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Stock Falling: Which U.S. players’ statures are slipping …

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For as many positives as there were after the U.S.’s recent run of qualifiers, there were a couple of negatives: Microscopic points of concern that may prove inconsequential; may be the fist-sized snowballs that start building once cast down the hill. With Jurgen Klinsmann’s side unbeaten in five in World Cup qualifiers, it’s hard to find major areas of concern in his 4-1-1 side. But if we were looking for falling stoacks in the USMNT portfolio, there’d be two experiencing slight downturns:

Jermaine Jones (pictured) – The conventional dialog around Jones has become so distorted, it’s near impossible to discuss the polarizing midfielder in any kind of fair context. This is a man whose been a regular starter for a Champions League caliber side for years, and although he has helped turn a U.S. midfield previously reliant on resiliency and opportunism into one which can regularly dictate a game’s flow, Jones may be the least popular starter among Klinsmann’s regular XI.

There’s a huge disconnect between fan perception and playing reality when it comes to the German-born American, a dissonance that won’t get any better after the past week. Against Panama, a game for which the Schalke man was injured, the U.S. gave their best performance of CONCACAF’s final round – a controlling affair fueled by a midfield tandem of Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron. On Tuesday, the team was as controlling but less convincing. And they only improved once Jones came off.

To many’s disappointment, Jones won’t be anywhere close to losing his starting spot, nor does he deserved to be relieved. Lucky for U.S. soccer fans, Klinsmann has a drastically different view of Jones’s value. But Cameron made up some ground this week, with the former Dynamo man who struggled at center and right back proving a candidate in the middle. For Jones, that’s not a big deal, but if the incumbent midfielder were a stock, he’d be down a couple of points on the news.

source: Getty ImagesOmar Gonzalez (right) – MLS’s best defender said it himself after the Panama game: He’d like to make it through one game without a mistake. That didn’t happen on Tuesday, with a bad early giveaway creating a chance for Honduras. No matter the positives he brings to the field (which, when you see the protection he’s giving Brad Evans, are immense), a defender just can’t make those kind of mistakes – errors likely to prove decisive against better teams.

Though they’re entirely different types of defenders, Gonzalez is becoming the U.S.’s Mats Hummels, He’s undoubtedly the most capable defender in the pool, but he’s also a player whose aberrational mistakes are too prominent a part of his game. Still inexperienced at international level, there’s every reason to hope the Galaxy defender will work this out of his system, but with each game that expires without giving Gonzalez those 90 clean minutes, there’s more reason to think the U.S. will have to live with this type of inconsistency.

Two other U.S. players didn’t see their stocks fall, per se, but their circumstances bear mentioning:

Brad Evans – The start against Germany served as a proof of concept. If the U.S. could survive with Brad Evans at right back against that caliber of attack, surely the Sounders midfielder can handle CONCACAF qualifying. After 270 minutes and one goal allowed in three qualifying wins, it bore out. Evans at full back was good enough.

But with the exception of the support out wide that he provides for Bradley and Jones, there was little about Evans’ game that goes beyond good enough. His game-winning goal against Jamaica bears mentioning, but it was also something that’s not part of the core responsibilities for a right back (nor is it an anticipated bonus). As the likes of Jamaica and Panama sought to exploit the out-of-position player, you couldn’t help but think how much more secure things will be when Steve Cheurndolo or Timmy Chandler returns.

No evaluation of Evans would be fair without mentioning he’s answered the call. Does he consider himself a right back? No. Does he think he’s been without fault? Of course not. But if Jurgen Klinsmann thinks he can play the position, is he supposed to argue?

Evans made great strides toward winning a spot for 2014, so his stock is probably up, in the bigger picture. But for all the good he’s done during three qualifiers at right back, it’s pretty scary to imagine him starting there in Brazil.

Landon Donovan – It’s another unfair conversation, with Donovan having done all the right things to make sure he eventually gets another look with the full national team, yet if the argument for fast tracking his integration was his indispensability, that’s since been dispelled. Klinsmann’s U.S. doesn’t need Landon Donovan.

If Donovan works his way back into the team via the Gold Cup, it will be interesting to see what role he assumes. In the wake of South Africa, there’d been growing concern about Donovan’s form at international level, and with the type of all-around performances we’re seeing for Graham Zusi, the question becomes more difficult to answer: If and when he fully returns, is Landon Donovan still a starter?

Increasingly, that answer is no, and although it’s unfair to look down on Donovan merely because Zusi and the team are improving, the former focal point’s stock undoubtedly drops as the team proves they can win without him.

El Clasico Preview: Barcelona looks to break Real Madrid’s hold on La Liga

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 02:  Casemiro of Real Madrid CF battles for the ball with Neymar of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on April 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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It could very well be the greatest rivalry in all of sports, and Saturday will see another installment of El Clasico in Spain’s top flight.

[ MORE: Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought ]

Barcelona will host Real Madrid on Saturday at the Camp Nou (10 a.m. ET on beIN Sport) as the Blaugrana look to hand the Madridistas their first loss of the La Liga season.

[ MORE: Griezmann joins Ronaldo, Messi for FIFA’s Best Player award ]

Through 13 rounds of play, Real remains the only unbeaten side in La Liga, sitting on 33 points atop the first division. Barca finds itself six points back, however, a victory would go a long way in cutting down Real’s advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s 10 goals in league play thus far has paced Real to its hot start, which includes a 20-match unbeaten streak in all competitions dating back to the start of the La Liga calendar.

The Portuguese attacker will need to continue his brilliance this weekend, though, as Real is forced to cope without Welsh star Gareth Bale. The winger is expected to miss four months after undergoing an ankle operation recently.

Meanwhile, Barcelona enters the Clasico in less-than-ideal form for a club with massive expectations. Luis Enrique’s side has gone unbeaten in its last five matches across all competitions, but the Blaugrana have looked less than convincing in that span.

“It’s a special game and we want to make the team and fans happy. I expect 100,000 people cheering us on,” said Enrique. “The game tomorrow is a chance to beat Real Madrid and to get closer to the top of the table, nothing more.

“Controlling your emotions is basic. In a game like this one, what happens on the field has little to do with the league table.”

Temperament will surely be key for both sides in the contentious matchup, particularly with the meeting being historically one of great physicality. Red cards have been shown in the last two meetings, with Real players both being the recipients of the ejections (Sergio Ramos & Isco).

Lionel Messi and his 21 previous Clasico goals will prove to be crucial for Barcelona as they look to put the first blemish on Real’s record in 2016. The Argentine has 19 goals in all tournaments, making his presence an absolute must if Barca is to snatch a victory.

Real earned a victory in their most recent encounter with Barca, a 2-1 result in April 2016, where Ronaldo netted the game-winner inside the final five minutes of play.

Bayern regains Bundesliga lead behind Lewandowski brace vs. Mainz

EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 01: Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Muenchen (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with his team mates during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between PSV Eindhoven and FC Bayern Muenchen at Philips Stadion on November 1, 2016 in Eindhoven, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Robert Lewandowski fired twice on Friday afternoon as Bayern Munich defeated Mainz, 3-1, to regain to the top spot in the German Bundesliga table.

[ MORE: Ronaldo, Mourinho reportedly involved in tax evasion system ]

Bayern currently sits on 30 points through 13 matches, but Red Bull Leipzig has the opportunity to surpass the reigning German champions this weekend when they take on Schalke.

The Polish striker netted his first finish after eight minutes, leveling the match at 1-1 after an early Jhon Córdoba tally had given the hosts the advantage.

Lewandowski put the game to rest in second-half stoppage time after curling a free kick over the Mainz wall and into the back of the net.

After the sluggish start was past Bayern, Arjen Robben found a goal of his own in the 21st minute after diving in to head home Thomas Muller’s cross.

Antonio Conte humble, yet eager to dine at Premier League’s top table

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LONDON — Two of the brightest and most highly-regarded managers in world soccer square off on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium as Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte collide.

[ MORE: Conte or Guardiola? ]

Manchester City vs. Chelsea (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) is eagerly anticipated as many people’s title favorites lock horns in what should be an intriguing tactical battle with Guardiola and Conte both already stamping their authority on their teams just a few months into their reign.

Speaking at Stamford Bridge on Friday before Chelsea hopped on a train from London to Manchester Conte spoke to the media in a humble manner, playing down his own importance and revealing his admiration and respect for Guardiola not only as a coach but as a player when they met the one time in Italy towards the end of their careers.

With Conte having success at Juventus, plus with the Italian national team despite winning any title, the 47-year-old coach was asked who was more popular; himself or Guardiola?

“For sure Pep,” Conte laughed. “Because Pep won a lot in his career, he won trophies internationally, not only in Spain but also in Germany and now he’s in England. For sure Pep. I think now he is the top.”

When you look around the Premier League at the top managers currently working in big clubs (Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino and many others) that’s high praise indeed from Conte. Yet, you get the sense that he and Guardiola aren’t so different and aren’t so far off one another.

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Talking after Liverpool beat Chelsea in September at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp referred to Conte as the “Guardiola of Turin” for the work he did with Juventus, leading them to three-straight Serie A titles from 2011-14.

What did Conte make of that comparison to Guardiola?

“I think this is a great compliment,”Conte said. “I thought that Klopp said this because I had the possibility in three years to build a clear idea of football with Juventus. It was a good compliment for me.”

Humble is word which sums up Conte well.

He is still getting to grips with his English and is improving every week but he still looks rather sheepish and almost embarrassed when he is talked about in the same breath as Guardiola and the great coaches currently managing in England.

Where does he rank himself among the elite coaches in the Premier League.

“Yeah, but for me it is difficult to give a judgement on myself. It is very difficult. I prefer the other people to be the judge,” Conte said. “I know me very well. I know that I put a lot of pressure, I study a lot of football to create and find solution. I know I put a lot of the time of my day in my work. I know this. Then I don’t know if I am up in this table or at the bottom of this table.”

Conte is clearly not at the bottom of the table but in England his fame has yet to translate to the street. In Italy he would be mobbed for photos while out at a dinner or shopping due to his success with Juve and the Azzurri, however in west London he doesn’t get bothered much. And he quite enjoys that.

“In England it is very different if you compare with Italy. Here they ask with great education to sign a photo. In Italy you can find lots of friends who say ‘come with me, take a photo, come on’ and you are eating at your table and the fans come and sit with you and want to eat with you!” Conte said, laughing. “This is the big difference. I am pleased that when I go for a walk and people ask me to sign a photo, I am pleased and able to take the photo every time.”

Photos aside, Conte has hit the ground running at Chelsea and had just a few days of vacation this summer as he transitioned straight from Italy’s penalty shootout heartbreak in the quarterfinals of EURO 2016 to taking charge of Chelsea and managing in the Premier League for the first time in his career. He has taken to Chelsea quickly and the fans have taken to him, with his name sung loud and proud around Stamford Bridge by home fans in recent weeks as his rapport with them has been built by signals to get behind the team and jumping in and celebrating with them when the Blues score.

But does Conte have to win a title, or even a UEFA Champions League, at Chelsea to get to the same level of admiration that Guardiola has globally?

“I don’t know if you win a league and what you can reach. I have to work with my team to reach the best results for us. I remember our first press conference. Not many people trust in Chelsea and our work,” Conte said. “This must be a great strength for us. To continue to work and change the opinion of the people. For me, I never think of myself. I always think for my team and my club. We win and we lose together.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates the goal scored by Diego Costa of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

With Chelsea on a seven-game winning streak and conceding just one goal in that stretch, Conte’s side are in-form and one point ahead of Guardiola’s City ahead of Saturday’s game. Following their 10th place finish last season as their title defense went horrendously wrong, not much was expected of Chelsea this season under Conte. They’ve exceeded expectations, thus far.

As for Guardiola, plenty was expected of his expensively assembled squad and City have faltered in recent months, winning just three of their last seven Premier League games.

Conte isn’t sure if Guardiola is under more pressure than he is, but he does know that he will continue to put massive pressure on his shoulders and, gradually, on the shoulders of his players who currently sit top of the remier League.

“I must be honest I don’t know. I know that I put myself under great pressure on every situation,” Conte said. “I try to work, try to win always, also when sometimes you understand this is very difficult bu I put a lot of pressure on myself. Also I try to start to transfer this pressure on my staff and also to start to push this pressure on my players.”

With his Chelsea team written off at the start of the season, slowly expectations levels are starting to rise and many of the doubters are turning into believers of Conte’s project in west London.

“Before we are working for ourselves, our club, our fans to show we love this shirt, love this club,” Conte said.” It is normal when you are a great team like Chelsea and when you play and you are a manager of this great team, the expectation is high. Sometimes it is right to be high. Sometimes you have to wait because you are building something important. I repeat, now it is important to continue to work and show that Chelsea can fight for a place in Champions League or fight for the title and fight the best teams in the league.”

Report: Ronaldo, Mourinho involved in massive tax evasion system

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19:  Head Coach Jose Mourinho (R) of Real Madrid instructs Cristiano Ronaldo during the UEFA Champions League group G match between Real Madrid and AC Milan at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 19, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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Wikileaks findings played a massive role in this year’s presidential election, and now “Football Leaks” could produce potentially damaging news regarding some of the world’s greatest soccer players.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines heading into the weekend ]

According to information obtained by various European media outlets, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho are at the heart of a multi-million dollar tax evasion ring.

[ MORE: Who’s more important? Diego Costa or Sergio Aguero? ]

German outlet Der Spiegel is reporting that Ronaldo could have hidden as much as”hidden 150 million euros (roughly $160 million) in tax havens in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands.”

Jorge Mendes, who serves as an agent for both Ronaldo, Mourinho and various other major soccer stars, is considered to have played a key role in the alleged wrongdoing.

Mendes reportedly helped Ronaldo and Mourinho conceal money in various offshore accounts, including in Switzerland, Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

In total, the alleged system implemented by Mendes amounted to a loss of “at least 185 million euros (roughly $197 million) of sponsorship income from the tax administrations.”

As more details emerge, follow PST for all the latest information.