United States national team has hands full tonight versus heavily talented Belgium

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Don’t be fooled by Belgium’s larger lack of marquee status in world soccer. The team is seriously on the rise and, in a word, stacked.

The roster reads like a who’s who of European up-and-comers. When attached to a couple of older hands, like commanding Manchester City center back Vincent Kompany, you see why Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team has its mitts full tonight in Cleveland.

A crowd of about 25,000 will watch as a U.S. team slightly diminished by absences due to injury and ongoing club commitments kicks off at 8 p.m. ET at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

It’s just a friendly for the Americans, a way to polish and fine-tine for the far more important World Cup qualifiers ahead. So it’s low-pressure stuff in that regard. Still, no one wants to finish on the wrong end of a beating – and all the questioning that comes with it – and the Belgians have a sequined assembly certainly capable of delivering one.

(MORE: U.S. lineup prediction for tonight)

Chelsea attacker Eden Hazard has returned to Europe due to injury, but the Belgians do have Spurs midfielder Moussa Dembélé, Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (pictured, left) and Zenit St. Petersburg tough performer Axel Witsel in midfield, a formidable match for a U.S. team missing its most important man in the middle, Michael Bradley.

Striker Romelu Lukaku is sure to test a young U.S. back line; he’s soaring with confidence after recording a a hat-trick for West Brom on the final day of the English Premier League season in that wild 5-5 draw with Manchester United. Lukaku, 20, spent the season on loan from Chelsea, and may soon join Champions League runner-up Dortmund on loan for the coming campaign.

If Lukaku isn’t tormenting the U.S. rear guard, then it could be Christian Benteke, who meant so much to Aston Villa’s spring dash to stave off relegation. Benteke may also soon be on the move.

Joining Kompany in the back for Belgium is versatile Spurs man Jan Vertonghen and Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen.

Manager Marc Wilmots, who captained Belgium’s last World Cup team, back in 2002, even has great options in goal. There he has Thibaut Courtois, a Chelsea man who just spent a successful season on loan at Spain’s Atletico Madrid, or first-choice Sunderland ‘keeper Simon Mignolet from which to choose.

Roll them all together – we didn’t even mention Everton’s Kevin Mirallas or Porto’s Steven Defour or, well, we could go on … —  and it really is an impressive bunch. This piece at ESPN FC notes how all the pieces piled up turned Belgium into a virtual version of world soccer’s third most expensive team. That’s based on transfer fees that reached $226 million last summer.

Speaking of transfer fees, expect to hear a lot this summer about Fellaini; the Everton man and his explosion of dark hair are expected to be among July’s top transfer targets.

Can this team be as good as the highly capable Belgian teams of the 80s, when the land finished third in a World Cup (1986)? “We are quite technically strong, but also there is a lot of strength and power in the team,” Fellaini said in this piece, which attempts to dissect the recent rush of talent emerging from a relatively small land of 11 million.

That’s about the size of Ohio, population-wise. So, that’s not bad at all for the country now ranked 15th by FIFA – if you put any weight in those things. (If you do, the United States is ranked 33rd.)

(MORE: Three things to watch for US tonight vs. Belgium)

(MORE: Klinsmann reveals lineup tidbits)

(MORE: U.S. back line will be young)

(MORE: Beasley hits mileposts No. 100, plus other U.S. notes)

(More on the United States and how Jurgen Klinsmann’s team might look later today at ProSoccerTalk)

Bayern fans unhappy with Champions League ticket prices

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich fans were unhappy with the price of tickets for their team’s match at Anderlecht in the Champions League.

[ MORE: Study to show long-term affects of playing soccer ]

The fans held banners during Wednesday’s game saying, “Are your necks not full? Is your greed now finally satisfied?”

A Bayern fan group, Club Nr. 12, issued a statement saying Anderlecht had made 85 percent of the tickets available to the German club’s fans priced at 100 euros ($118).

“Even by the standards of the generally high-priced Champions League, this represents a new dimension for a first-round game,” said the statement, which thanked Bayern for supplementing the tickets so fans had could pay 70 euros ($82.50).

Many Bayern fans avoided the trip to Brussels altogether, while 91 percent of more than 2,500 Club Nr. 12 members said in a survey that ticket prices were “completely unacceptable.”

[ MORE: Premier League player power rankings ]

Anderlecht spokesman David Steegen told The Associated Press that Bayern fans were charged “exactly the same price” as home fans who bought single tickets to the game. He said fans who bought a three-game Champions League bundle were offered a reduction.

UEL roundup: AC Milan advances after big win; Arsenal, Everton fall

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Both Premier League sides fell in Thursday’s UEFA Europa League play, but for one side the result didn’t effect their progression into the next round.

[ MORE: Ex-Brazil forward Robinho handed nine-year prison sentence ]

Arsenal dropped a 1-0 result to Cologne, however, the Gunners still moved into the Round of 32 after their Group H counterparts, Red Star Belgrade and BATE Borisov settled for a scoreless draw.

Meanwhile, Everton’s 2017/18 woes continued on the day as the Toffees suffered a brutal 5-1 defeat at home against Serie A side Atalanta. The win secures Atalanta’s place in the knockout phase, along with fellow Group E club Lyon — who also won on Thursday.

AC Milan put up five goals of its own in a convincing win against Austria Wien, while Lazio, Nice and Red Bull Salzburg were among the other sides to move into the next round after picking up the necessary results.

Below are all of the scores from Thursday’s Europa League action.

Astana 2-3 Villareal
Konyaspor 1-1 Marseille
Rosenborg 0-1 Real Sociedad
Lazio 1-1 Vitesse
Viktoria Plzen 2-0 Steaua Bucuresti
Lokomotiv 2-1 Copenhagen
Zenit 2-1 Vardar
Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 Vitoria
Athletic Bilbao 3-2 Hertha Berlin
BATE 0-0 Red Star Belgrade
Ostersunds 2-0 Zorya
Koln 1-0 Arsenal
Nice 3-1 Zulte Waregem
Lugano 1-0 Beer-Sheva
Ludogorets 1-2 Istanbul
Braga 3-1 Hoffenheim
AEK 2-2 Rijeka
AC Milan 5-1 Austria Vienna
Lyon 4-0 Apollon
Maccabi Tel Aviv 0-2 Slavia Praha
Sheriff 1-0 Zlin
Partizan 2-1 Young Boys
Skenderbeu 3-2 Dynamo Kyiv
Everton 1-5 Atalanta

Ex-Brazil forward Robinho sentenced to nine years in prison

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Former Brazil international Robinho has been sentenced to nine years in prison after being convicted of rape on an Albanian woman back in 2013.

[ MORE: Study will look at long-term effects of playing soccer ]

At the time, Robinho was playing for Serie A side AC Milan.

The court decision came down on Thursday after the 33-year-old forward had failed to attend any court hearings in Italy, where the crime reportedly took place.

Robinho is believed to have acted in the crime with five other Brazilians, to which their whereabouts are unknown to this point.

Reuters has reported that Robinho is entitled to up to two appeals and “Italy would only launch extradition proceedings once this legal process is exhausted.”

The Brazilian is known for his club playing days at AC Milan and Manchester City, among other clubs in addition to his time with the Selecao. Robinho took part in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups with Brazil.

Premier League Preview: West Ham vs. Leicester City

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  • West Ham is winless in last six against Leicester
  • Jamie Vardy has two goals, two assists in last 4 games vs. West Ham
  • Hammers have nine points through first 12 matches

West Ham United will host Leicester City from the London Stadium on Friday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as David Moyes and Co. look to climb out of the relegation zone.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Moyes and West Ham currently sit 18th in the Premier League through 12 games, and will be hoping to see an improvement in their form with the potential returns of Andre Ayew and Marko Arnautovic.

The Hammers are without Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Michail Antonio, as well as James Collins.

The Foxes are winless in their last two matches, and coming off of a 2-0 defeat to Manchester City over the weekend. Robert Huth and Matty James remain sidelined for Puel’s group, but otherwise, the club is relatively healthy.

What they’re saying

West Ham boss David Moyes on turning the team’s form around: “We need to give the supporters something to shout about and something that looks half decent, and then they will support us. I want everyone to be together. I am not aware of the problems before I came, I was a bit surprised when I heard (chanting against the board). “I want them behind us to give us a chance of winning.”

Leicester’s Claude Puel on confidence in his players“I have a good feeling with the players; they listen, they work hard on the pitch and I feel their ambition. We will see in the next games, with a good adaption and rotation, to see them approach it with a positive attitude.”

Prediction

The Hammers are missing several key attacking pieces, including Hernandez, which will surely make the defensive task easier for Leicester. The Foxes attack hasn’t been at its finest, but they’ll be facing a West Ham back line that allows over two goals per game (25 in 12 matches).
West Ham 1-3 Leicester