United States excited, but still business-like, ahead of Gold Cup semifinal clash with Honduras

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ARLINGTON, Texas – U.S. players and coaches sound genuinely excited about a chance to perform in Jerry Jones’ billion dollar colossus, and they don’t mind a bit that so much of a sold-out crowd at Cowboys Stadium will arrive to see the back half of Wednesday’s Gold Cup semifinal doubleheader, a contest involving Mexico.

U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann in particular sounds stoked about the opportunity and remains ever eager to learn yet more about this personnel group as they get pushed by a determined Honduras in a race for Sunday’s tournament final.

But make no mistake, the highly professional, decidedly business-like mentality Klinsmann keeps force-feeding to the players still prevails, and he wants badly to claim this tournament

“Obviously, to play in a place like this here is not happening very often,” Klinssman said Tuesday from inside the splashy venue. “So the players take it all in. Cowboys Stadium. A semifinal. A very, very difficult opponent. That’s what you all want! So, that’s the next benchmark for us.”

Klinsmann acknowledged that ongoing evaluations remain important, getting a “better picture,” as the manager says, of the players’ abilities individually and within a team concept. But clearly there is a balance to be achieved.

“The priority, when it comes down to the day before the game is the game!” he said. “It’s necessary to win those games. Therefore, the guys are already, they are pumped up.  They want to do well. An opportunity like tomorrow night doesn’t come along very often, in a huge, fantastic stadium. We always keep the big picture in mind, but we badly want this trophy this year.”

It is a swell place, and the roof will be closed Wednesday when Honduras and the United States kick off just after as 7 p.m. ET (Fox Soccer Channel), followed by Mexico and Panama at 10 p.m. ET.  Winners meet at historic Soldier Field on Sunday in Chicago.

While the venue is tops, the field isn’t. Another of these dicey, problematic temporary fields (this one struggling even more without the benefit of natural sunlight or proper air circulation) will be a talking point, especially as the narrow width plays into tactics that could potentially benefit Honduras.

(MORE: The field in a word at Cowboys Stadium: awful)

The United States, as always, hopes to keep the tempo high and the press Honduras near its own goal, while the visitors are more likely to attack with some caution and hope to strike on the counter. It has been ever thus in the Gold Cup as the United States has hopscotched across the big land, now playing in its fourth time zone during the semi-annual tournament.

Klinsmann has rotated players extensively during a competition with such a brutal pace of travel and rapid-fire matches. Counting a pre-tournament friendly against Guatemala, Wednesday’s semifinal will be the United States’ sixth match in 20 days, with travel between each stop.

So chance are high of seeing a new face or two in the lineup, even if the 11 deployed Sunday managed the quarterfinal task quite nicely, eventually chewing up El Salvador pretty good in a 5-1, Landon Donovan-inspired quarterfinal triumph.

Still, Eddie Johnson seems likely to replace Chris Wondolowski in the U.S. lineup. And big defender Omar Gonzalez, having met the team in Dallas after getting one more match in with his LA Galaxy, seems sure to feature along the back line.

Stuart Holden, left on the bench Sunday for the first time in the tournament, could come in for Mix Diskerud or even for holding midfield specialist Kyle Beckerman.

(MORE: Three Good Questions for U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden)

Honduras, a country where the soccer fortunes seem to rise annually now, arrived with a win Sunday over Costa Rica, the same team that gave the United States a pretty hard time in the Gold Cup group stage finale. Andy Najar, who made his professional bones with D.C. United before moving his pro career to Europe, had the Honduran goal in the quarterfinal victory.

Honduras, like the United States, has brought a “B” team version for the tournament. But some of the players remain familiar as these nations meet for a third time this year. A 2-1 World Cup qualifier loss in Honduras back in February was the last U.S. loss in a meaningful match (and was a “turning point” moment in some eyes, although Klinnsmann has said the February setback was more about the logistical challenges of players arriving in from Europe, unaccustomed to the Central American heat.)

Jozy Altidore’s goal was enough to push the United States past Honduras as the teams met again in qualifying for Brazil 2014 in June, this time on U.S. soil in Utah.

This is also the teams’ third semifinal meeting in a Gold Cup, with the United States posting wins of 2-1 and 2-0 in en route to the tournament finals in 2005 and 2009.  Clarence Goodson, a U.S. center back starter in this year’s tournament, had the game-winner in 2009.

(MORE: Three U.S. men who have upped their value with Gold Cup performance)

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.

 

Serie A: Napoli’s perfect season ends after draw with Inter

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MILAN (AP) Napoli’s perfect start to Serie A finally came to an end on Saturday in an enthralling 0-0 home draw with Inter Milan, the only other unbeaten side in the Italian top flight.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

There were plenty of chances at the San Paolo, and Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was kept busier than his Napoli counterpart Pepe Reina.

It was the first time since April and a 2-2 draw at Sassuolo that Napoli has failed to win in Serie A.

Napoli remained top of the standings, two points above Inter and six above Juventus and Lazio, which face Udinese and Cagliari respectively on Sunday.

[ TACTICS SESSION: Inside the brilliant mind of Kevin De Bruyne ]

Napoli was looking for a ninth successive league win. It was boosted by Lorenzo Insigne passing fit to start after injuring a thigh on Tuesday in the Champions League defeat at Manchester City.

Inter was full of confidence after Mauro Icardi’s hat trick helped it win last week’s derby against AC Milan, but it hadn’t won in Naples in 20 years.

Napoli almost went in front but Handanovic pulled off a stunning double save to deny first Jose Callejon and then keep out Dries Mertens’ rebound attempt from point-blank range.

Handanovic then kept out an effort from Insigne following a great ball over the top from Marek Hamsik.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Inter went close shortly before halftime but Reina did well to fingertip Borja Valero’s close-range attempt over the bar.

Insigne had more chances after the break, going closest with a curling effort just past the right post.

Hamsik also fired narrowly wide, and Handanovic parried a powerful shot from substitute Piotr Zielinski.

Mertens should have won the match for Napoli in the final minute but Handanovic was again on hand to keep out his close-range volley.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.