Night of vindication all around for Seattle, fans

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SEATTLE — The sellout didn’t happen, but as Seattle’s soccer fans showed, it didn’t matter. Besides, it’s hard to imagine 42,000 would have meaningful louder than the 40,847 who turned out to CenturyLink Field on Tuesday night. In voice, spirit, if not in the highly anticipated number, the fans were more than enough.

It was the seventh-largest home crowd in U.S. qualifying history, one that had no problem delivering the expected atmosphere. U.S. fans proved every bit as capable of filling Seattle’s cavernous venue with chants and songs that rivaled the Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC groups that cheer on the Sounders.

And after days of debate about Seattle’s expected attendance — increasingly nuanced explanations confounded an already loaded issue — the scene at CenturyLink left only two conclusions: Seattle’s fans delivered; and the community had earned its vindication.

“Amazing crowd,” was Jurgen Klinsmann’s assessment, words echoed in some form by ever player within a breath of a microphone Tuesday night. “It was just a wonderful atmosphere that the players enjoyed tremendously. We all did.”

“[It was] the best crowd I’ve played in (front of) in the United States, without a doubt,” Michael Bradley said. “People don’t know what a difference it makes when you play in an atmosphere like this.”

Perhaps the difference was evident in their performance. In some ways, the U.S.’s play wasn’t that different from what we saw in Jamaica. The team was threatened early but generally dictated tempo. They scored first through Jozy Altidore. The team eventually won.

The differences: The U.S. pushed for a second goal out of halftime in Seattle, an effort a large, supportive crowd could have bolstered; and the team didn’t give up a late goal, something the crowd’s encouragement could have promoted.

It’s all speculation, but when you hear a player like Bradley say onlookers “don’t know” how the support influences players, you wonder if, in those moments where you can see a clear difference from one game to the next, the crowd wasn’t the necessary condition.

But support wasn’t the only area where Seattle proved vindicated. The imported sod surface, much maligned all weekend, held up better than expected, even if the match’s early moments saw a number of players have trouble with their footing.

Yet probed after the match, no player had a negative word to stay. Instead, their reactions echoed their coach’s, who commended a CenturyLink ground crew that did everything they could to improve the field between Saturday and Tuesday.

“The field was totally fine,” Klinsmann said. “The players were totally fine with it. [The staff] did a tremendous job … They accommodated every wish we had. Water it here. Water it there. They rolled it again this morning. I can just give the biggest complements here for the field.”

With pitch issues set aside, the lasting story of Seattle’s first qualifier in 36 years will be its much-renown supporters – a community that justified U.S. Soccer’s decision to fly from Kingston  to play in front of its fans.

“Columbus is great and Kansas City has been fantastic,” Tim Howard explained, “but this was rocking. They did themselves justice tonight …

“It’s the best crowd around … We can’t get back to Seattle soon enough.”

On Tuesday, hours before the match, I asked what Seattle was getting out of this qualifier. Amid the criticism, much of which came off as opportunistic envy, what incentive did Seattle have to solicit another event that could act as a catalyst for negativity?

The Panama match completely destroyed that premise. In the span of a few hours, what looked like a no-win situation was overcome by the pure power of 40,000 screaming voices.

As the stadium shook after each U.S. goal, you saw what was in it for Seattle. They get a World Cup qualifier, a chance to contribute to the cause, and an opportunity to remind the rest of U.S. soccer culture: It will take more than the cried of skeptics to derail the Seattle phenomenon.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.