United States reaches for Gold Cup perfection in Sunday’s final against Panama

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  • U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann is suspended
  • The United States is perfect through five matches, with a splashy 19-4 goal difference
  • The United States has won 10 consecutive matches
  • Landon Donovan has been dominant, with 5 goals and 7 assists in the tournament
  • 4 p.m. ET on Fox and Univision

Most of the top nations in this year’s Gold Cup brought lesser versions for the regional competition, electing to give their front-line men some much deserved time off.

Panama treated the even differently, sending a primarily first-choice team to the United States, hopeful of success that might kick start a stalled drive for World Cup 2014. As such, the Central Americans strivers, also making a push to generally elevate their place in the region, pose a genuine threat to the U.S. reach for tournament perfection during Sunday’s final inside Chicago’s historic Soldier Field.

U.S. players and coaches keep telling everyone in pre-game media sessions that a tough test is ahead. In reality, that just hasn’t happened yet, as a team of mostly second choice men from the U.S. player pool have been more than enough, utterly shredding the field of competitors to this point. So much of that dominance is about Landon Donovan, who has cast off his previous estrangement from the national team spectacularly.

As evidenced by Donovan’s sizzling return, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann keeps pushing all the right personnel buttons. His team has navigated five matches perfectly, winners in five out of five with a splashy 19-4 goal difference. The 19 goals scored is easily a tournament high among the 12 teams.

So much of that Donovan (pictured), who is dominating the tournament like few ever have. Five goals and seven assists in five Gold Cup matches represent totals just this side of stunning, and he has immediately established an on-field rapport with U.S. striker Eddie Johnson, one that will keep the Panamanian back line busy Sunday.

(MORE: Donovan is streaking in the Gold Cup)

Donovan has played in more Gold Cup matches than anyone in history, so he surely knows the terrain and the historical context. Even he has been surprised by how the United States has flattened the field, not really stretched a bit, not even in the quarterfinals or semifinals.

“I guess I would have expected it to be a little more diff up to this point,” he said.
“But we know Sunday is going to look different than any of these [previous Gold Cup] games have, we are aware of that. But I think it’s a testament to this group and how we’ve done. We haven’t played the same lineup at all. One guy goes out, the next guy comes in and does a great job. It’s just been like that. We’re circulating [personnel], guys are confident, they are eager and excited. Everybody is playing really well and it’s been fun to be a part of it.”

Clobbering the field thusly is new, but success in the tournament isn’t. The United States won the semi-annual tournament in 1991, 2002, 2005 and 2007 and had four runner-up finishes around those titles.

There are a couple of potential hitches in all these Gold Cup good tidings. One is the suspension of manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who was dismissed from Wednesday’s semifinal win over Honduras for slamming the ball to the field. He was frustrated over a perceived lack of protection for U.S. players.

Top assistants Martin Vasquez and Andi Hertzog will pull sideline duty, presumably while in some kind of communication from Klinsmann.

There is also the Blas Perez factor. Perez isn’t just the top man for the small Central American nation, he has also established himself as one of the region’s premier goal-scorers. Physical, skillful and full of great instinct near goal, he also scores regularly at club level for FC Dallas.

Perez, scorer of Panama’s opener in Wednesday’s semifinal 2-1 win over Mexico – a surprise only to those who had not watched this determined bunch previously in the tournament – wasn’t around in June when the United States had a relatively easy time with Panama in a final stage World Cup qualifying match in Seattle. Perez was out with a stomach illness.

Along with young striker Gabriel Torres (who was just signed by Colorado of MLS), they will provide the toughest test yet for a U.S. back line without too much to do so far. There have been occasional vulnerable spots revealed: last week, Salvadoran forward Rodolfo Zelaya reminded us that DaMarcus Beasley isn’t a natural defender, and generally gave the United States something to worry about. Also add to the “worry list” defending on set pieces, which has been dodgy.

(MORE: Klinsmann has important center back choice to make)

Another potential obstacle is all the Gold Cup miles Donovan has already logged. Until the program’s all-time goals and assists leader was subbed off 22 minutes before the end on Wednesday, having already supplied two goals and an assist in the comfortable 3-1 win over Honduras, he had played every minute in the tournament. Getting just that little break near the end Wednesday will help, Donovan said, also complimenting the job U.S. Soccer’s training and fitness staff have done while managing the competition’s brutal pacing. This will be the United States’ sixth match in 20 days, with travel between each stop.

“Generally, at this point in my career, after about 60 minutes, you really start to break down, your body starts breaking down physically,” Donovan said. “So, even having a rest for about 20 minutes [Wednesday] will help a lot for Sunday.”

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.