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.”

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.