Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Jozy Altidore

Clint Dempsey could become second-tier U.S. player with move back to MLS

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SEATTLE — United States national team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann was not shy in his assessment back in January that captain Clint Dempsey “hasn’t made s—.” And that was before the Texan spurned a chance at the UEFA Champions League to return to Major League Soccer.

Klinsmann’s main message at the start of the calendar year was that another level always exists for Dempsey to reach toward. In his introductory press conference Monday, Dempsey said the coach is entitled to his opinion, but the two had not spoken in the process of him signing for Seattle Sounders FC:

I haven’t had the opportunity to really sit down and talk to him about everything that’s gone on. I’ve been busy with my family and really thinking about the decision and trying to make the best decision possible for us.

It’s something that we will talk about, but like I spoke with Sigi [Schmid, Sounders FC head coach], I’m coming here, (and) I’m still going to have that pressure to succeed, pushing me every day to make sure that I can be the best player that I can be and help the team be the best that they can be.

I’m not going to let up or slow down or slack — I’m going to keep pushing myself, keep working hard and make the most of where I’m at. I’m happy to be here in Seattle.

We’ll have those discussions, but from my standpoint, I don’t see there being a difference there because there are players still in MLS that get called into camp, and they still perform at a high level. I expect to continue doing the same.

MLS-based players Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Omar González, Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson all played major roles in the U.S.’s June matches of World Cup qualifying. However, their levels of sharpness and contribution were markedly different from those of the European-based players, such as Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and Jozy Altidore.

The center back tandem of Besler and González has had its costly lapses. Evans was, at best, a temporary stopgap at right back this summer. Zusi’s play has dropped since the adrenaline of getting his first real chance with the national team has worn off. After scoring in front of his home crowd in Seattle, Eddie Johnson was nearly invisible in Salt Lake.

Meanwhile, Bradley continues to run the midfield, Howard (and his back-up, Brad Guzan) looks sharp as ever, Fabian Johnson provided multiple key runs and balls down the left flank and Altidore exploded for three goals in three June qualifiers.

Perhaps MLS players can perform at a “high level,” as Dempsey put it on Monday, but it’s definitely a level below the highest.

Then there’s the Landon Donovan conundrum.

The former U.S. star who has not featured in World Cup qualifiers under Klinsmann was the best player in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Granted, it was against primarily “B”-level players (and with “B”-level players), but that performance seemed the most likely to translate to success on the highest international stage.

Perhaps Dempsey can be another exception to the general trend of European superiority. Like Donovan has, Dempsey will probably go on loan to a European club this winter, allowing him to stay up on the competition before next summer’s World Cup.

At least for now, nobody seems prepared to step into Dempsey’s second-striker starting role on the U.S. team. When qualifiers start up again in September, after he has played in a small handful of games for the Sounders, observers should get a better idea of how playing in MLS will affect his general level of play.

But while Zusi, Besler and González have not yet reached the peak of their careers, Dempsey and Donovan both have. It’s not a question of getting better for them — it’s a question of maintaining good form against many players who simply are not on their level.

“I just feel that it was the right time,” Dempsey said on Monday. “I wanted to come back when I was in my prime. I had a good time in Europe. … I look back with no regrets. I thought in my time over there, if you want to crunch numbers, I was successful, and I want to continue doing the same here.”

For his part, Klinsmann has not yet spoken to the media about Dempsey’s decision. Based on his past comments, it’s difficult to see him saying too many positive things about Dempsey playing for the Sounders.

“There is always another level,” Klinsmann said in January. “If you one day reach the highest level, then you’ve got to confirm it every year.”

After January camp, USMNT looks to rosters for World Cup, Olympic qualifying

at StubHub Center on January 31, 2016 in Carson, California.
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The United States men’s national team finished its experimental January camp with a 2-0 record, and now trains its eyes on World Cup and Olympic qualifying.

The last part is critical not just because of the ramifications of a potential second-successive Olympic absence for the men’s U-23 side.

[ USMNT: Tops Iceland 3-2 | Knocks off Canada, too ]

The Yanks have to deftly divide their player pool because March 25 and 29 are not only the dates for the next round of World Cup qualifying matches — a home-and-home series with Guatemala — but also the dates for the U-23s’ pair of matches with Colombia.

That’s why Jordan Morris isn’t likely headed to Guatemala City, and the same is true for impressive January camper Jerome Kiesewetter and new Chelsea defender Matt Miazga.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

Bobby Wood, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are also eligible for the U-23s, but there’s the rub. All three are in good form for country, and only Yedlin isn’t playing well for his club (That’s because Sam Allardyce isn’t using him much at all. His substitute appearance against Liverpool was his first action since Jan. 9).

New England midfielder Lee Nguyen impressed Jurgen Klinsmann during January camp, and it’s hard to ignore the impact of Steve Birnbaum’s goal and assist.

Assuming health, here’s our best guess at who’s making the squad for Guatemala on March 25 and 29. It’s worth noting that six MLS clubs play on March 26 (NYC, New England, Vancouver, Houston, DC and Dallas):

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson

Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Jonathan Spector, Tim Ream

Midfielders: Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Lee Nguyen, Darlington Nagbe

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson

Report: Atletico’s Fernando Torres has interest from MLS, NASL

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - Copa del Rey: Round of 16
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Spanish outlet Marca claims that a number of North American sides are among the clubs chasing Fernando Torres.

The Spanish striker has only scored more than 11 goals once since 2009-10, and is uncapped since 2014. But that doesn’t mean clubs from China to to the U.S. and the UAE to Japan aren’t interested in the 31-year-old.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

The Marca report claims three MLS teams are interested and also name drops the New York Cosmos of the NASL, who’ve recently brought Venezuelan legend Juan Arango on board.

It’s hard to imagine anyone outside the MLS rich sides taking a risk on Torres. Maybe Montreal would look to reunite him with Didier Drogba, and Torres certainly has experience combining with New York City’s David Villa. As for the third… Orlando City? Chicago?

Your guess is as good as ours, though it could be moot if this is solely about money. China continues to spend well.

Difficult fixture run looms as Aston Villa aims for great escape

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  Joleon Lescott of Aston Villa (3L) celebrates with team mates as he scores their first goal with a header during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Crystal Palace at Villa Park on January 12, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Gabriel Agbonlahor is riding high, as the Premier League Player of the Week broke his duck this weekend and is thinking “great escape” for his Aston Villa side.

Villa has eight points in its last five matches, doubling its season total to 16. That’s still table bottom, but Remi Garde’s bunch would love to see their way out of the drop zone after a brutal start to the season under Tim Sherwood.

What would it take for Villa to pull that off, and avoid the first Premier League relegation in club history?

[ MORE: Premier League Team of the Week ]

Turns out, a lot.

There is no easy match in the next five, and Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are all on the schedule after that.

Villa next five matches
Feb. 14 – vs. Liverpool
Feb. 27 – at Stoke City
March 1 – vs. Everton
March 5 – at Manchester City
March 12 – vs. Spurs

The Villans do have three relegation six-pointers left, and two of those are at Villa Park with Bournemouth and Newcastle United. Villa also heads to Swansea City.

But Villa has to make up 12 points on the Cherries, 11 on Swans and eight on the Magpies. And while they are within two goals difference of Newcastle, they have eight goals to make up on Bournemouth and 11 to make up on Swansea.

That doesn’t include Sunderland and Norwich, sides four and seven points ahead of the Villans (though both have tricky runs left as well).

If Garde’s club is to make its escape, it will be close to unbelievable. That it will close with a match against Arsenal makes it even trickier, but that would be just the final impressive note in what could only be considered a Garde-conducted masterpiece.

VIDEO: Recapping the top stories from an intense Week 25 in the Premier League

JPW at Stamford Bridge
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What a weekend. Let’s relive it.

Round 25 of the Premier League provided plenty more thrills, shocks and excitement as two unlikely title contenders — Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur — are pushing ahead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Our own Joe Prince-Wright recaps all the major headlines from what could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the Premier League title race.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League news

Click play on the video below to join JPW as he battles the elements and checks in from outside Stamford Bridge in London following Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United.