Is it really so hard to understand Clint Dempsey’s move to Major League Soccer?

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It’s fair if you want to question Clint Dempsey’s move from the premium shelf of world soccer back into well-drink world of MLS.

It’s OK to wonder if the native Texan risks a slight decline in quality without the drive required to reach Premier League standard, not to mention the competition for spots on a Spurs roster that’s full of talent, regardless of whether Gareth Bale keeps his locker at White Hart Lane.

But some of the reaction for American fans is sliding toward “incredulous,” and that is misplaced overreaction.

Is it really so hard to understand why Dempsey would make this move? Actually, the better question is this: Is it really so hard to understand why Dempsey would grab this golden opportunity?

“Golden,” I say. Because however much you heart Dempsey, however much you value what the man has done for U.S. Soccer, you have to know this: another golden goose of a contract was not coming along for the 30-year-old striker.

The inexorable sands of time expire all too quickly in professional sports, as we know. Who can blame any man or woman for grasping that understanding with a disciplined ferocity?

His $8 million salary represents a healthy raise – and then some. Again, there is simply no way Dempsey would have such a whopper of contract dangled before him again.

(MORE: Dempsey to Seattle: $9 million fee, $8 million salary)

Some early reports had Dempsey in the $7 million a year range with Spurs, which always sounded high. (Dempsey even said on Twitter at the time that the figures were inaccurate.) Even if that amount was correct, considering the cost of living in London and higher tax structure abroad, it’s safe to say the Texas man has measurably improved his financial lot today.

It’s also fair to point out that Dempsey left Fulham to chase Champions League glory. But the reality stands: he is not in Champions League this year. And there is absolutely no guarantee that Spurs will be any closer to the world’s best club competition come next May.

The other consideration that probably isn’t getting enough recognition is playing time. Simply put, nothing is more important for a player going into a World Cup year. Dempsey did appear 43 times for Spurs, but he started in just 22 of Tottenham’s Premier League matches (i.e., the club’s most important ones).

Reports had circulated late in the spring that Andre Villas-Boas was willing to unload the versatile Dempsey, in part because he was too, well, versatile. The manager prefers specialists for White Hart Lane duty. It was logical to assume that playing time for Dempsey wasn’t going to improve significantly, although it might have remained static.

(MORE: Spurs confirm Dempsey’s sale to Major League Soccer)

Bottom line here, he is moving from a place where minutes where hardly guaranteed, into an address where he is a lead-pipe lock for starts and playing time. With 34 MLS matches, plus playoffs, U.S. Open Cup, potential CONCACAF Champions League contests and the lucrative, high-profile exhibitions Seattle can command, Dempsey is likely to feature in 40-plus matches a year.

(And by the way, have you been to a match at CenturyLink? That place rocks. Eat your heart out Euro soccer snobs … contests at Seattle’s downtown ground easily match the electricity at most grounds of the Old World.)

Yes, the standard is lower in MLS. But what does “standard” matter in the event that Dempsey’s minutes began declining around White Hart Lane. Who knows what he was being told by Villas-Boas with regard to how the minutes would be parsed with Spurs?

Again, we can have conversations about whether this move will squeeze the best from Jurgen Klinsmann’s top choice striker / attacking midfielder. That’s fair.

But any failure to at least consider why the man would make such a move is probably rooted in one thing: European soccer snobbery, this notion that American professional soccer isn’t worth the grass that it’s being played on – or the artificial surface, I suppose.

Major League Soccer is not the Premier League, clearly. But up to four other U.S. starters next year in Brazil could be MLS men, so it’s not like this is something rare.

Athletes cannot be blamed for doing what is best for themselves and their families. If a few U.S. fans are disappointed because they won’t get to see their hero in a Premier League shirt, that’s on them, not on Dempsey.

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

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.