Looking forward, United States in good shape for Gold Cup’s final rounds

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That was the last of the U.S.’s warmups. With the exception of the last group game against Costa Rica, a match with the convenient safety net of having already qualified for the quarterfinals, the Gold Cup’s been a walk. The U.S. is 4-0-0 and has a +14 goal difference, the kind of dominance that had us drooling over the Mexico’s team during the last tournament (El Tri was also +14 after four matches). If this wasn’t a weaker, in-World Cup Qualifying Gold Cup, U.S. fans would be doing back flips over the team’s performance.

But it is a down Gold Cup, meaning there’s only so much we can take beyond the confines of this six-match gauntlet. Within those confines, however, we can ask how ready this U.S. team is for the big step up that’s about to happen.

Come the semifinals, there are not more El Salvadors, and the days of Belize and Cuba are long gone. Panama and Mexico occupy one side of the bracket, while the U.S. face either an always difficult Honduras or a Costa Rican team unlikely to rest Álvaro Saborío and Michael Barrantes on the bench again. All have World Cup-caliber talent. All have a chance to win this tournament.

If today was any indication, however, the U.S. appears to be in good shape. They look as good as anybody other team in the tournament, and if it wasn’t for a couple of uncertain moments from a relatively untested defense, there would be few worries going into the final matches. With Omar Gonzalez set to join the team in Texas, however, there’s reason to think the defending can improve (even if Gonzalez has had his own problems with lapses during qualifiers).

The attack, however, is where fans can find be encouraged. Sixteen goals in four games provides superficial proof, but if anybody needs more proof of the team’s capabilities, consider the first 30 minutes on Sunday. The team looked assured, confident, enacted a plan that leaned heavily on building down the right, and most importantly (given what we’ve seen from Klinsmann’s teams since his arrival) executed. They actually translated control into goals.

Landon Donovan deserves much of that credit on Sunday, but there were other positives, mostly from players who had been questioned by fans in the lead-up to the match. Jose Torres may not have been the most influential of players, but he was solid, and his ability to come in and contribute centrally while ostensibly being a left midfielder is particularly valuable if the team continues leaning right. Kyle Beckerman’s not going to win over Stuart Holden’s ardent supporters, but his distribution at the base of midfield proved the right choice today. And while Joe Corona’s production has been questioned, his has quietly put together a solid tournament, one that included a goal on Sunday.

Chris Wondolowski’s lack of influence was mildly concerning considering a history of waning influence against tougher And if the U.S. really remains so right-leading, you wonder if Edgar Castillo might be a better choice at left back. (Cue the obligatory backlash every time Castillo’s mentioned.) Still, with Castillo in reserve and Eddie Johnson in the team, Klinsmann has options, should he need to tweak as the stakes are raised.

Regardless, the U.S. is in remarkably good shape headed into the semifinals. While you could still see a Honduras or Costa Rica pull off an upset in Texas, the basics seem to be in place. If the U.S. can execute over the next 180 minutes as well as they did in Baltimore, they should reclaim the Gold Cup.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.

Wenger called ref Dean “not honest,” “a disgrace” to earn ban

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LONDON (AP) Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger accused a referee of being “not honest” and called him “a disgrace” in a rant inside the match officials’ changing room that led to a three-match touchline ban for one of English soccer’s most experienced coaches.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

The English Football Association published Tuesday the written reasons behind its decision to ban Wenger for being abusive toward referee Mike Dean after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Dec. 31.

In his match report given to the FA, Dean said Wenger “was pointing aggressively at me saying, ‘You’re not honest’ on numerous occasions.” Dean then said Wenger said “you’ve done this to us many times before, you’re supposed to be professional, you’re a disgrace.”

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

Wenger had been incensed at Calum Chambers being penalized for a handball and West Brom converting the resulting penalty to equalize late in the game.

The FA said “there is simply no justification for this behavior” and considered a stadium ban for Wenger.

Wenger was also fined $54,200 for his conduct.

FA Cup: Leicester, West Ham survive replays to reach 4th round

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Two more Premier League sides reached the fourth round of the 2017-18 FA Cup on Tuesday, winning their respective replays and joining 10 other top-flight clubs already through to the next round…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town

Kelechi Iheanacho moved to Leicester from Manchester City for $33 million this summer and has, through his first half-season in the East Midlands, failed to live up to that price tag. In nine PL appearances, he is yet to score his first league goal. Tuesday, however, saw the 21-year-old Nigerian international put forth a bit production and performance more befitting a player of his promise and pedigree.

Manager Claude Puel picked a side consisting of first-team regulars and lesser-used squad players for the Foxes FA Cup third-round replay against League One side Fleetwood Town. It was Iheanacho, who started alongside/just behind target man Islam Slimani, who shown brightest with a pair of goals, in the 43rd and 77th minutes, to send Leicester into the fourth round. Iheanacho’s second, the one that put the game away for Leicester, was originally ruled out for offside, but was eventually after consultation of the video-assistant referee.

Leicester will travel to League One side Peterborough in the fourth round, on Sat. Jan. 27.

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town

It took far longer than Hammers fans would have liked — or expected — but West Ham, over the course of 120 minutes, survived the Cupset bid of third-division Shrewsbury Town. With eight minutes remaining before Tuesday’s replay went to penalty kicks at the London Stadium, 21-year-old defender Reece Burke fired home from inside the box to break the scoreless deadlock.

West Ham will be away to the winner of the replay between Bournemouth and Wigan Athletic (Wednesday), on Sat. Jan. 27.

Elsewhere in FA Cup replay action

Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Wednesday’s FA Cup replay schedule

Chelsea vs. Norwich City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Swansea City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 2:45 p.m. ET
Wigan Athletic vs. Bournemouth — 2:45 p.m. ET

Report: Newcastle sale talks between Ashley, Staveley collapse

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Talks between Mike Ashley and Amanda Staveley over the much-desired and -rumored sale of Newcastle United are off, according to a report from Sky Sports and various other UK news outlets.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Sky has quoted a source close to Ashley as having said: “Attempts to reach a deal (with Staveley) have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time.” (Full quote below)

Ashley, the club’s current and long-beleaguered owner, has been seeking a potential buyer since putting the club up for sale back in October. Staveley emerged as the front-runner (the only runner, perhaps) in the days following Ashley’s announcement, and reportedly tabled an offer of $335 million in early December before reportedly offering something closer to $400 million a couple weeks later.

Ashley selling the club — and doing so before the end of the January transfer window, which now appears nigh impossible — appeared to be one the few scenarios in which Rafa Benitez would remain the Magpies’ manager beyond the end of the current Premier League season (Newcastle currently sit 15th, just three points clear of relegation) after constant rumors of his discontent and lack of financial backing last summer.