Questions linger in U.S. camp over Clint Dempsey’s fitness for tonight’s qualifier vs. Costa Rica

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A potentially important sidebar has fallen between cracks ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica, lost amid the dominant narrative of Friday’s match in the San Jose suburbs, the silly and probably highly ineffective gamesmanship at high levels from the Costa Rican federation.

(Serioulsy, guys … do you Ticos believe you are doing anything other than adding motivational fuel to the U.S. fire with these hijinks?)

Clint Dempsey will hardly be at his best tonight. Dempsey will surely play when the teams meet at Costa Rica’s Estadio Nacional, but there is an awareness in the U.S. camp that his spring and his stamina just aren’t where they need to be.

A source close to the U.S. team confirms that manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff has assessed that Dempsey is well behind where the “full-on Dempsey”  would be, currently at roughly 60 percent of ideal fitness.

(Considering the advanced testing performed to begin every U.S. camp, percentage estimates are probably a little more than just “estimates.” There is a real, quantifiable percentage of potential maximum output to be gleaned from all the blood work, hydration assessments and scientific physical tests that go on.)

Klinsmann apparently regards Dempsey at or near the same place at this time one year ago, when his holdout from Fulham workouts and 11th hour transfer into Spurs meant missing about a month of team training.

(MORE: U.S. – Costa Rica rivaly reaches new heights)

Interestingly, Dempsey started both World Cup qualifying matches at this time last year even though he was clearly and substantially less that 100 percent fit. He even scored in the first contest, a 2-1 qualifier loss at Jamaica. Four nights later, Dempsey started again in a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Columbus.

But if we got back and examine those matches, Dempsey’s influence was marginal other than the early goal vs. Jamaica. The effort and the will were there; it’s Clint Dempsey, after all. But the legs and lungs simply weren’t properly prepared for two international level matches, plus the tax of travel, etc.

So why wouldn’t Dempsey be more than the estimates in camp of 60 percent or so? He has, after all, been with the Sounders almost a month, and has gone 90 minutes for Sigi Schmid’s MLS side three times now. (Plus almost an hour in his debut off the bench against Toronto back on Aug. 10.)

source: Getty Images
Klinsmann is 24-8-6 with the U.S. national team in two years.

It’s a good question, one that Klinsmann has not addressed specifically. But the manager has talked in the past about differing approaches by MLS clubs, most of which concentrate on recovery between matches rather than building longer-term endurance.

Plus, Dempsey did a lot of promotional work as he joined the Sounders last month. Appearances on the national talk show circuit are a major and figuratively profitable publicity score for MLS. But there is an undeniable price to pay in terms of short-term performance. Dempsey, through no fault of his own, in fairness, because he would always prefer a soccer field to a TV studio, is paying it now.

Best guess: Dempsey will start tonight but will perform on a relatively short lease. After all, Klinsmann (pictured above) has something he did not at this time last year, when the manager forced fitness on Dempsey by playing him all 90 minutes in those two big qualifiers, even though the U.S. attacker was clearly not at his best.

This time Klinsmann can potentially turn to Landon Donovan, who was in the “Dempsey” role for that entire, swashbuckling Gold Cup run. And come to think of it, a Donovan-for-Dempsey switch somewhere between the 60th and 70th minute doesn’t sound like a bad plan at all, does it?

(MORE: Who might start tonight for the United States?)

“Amazing Game” – Pep’s Man City reinforces UCL, PL bid with Napoli win

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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If it hasn’t already, Manchester City is one win away from making a Premier League-UEFA Champions League double a very real goal.

The hosts had to scrap to hold onto all three points against visiting and Serie A leading Napoli on Tuesday, giving away two penalty kicks after building a 2-0 lead at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-1 Napoli ]

But Ederson stopped Dries Mertens effort, and opened the door to further dreaming for supporters of Pep Guardiola‘s dreamy deep squad.

It wasn’t 7-2, or even 4-0, but Guardiola was gushing after a mutually adventurous football match between two electric squads.

“It was an amazing game. Outstanding. Both wanted to play against high pressing. Napoli are one of the best teams I have faced in my career. If you are not aggressive without the ball you have no chance to survive.”

There’s still a very tricky match week in the fourth round at Napoli, and we wonder whether Guardiola will prioritize the Premier League visit from Arsenal later that week. And, even better, it may not be a necessity to prefer either: The Gunners will have one less day’s rest thanks to Europa League play, aren’t exactly inspiring this season, and playing stars twice in four days isn’t the end of the world with an international break following the Arsenal tilt.

City’s status on the precipice of the UCL knockout rounds means it can focus on the Premier League, as well as a kind draw that should put them within three rounds of a League Cup title. While Burnley has been quite good this season, no one’s debating that City could pile up points for their table lead as 2017 nears its conclusion with an away Manchester Derby on Dec. 9:

Sunday – vs. Burnley (PL)
Oct. 24 – vs. Wolves (League Cup)
Oct. 28 – at West Brom (PL)
Nov. 1 – at Napoli (UCL)
Nov. 5 – vs. Arsenal (PL)
Nov. 18 – at Leicester City (PL)
Nov. 21 – vs. Feyenoord (UCL)
Nov. 26 – at Huddersfield Town (PL)
Nov. 29 – vs. Southampton (PL)
Dec. 2 – vs. West Ham (PL)
Dec. 6 – at Shakhtar Donetsk (UCL)
Dec. 9 – at Manchester United (PL)

Consider that United will be finishing an 8-day stretch which includes Dec. 2 at Arsenal, Dec. 5 vs. CSKA Moscow, and the derby. That makes Wednesday’s United trip to Benfica an even bigger affair. If both sides have already sewn up the knockout rounds, the derby will be especially better.

That’s neither to say City’s two-point lead atop the table and win at Chelsea weren’t impressive enough, nor that it couldn’t have overcome a slower start to both the PL and UCL campaigns. And City did start last season red-hot, too.

But it’s already foolhardy to bet against Pep’s men given the path ahead. Given Real Madrid’s relative struggles, and Barcelona’s uncertain status, it feels like City has as good a claim to UCL favorite status as anyone outside of Paris Saint-Germain.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below.

Spurs’ Kane: Draw at Real “shows how far we’ve come”

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After pressuring Raphael Varane into an own goal, Spurs striker Harry Kane saw Keylor Navas make an outstanding late stop to ensure a 1-1 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.

“I thought I did everything right, I opened my body, I put the ball where I wanted to and he made a very good save,” Kane said.

[ RECAP: Real 1-1 Spurs ]

While the red-hot Kane sure would’ve liked to find the match-winner, he knows what Spurs just achieved in Spain against the back-to-back UEFA Champions League winners.

And that, he says, is pleasing. From the BBC:

“We are happy. Of course they are going to have chances but we played well and made it tough for them. A point at Bernabeu, you would take that every day of the week. It shows how far we have come as a team.”

Kane is right, this Spurs side looks far more self-assured than its predecessor. It shows the process of learning to compete in the UCL.

The return date at Wembley Stadium is Nov. 1, where a point would all but seal Spurs’ spot in the knockout rounds thanks to Borussia Dortmund’s stunning 1-1 draw at APOEL Nicosia.

Real Madrid 1-1 Spurs: Lovely Lloris!

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An error from each time in its own box and outstanding goalkeeping gave Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid a 1-1 draw in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday at the Bernabeu. (video)

Raphael Varane recorded a 28th minute own goal, but Serge Aurier gave away a penalty as Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for Real Madrid at home in the 43rd minute.

Hugo Lloris and Keylor Navas were the stars of the show, with Lloris making the lion’s share of saves.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Both teams are well-positioned to advance, with seven points. Spurs have the tiebreaker advantage, but both Tottenham and Real are six points clear of Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia after a surprising draw in Cyprus.

Early nerves were apparent for Mauricio Pochettino‘s men, but Tottenham grew into the game and took an early lead.

Concerned with the presence of Harry Kane, Real defender Raphael Varane saw a cross move off his pegs and behind Keylor Navas to put Spurs ahead.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The lead was short-lived, however, as Spurs back Serge Aurier cut short Toni Kroos’ rare foray into the 18, and Ronaldo buried the ensuing penalty kick.

Lloris made an outstanding save on a point-blank Karim Benzema header in the 54th minute.

A moment later, offside Ronaldo flashed a sitter over the goal before the whistle alerted viewers to his offense.

Ronaldo had another chance stymied by Lloris as Real really began to pile on pressure past the hour mark.

Kane had a 71st minute chance against the run of play off a gorgeous pass from Fernando Llorente, but Navas got low quickly to redirect Kane’s point-blank shot wide of the far post.

Navas made another save when Llorente cued up Christian Eriksen for a chance, and the Dane then sent in a corner that led to a Davinson Sanchez’s header wide of goal.

Llorente was quite good in the second half in this surprise two-striker move from Mauricio Pochettino, and the Spurs boss also deployed Danny Rose for a season debut off the bench.

Man City 2-1 Napoli: Early goals stand up

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Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored early, and Ederson stopped one of two penalty kicks as Manchester City held off Napoli 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

Amadou Diawara converted Napoli’s second PK after Dries Mertens saw his effort saved.

Napoli is six points back of Group F leading City, and three behind Shakhtar Donetsk.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Raheem Sterling was near the spot to blast an open rebound past Pepe Reina in the ninth minute.

Then Kevin De Bruyne swept an incisive pass into the six for Gabriel Jesus to slot home, giving Man City a 2-0 lead in the 13th minute.

Kyle Walker saw yellow after giving a penalty kick in the 37th minute, and Napoli star Dries Mertens had his chance to pull one back denied by Ederson.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

John Stones‘ impressive growth at City continued when he slid to stop Marek Hamsik from testing Ederson in the second half.

Fernando took down Faouzi Ghoulam to give Napoli a second penalty kick, and this time it was converted thanks not to Mertens, but Diawara.