to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) guidelines, VAR will only be used to “correct clear errors and for missed serious incidents” which have “match changing” outcomes.

The four areas VAR can be used for are:

  • Goals
  • Penalty kicks
  • Red cards
  • Mistaken identity

It is important to remember that the referee on the pitch is the only one who can sanction whether a video review is necessary after consulting with VAR officials who are watching on monitors and recommend, via an ear piece, if certain instances are worth a second look. The referee can then go and take a look at the incident on a TV monitor on the side of the pitch himself, if necessary, before either keeping his original decision or changing his mind.

So, with all that in mind, why are we still having problems? Number one: fans, players and even managers still seem to be unsure as to exactly how this technology will be used.

Hand gestures making a square TV symbol are now happening in grounds across the UK, trying to suggest to the referee that he needs to go to VAR. Extra pressure is being placed on officials and despite the system being trialed in Major League Soccer, Serie A and the Bundesliga with limited issues over the past 12 months, it seems like the English game is struggling to adapt to the concept even though it will make the life of referees much easier in the long run.

All in all, VAR can slow down the flow of the game but that’s only if huge game changing moments occur multiple times. How often does that really happen? Once or twice, on average, in a single game, if that?

I was one of those so-called purists who wasn’t in favor of the technology to start with, but seeing how easy it can be to rectify mistakes over the past few weeks, I’m all for it now. Kelechi Iheanacho‘s second goal for Leicester in their FA Cup replay win against Fleetwood Town on Tuesday proved how great this can be. Replays showed he was clearly onside and the goal was awarded after initially being ruled out. It took 10-15 seconds without the referee even going to a pitch-side monitor to check it out.

Simple. Easy. Effective.

That goal was an example of a “clear and obvious error” which, per the IFAB guidelines, is why VAR exists. But in Chelsea’s FA Cup win against Norwich City on penalty kicks on Wednesday, there was an incident where VAR was used but didn’t overturn a decision which caused controversy.

Willian was booked by referee Graham Scott for diving in the box, even though replays showed there was clear contact with a defender but VAR officials didn’t believe there was a definitive reason to overturn the initial decision.

Antonio Conte had the following to say about the new technology as he wants it to improve.

“If we want to use a new system, I can’t accept a big mistake,” Conte said. “In this case, the Willian penalty was a big, big mistake. Not from the referee on the pitch, who took quickly a decision to book Willian and didn’t have any doubt, but from the person watching the game [Jones]. I hope the VAR wasn’t a referee because if you see that watching on television and don’t think that’s a penalty … he has to improve. It was very clear.”

Well, Antonio, you may have to accept mistakes, especially at the start, but was that decision really a mistake?

The VAR official may have simply been agreeing with the referee on the pitch that there was contact between Willian and the Norwich defender but that the Chelsea man left his leg hanging out and tried to buy a penalty kick. Even though there’s an extra official looking at video footage of the event, unless he believes the referee has got the decision horribly wrong it will not be overturned.

As for Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who saw the technology used in his sides 0-0 draw at Chelsea last week in the League Cup semifinal first leg, he remains an advocate of VAR and believes this trial run is extremely helpful.

“Will there be some hiccups up at the start? Certainly,” Wenger said. “We have to improve the system, but we have to go for it.”

That is the correct answer here.

It will take time to get used to the technology, just like it did in MLS. But fans, players and coaches need to not only embrace VAR but also educate themselves as to when and how it can be used.

I have no doubt that if the system is introduced into the Premier League for the 2018-19 season it will be hugely beneficial. Largely because the PL have sat back and let the FA trial the system and other leagues around the world work out the kinks. By the time next August rolls around, we will have months of use of VAR at the top level with the 2018 World Cup also set to use the technology.

Look at last weekend in the Premier League. Two key decisions likely changed the outcome of games between clubs battling to stay in the Premier League. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s late equalizer for Watford would have taken all of 10 seconds to review and overturn as he clearly punched the ball into the net against Southampton to seal a 2-2 draw.

While Newcastle’s Mo Diame clearly handled a goalbound effort which not only cost Swansea a penalty kick but would have seen Diame sent off. Both incidents would have been cleared up quickly and easily without minimum fuss.

That is what this system is for. The gray areas of diving and intent with handballs will still exist, just like they did before VAR. But the clear-cut calls which officials can’t see and don’t get right will be overturned when new replays become available to them.

That’s where they need the most help and that’s why VAR should be welcomed into the English game with open arms.

The debates will still rumble on in pubs, stadiums and offices in the UK. The system being trialed to stop those never-ending debates is currently having the opposite effect.

Brazil’s Ronaldinho confirms retirement and plans farewell

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SAO PAULO (AP) World Cup and 2005 Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldinho confirmed on Wednesday his retirement from football. The 37-year-old’s last professional football match was in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

The Brazilian’s brother and agent announced the player’s decision on Tuesday. Ronaldinho confirmed the decision one day later in an Instagram post.

“After almost three decades dedicated to football, I say goodbye to my biggest dream. A fulfilled dream,” the playmaker said. “I did what I love the most as a professional for 20 years and another 10 years in the academy. I lived this child’s dream intensely.”

Obrigado Sr. meu Deus, por esta vida que me deste, família, amigos e minha primeira profissão!!! Após quase três décadas dedicadas ao futebol, me despeço do meu maior sonho, sonho realizado!!! Fiz o que mais amei profissionalmente por 20 anos, e 10 como formação de base. Vivi intensamente este sonho de criança, cada instante, viagens, vitórias, derrotas, a resenha, hino nacional, a caminhada no túnel, vestiário, entrada em campo, as chuteiras que usei, as bolas boas e ruins, homenagens que ganhei, os craques que joguei, os que admirei e joguei e os que só joguei no play, mas admiro até hoje! Enfim tudo foi incrível!!! Meu pai e minha família me apoiaram muito pra chegar até aqui, foi um trabalho em equipe. Chegamos ao fim da primeira etapa com uma história bonita pra contar… Vocês me conhecem, e sabem bem que sou tímido e não tenho o costume de falar muito, mas tenho que dizer a vocês muito obrigado, de coração, de alma lavada, pois fiz o que amo com a ajuda de todos, treinadores, preparadores, comissões inteiras, dirigentes, torcida a favor e contra, o motorista do ônibus, o roupeiro, o gandula, o árbitro e a imprensa. Obrigado, construímos juntos esta história, sem vocês nada seria possível… No mês de março faremos um anúncio de como será esta despedida e os próximos passos. Por enquanto, aqui vai meu muito obrigado ⚽. Aquela frase famosa “gracias vieja” por ser a minha fonte de inspiração por tanto tempo e companheiros de muitas vitórias!!! Obrigado a todos pelas mensagens e carinho!!! Um abraço forte, fui muito feliz fazendo deste esporte a minha vida e profissão.

A post shared by Ronaldo de Assis Moreira (@ronaldinho) on

Ronaldinho, who had his best club moments at Barcelona, thanked teammates, coaches and fans for his career. He also praised the football with a reference to Real Madrid’s legendary player Alfredo di Stefano (1926-2014).

“Thanks, old woman, for being my biggest source of inspiration for so long,” Ronaldinho said.

“You know me and you know that I am shy, I am not used to speaking much. But thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

Ronaldinho said he will announce details of the farewell in March.

On Tuesday his agent Roberto Assis told the Associated Press that Ronaldinho’s plans include being a football ambassador for Barcelona, doing charity and working with music.

Ronaldinho’s decorated career also includes one Champions League victory with Barcelona in 2006 and two FIFA player of the year Awards in 2004 and 2005.

He played 101 matches and scored 35 goals for Brazil from 1997 to 2013. At the Camp Nou, Ronaldinho was an integral member of a squad that took Barca back to the limelight. The Brazilian played 207 games for the Catalans and gave 94 goals and 61 assists to the team.

Ronaldinho’s club career also includes Gremio, Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro in Brazil, Paris Saint-Germain in France, AC Milan in Italy and Queretaro in Mexico.

Several clubs and players around the world are still praising Ronaldinho for his football legacy, including his former teammate and protegee Lionel Messi.

“I learned a lot by your side. I’ll forever be grateful to you for making everything so easy when I joined the first team,” Messi said in his social media channels.

“I was lucky enough to share many things with you and I’m really happy about that because, as well as being a star out on the pitch, you’re an excellent person and that’s the most important thing. Although you’ve decided to retire, football will never forget your smile,” the Argentine said.

Three-time World Cup winner Pele also gave praise to the retiree.

“You brought a smile to everyone’s face, Ronaldinho. I hope you glide through life, like you glided through tackles,” Pele said.