Week 2: “View from the Booth” with Arlo White

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When watching soccer on TV, have you ever sat there and wondered what the man behind the microphone really thinks?

Maybe this will go someway to helping with that.

In our new series “View from the Booth” NBC Sports’ lead soccer announcer Arlo White will be joining us each week to talk about the hot topics in the beautiful game and preview the weekends upcoming Premier League action.

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In Week 2, the leading voice of soccer in the USA talks about the two huge games he’s covering this weekend, Aston Villa vs. Liverpool and Manchester United vs. Chelsea, the newly promoted teams and discusses Arsenal’s situation as the transfer window deadline nears.

Ready? Here’s my Q&A with Mr. White, just imagine his dulcet tones responding to these questions… Magnificent.

Have Manchester United silenced the doubters and do you expect them to push on against Chelsea on Monday?

I wouldn’t say they silenced the doubters, what they did was remind everyone that they are the Premier League Champions and are well capable of producing ruthless performances. It was fascinating to be at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday to witness the start of the David Moyes era. I watched Wayne Rooney warm-up before the game and his body language didn’t scream enthusiasm and delight at being there. But when he came on in the 2nd half he was terrific and set up two United goals. OK, he didn’t celebrate with his team mates, and plenty has been read into that, but it was a demonstration that he still loves playing the game and is prepared to be professional when called upon by Moyes to perform. Of course, that is the least he can do whilst he’s still a United player on massive wages, but the eyes of the world were on him, and anything less than giving his all for the cause would have been a huge story.

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The Wayne Rooney saga still hasn’t been solved. But Arlo was impressed with his application vs. Swansea.

Can they kick on against Chelsea? They are very capable of doing so. Robin Van Persie and Danny Welbeck appear to be in excellent early season form.

I think Jose Mourinho has been as canny as usual. Saying that Chelsea will be ethical and won’t bid for Rooney before Monday’s game is savvy, but then hinting that they will bid after the game still created a potentially de-stabilising situation for Rooney and United, ahead of such a huge early season game.

Before the Manchester United vs. Chelsea game, you are at Aston Villa v Liverpool on Saturday. What can we expect from that match?

I’m really looking forward to this one. It could be a terrific open game.

Villa have had a busy first week, but a fruitful one. To open the season with trips to Arsenal and Chelsea inside five days and come away with 3 points (which could have been 4, as Jose Mourinho acknowledged) is a huge achievement for a young team who struggled so badly last season. I know most of the transfer talk during the off season has centred around Bale, Rooney and Suarez, but one of the greatest signings of recent Premier League history has been Villa securing Christian Benteke’s signature on a new contract.  It was a stunning turn around, as many assumed he was going to a bigger club. His goal at Chelsea on Wednesday was terrific, striking a left foot shot inside the near post took tremendous poise and skill.

It’s also great to see Gabby Agbonlahor firing on all cylinders at the start of the season.

As for Liverpool, I think things are looking really encouraging.  It may sound remarkable given how many goals Luis Suarez has scored over the last couple of seasons, but Liverpool’s win percentage is far better without him (64%) than it is with him (39%). It goes without saying that he is a tremendous player, but it’s equally obvious that Liverpool have learned to cope without him in the short term. Daniel Sturridge got off to a flier against Stoke, he’s now scored 7 goals in his last 6 Premier League games. I can’t wait to watch Coutinho.  As former Liverpool great Peter Beardsley said this week, “he could be the new Kenny Dalglish.”  That is praise indeed.

Can any of the newly promoted teams get off the board this weekend? They have some pretty tough games. 

All games are tough in the Premier League, and I wonder which newly promoted team will find their feet first.  Hull manager Steve Bruce told the NBC commentary team last week that he sees the Norwich game as very significant for his side. It is sandwiched between the opener at Chelsea and a visit to Manchester City, so they must get something from the game.  Bruce called that sort of game Hull’s ‘bread and butter’, and told us his side need 10 wins to stay up this season. I’m sure their new signings Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore will start the game, and they must build on their 2nd half performance at Chelsea, where they passed the ball with much more confidence.

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Arlo predicts another tough weekend for the newly promoted teams.

As for the other two, Crystal Palace may fancy themselves to get something at Stoke, who are revamping their style of play under Mark Hughes. The atmosphere at Cardiff will be magnificent, but they face an incredibly tough task against a Manchester City side who looked very slick in their opening victory over Newcastle.

How has the situation at Arsenal affected their chances of reaching the top four? Mounting pressure on Wenger, but surely it’s too early to panic? 

I am a believer that in life, nothing occurs in a vacuum. I’m sure Arsenal’s reticence in the transfer market has convinced other sides (Spurs anyone?) that they are more vulnerable than ever, and that it’s time to spend big and pounce on the opportunity. Arsenal enjoyed a soothing win at Fenerbache during the week which has all but secured their place in the Champions League group stage, and perhaps that will be the final trigger for them to go out and spend some of their massive war chest. Of course, Spurs can wield enormous spending power because of Bale’s value, but I’m equally sure that Arsenal’s wobbles have convinced them to spend big right now to seize the moment.

Mourinho’s men have got off to a flying start, do you expect them to be clear at the top this time next month? 

Did you see Manchester United and Manchester City last weekend? If Chelsea are clear in a months time then they will have enjoyed a magnificent start to the season (including a win at Old Trafford next Monday) and City must have wobbled early on (with a defeat v United?) Chelsea have 6 points out of 6.  Hazard, Oscar and De Bruyne played very well together in the 1st half against Hull, but they were perhaps fortunate to take all 3 points against Villa on Wednesday.  Chelsea are going to be a major power this season, but clear  at the top in a months time? I doubt it.

source: Getty Images
Arlo tips Sam Allardyce’s men to keep on improving.

Out of Southampton, West Ham and Aston Villa… which team is most likely to make the top 10 this year? Early form shows all 3 teams are much improved. 

On the early evidence, all three clubs can feel very optimistic.  Villa have been impressive. We’ll know more about them after Liverpool’s visit on Saturday. Southampton pulled off a major coup by signing Osvaldo from Roma.  He’s a real live wire both on and off the field, so much will depend on Mauricio Potchettino’s ability of focussing his mind on Football and getting the very best out of him. It’s always interesting when small to medium sized clubs start spending unprecedented amounts of money. It really could go either way, but Pochettino seems to be an intelligent, level headed manager.

Big Sam is delighted with life at West Ham. They enjoyed a great opening day win and have Striker Andy Carroll returning from injury. With Downing on one flank, and Jarvis on the other, they have the skilled wide men to deliver the ammunition for Carroll. Kevin Nolan started with a really nice goal.  Sam told us last week that Nolan is in great shape and in good form, so thats big news for the Hammers.

To answer your question, why not all three?

Big shock results this weekend? Fulham piling more misery on Arsenal? Palace to beat Stoke?

I’m not sure that there is a major shock in store this weekend. I just can’t see Cardiff beating Manchester City, but they will give it a real go.

I think it’s a massive weekend for Newcastle United, who host their former manager Sam Allardyce and West Ham. The Magpies were very poor on Monday night at Manchester City. Sure, they were de-stabilised with Arsenal’s untimely bid for Cabaye, but their performance was listless and the most worrying of any Premier League team on the opening weekend (including Arsenal). The Toon Army will walk up to St James’ Park full of their usual enthusiasm but with plenty of trepidation too. They will be desperate to see a response from their side, but will fear that another unconvincing defeat will act as the prelude to a long season fighting relegation.

That shouldn’t happen with the squad they have and they don’t have the disruption of Europa League Football this season, but the omens weren’t great on Monday Night.

Enjoy the weekend everyone!

Star-Spangled Spurs: Tottenham eager for US return

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With Tottenham Hotspur heading to the U.S. for their preseason tour this summer, Spurs’ club legend Ledley King embarked on a whistle-stop trip of their three host cities.

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King, 36, spent time in New York City, Orlando and Nashville last week as Tottenham’s fans Stateside gear up to see Spurs’ first full U.S. tour since 2014.

Tottenham did play the MLS All-Stars in 2015 but that was a brief one-game trip during preseason. Now, they’ve gone all-in as Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will play Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando on July 22, AS Roma at Red Bull Arena on July 25 and finish the tour in Nashville on July 29 where they take on Manchester City in an all-Premier League clash.

Pro Soccer Talk caught up with King last week and the club ambassador revealed that everyone connected with Tottenham is excited to be heading back to the USA.

“It is something everyone enjoys,” King explained. “We have a huge fanbase in the States and on previous trips I have been able to spend some time with the supporters groups out here and it’s forever growing. It’s really important we put on a show for them and try and give back to them.”

[ MORE: PL giants announce preseason tours

King — Spurs’ former captain who was forced to retire early at the age of 31 after chronic knee problems — met with Tottenham supporters groups in NYC, Orlando and Nashville during his trips, as well as taking in some iconic sights from all three cities.

One thing which stood out to the towering former central defender was the dedication Spurs fans in the States have for their team.

“It’s amazing,” King said. “A lot of the supporters make trips over to White Hart Lane when they can and they are obviously very clued up on everything that’s happening surrounding the club, all the recent moves, they are all up to date. Whenever I come away, no matter how far away from home, I bump into Spurs fans everywhere which is great.”

Pochettino’s players will be based on the east coast of the U.S. for the trip this summer but they will soak up three very different cities. From the hustle and bustle of NYC to the theme parks and heat of Orlando and laid-back sights in Nashville, Tottenham’s players will get a real taste of America this summer.

“Every city is quite different, the weather especially!” King laughed as he’d traveled from a frigid NYC to steamy Orlando in 24 hours. “The Spurs fans are all there and they greeted us in every city we went to which was great. They will get fully behind the team when the lads come out this summer. I would imagine most of the boys have been to New York before but I don’t think many have been to Nashville. It is great that they can experience what a nice place it is and I’m sure the team will be looking forward to it.”

On King’s quick trip the former England international was able to catch up with Man vs. Food star, and huge Spurs fan, Adam Richman in NYC, plus pose for a few classic photos. With U.S. national team stars Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, DeAndre Yedlin and current center back prospect Cameron Carter-Vickers all calling White Hart Lane home over the years, Spurs’ links with the U.S. are strong.

Like many of Spurs’ current first team players, King is also a huge fan of U.S. sports. Harry Kane is a massive New England Patriots fan, while the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Eric Dier and Dele Alli are avid followers of many American sports.

King is no different and, somewhat unsurprisingly, he is a big fan of a certain NBA team from San Antonio…

“I’m big into basketball and the NBA at the moment. I’ve always followed players. I was a big Kobe Bryant fan years ago but there are players I like now, LeBron James, Steph Curry. I like the San Antonio Spurs, obviously…” King laughed. “I like their organization and the way they are run. They’ve had an infrastructure in place and keep performing at a high level. I’m a big basketball fan and I’m trying to get into the NFL more. I’ve met quite a few players the last few years on their trips to London and our training ground and I’m really looking forward to all of the NFL teams coming over to London and Tottenham once our new stadium is ready.”

 

With Spurs’ new 61,000 capacity stadium at White Hart Lane scheduled to be ready for the 2018-19 Premier League season, they’ve signed a 10-year deal with the NFL to host at least two games per season in London. That will keep fans of both types of football on either sides of the pond very happy.

As for fans in the U.S., King applauded their dedication and revealed the different reaction PL players receive when they come Stateside.

“I think what makes it special is their passion and love of the game,” King said. “In England, the fans are spoiled with being able to come to games and seeing players. When players and the likes of myself are able to come over to this side of the pond and meet fans in the flesh, the fans in the U.S. seem genuinely shocked that we are actually there. There is always a big surprise and we get a good reaction when we are in their company or in their country. That’s a nice treat.”

With so many teams coming to the U.S. from all over Europe each summer to train, play against each other in preseason tournaments and try to capture the hearts and imaginations of the American public, what will Spurs, a team who has battled for the PL title the past two seasons, aim to gain from their time Stateside?

“We have an exciting team and an exciting project with a young group of players and I think the U.S. fans like the underdog, ” King said. “We are not a team who goes out and spends huge sums of money. We try to do things the right way and play the game the right way. I think the fans appreciate that and we would like to grow our fanbase. The other thing in coming out here is that we get the weather and the opposition. The opposition we will be competing against is at a very, very high level, and that will enable our players to get the right preparation for the new season. On all levels it works really well.”

Another thing which has gone really well in recent years is the popularity of the Premier League in the U.S.

There’s no shying away from the fact that more and more fans of the PL are popping up across the country and preseason games involving Premier League clubs are selling out. Has King noticed a difference in how soccer is now perceived compared to previous trips across the pond?

“Just coming here on this trip, you can see the interest in the Premier League is growing,” King said. “I’ve never been to Nashville before but going there surprised me. When we did the press conference so many people wanted to come down and everyone was passionate about the game. Overall, people really know their stuff about the Premier League and in MLS with great players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard coming over recently and obviously Robbie Keane doing so well in LA, all of these little things add up to people looking at the Premier League. It is the most exciting league in the world. Americans like their fast-paced action and that’s what you get with the Premier League.”

Fans Stateside this summer will be getting to see the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United up close and personal.

How will USMNT line up vs. Panama?

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Following on from their stunning 6-0 win against Honduras on Friday to get their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign back on track, Bruce Arena and the U.S. national team face Panama in Panama City on Tuesday.

This will be a totally different test for the USMNT.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

With veterans Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey all available for selection, Arena will call on them to help guide the likes of Christian Pulisic through what will be a hostile environment in Panama.

The U.S. currently sits in fourth place in the Hexagonal standings with three points (that means they occupy the play-off spot) one place and one point below Panama while Mexico is top on seven points and Costa Rica sit in second place on six points. Right now, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama will qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

A win for Arena’s men would be very handy indeed, especially with a trip to Mexico coming up this summer, but a point on the road in humid conditions in Central America is nothing to scoff at either.

Arena is without both John Brooks and Sebastian Lletget through injury, as the USMNT head coach hinted that he could make up to four or five changes from the team which beat Honduras.

Below is a look at a few options for how the U.S. can line up in Panama on Tuesday.


JPW’s pick

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Jones —-

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Most likely XI

—– Howard —–

— Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bedoya —- Bradley —- Jones —-

—- Dempsey —- Altidore —- Pulisic —

 

Defensive XI

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Cameron —-

— Bedoya —- Dempsey —- Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Thoughts

My pick sees four changes to the starting lineup from last Friday’s big win. Tim Ream would come in for the injured Brooks at center back, while Graham Zusi would start at right back and Geoff Cameron slots in at center back to replace Omar Gonzalez who looked shaky against Honduras. In midfield having a more defensive option in Jermaine Jones could be the smart play but that would mean losing Darlington Nagbe who did well against Honduras while Jones was suspended. Alejandro Bedoya would be a straight-swap for the injured Lletget as he would line up alongside Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic in support of Altidore.

The more defensive option would see Cameron partner Bradley in central midfield and Gonzalez keep his place at center back, while the more likely option for Arena is just three changes with Ream in for Brooks, Bedoya in for Lletget and Jones in for Nagbe. If it ain’t broken, there’s no need to fix it and Arena will not want to upset the rhythm of his side who looked so balanced and clinical against Honduras. Having Jones back from suspension will help navigate this tricky road trip where a point is a good result and that’s a totally different scenario to the must-win mentality adopted for last Friday’s game.

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

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Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

[ MORE: Conte hails Eden Hazard

This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

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Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

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All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.