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.”

Conte drops hint about his plans for attacking unit

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LONDON — Antonio Conte‘s decision to play a fluid front three of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro worked extremely well against Barcelona in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw on Tuesday, but will he use that trio again in big games coming up?

[ MORE: Conte’s tactical masterclass ]

For the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clash at Stamford Bridge, Conte left his two recognized strikers, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, on the bench and opted for Hazard centrally with Pedro and Willian close by in wide roles.

Hazard went close twice, Willian twice hit the post before scoring Chelsea’s goal via a pass from Hazard and Pedro chased down Barca’s defense and helped set the tempo for a fine display which should have seen Chelsea win by at least two goals.

[ MORE: Three things learned from Chelsea-Barca

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk after the draw with Barca if he was happy with Hazard’s play in a false nine helped out by Willian and Pedro, Conte seemed to suggest that front three will be Chelsea’s attacking unit moving forward.

“I think our three strikers played very well, a fantastic game,” Conte said. “Willian, he played really well against Hull [in the FA Cup] and he scored twice and in the last three games we scored eight times and seven goals we scored with Pedro, Willian and Hazard. I think that they’re working very well. We must be pleased for the game, not for the final result.”

With huge games coming up against both Manchester clubs in the next few weeks in the Premier League, plus the second leg at Barcelona on Mar. 14, it appears Conte may well go with the in-form trio to create as much havoc as possible for opposition defenders.

Hazard in a false nine is an intriguing situation to unravel as the Belgian is almost certainly better suited to playing in a wide role or as a No.10 just off a targetman such as Giroud or Morata, but in this 3-4-2-1 system he has the freedom to interchange with Pedro and Willian and to roam across the forward line.

Having Giroud or Morata as Plan B seems to be Conte’s plan moving forward and against teams such as Man City, Man United and Barcelona, it may well suit Chelsea best to keep things tight defensively and unleash their speedy, tricky trio on the break.

Conte’s tactics to not start with an out-and-out striker may be questioned by many but if it works half as well as it did on Tuesday, expect Hazard, Willian and Pedro to be Chelsea’s go-to guys in a season-defining few weeks for the reigning PL champs as they aim to cement their spot in the top four, reach the FA Cup semifinal and advance in the Champions League.

Blatter: 2026 World Cup should be in Morocco

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Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter has backed Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid as he hit out at the joint-bid between the USA, Mexico and Canada.

The 81-year-old claims that joint bids for a World Cup are to be “rejected” after the 2002 World Cup and with voting for the 2026 hosts to take place on June 13 in an expedited process, it appears Morocco is gaining some traction among FIFA’s 209 member associations as the only alternative to a North American bid.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada bid to host the first-ever expanded 48-team tournament still seems to be the overwhelming favorite, but will comments like this help or hinder Morocco’s bid?

Blatter, the disgraced former long-time leader of world soccer’s governing body, is currently banned from all soccer related activity for six-years after being charged regarding a $2 million payment made between himself and the former UEFA President, Michel Platini.

Here’s the message Blatter sent out via Twitter, as the Swiss official is reportedly launching an appeal against his current ban which came after he announced he would step down as FIFA president in 2015 following several high level officials being charged with corruption by U.S. officials.

It is also worth noting that Blatter is still concerned about being extradited to the USA amid the ongoing FBI investigation into widespread corruption in the organization and doesn’t travel outside of Switzerland or Russia.

Brazil’s Gremio wins Recopa Sudamericana in penalty shootout

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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) Brazil’s Gremio has won the Recopa Sudamericana, beating Argentina’s Independiente 5-4 in a penalty shootout Wednesday night.

The two-legged final ended 1-1 on aggregate, with no goals scored after 120 minutes in the second.

The winners of last year’s Copa Libertadores overcame the holders of Copa Sudamericana after goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe stopped the last penalty of the series, taken by Independiente’s striker Martin Benitez.

The Recopa is played between the champions of South America’s two most important tournaments.

Independiente played most of the match down to 10 players after defender Fernando Amorebieta was sent off after 38 minutes.

The Brazilians made most of the pressure until the end of extra time, but failed to score.

Gremio also won the Recopa in 1996.

CCL wrap: FC Dallas disappoints; Club America struts (video)

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The CONCACAF Champions League returned Tuesday with Toronto FC’s 2-0 quarterfinal first leg win in Colorado, and a trio of ties began Wednesday across Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

[ WATCH: Fred’s vicious free kick ]

Tauro 1-0 FC Dallas

Veteran striker Edwin Aguilar scored a big goal, and goalkeeper Oscar McFarlane did plenty of good things as the Panamanian side struck a wild first blow against its MLS visitors.

Here’s a random fact underscoring how remarkable of a failure this would be for FC Dallas: Only six of Tauro’s roster members have their own Wikipedia page.

Deportivo Saprissa 1-5 Club America

Cecilio Dominguez and Mateus Uribe each bagged a brace, and Renato Ibarra also scored as the tournament’s top team sauntered into and out of Costa Rica on Wednesday. Club America has been to seven CCL finals, and one every single one.

Motagua vs. Club Tijuana — 10 a.m. ET

Honduran hosts hope to have a leg to stand on — pun intended — once the tie heads to Mexico.