COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sure, it seemed like a foregone conclusion, but official passage into a World Cup is still a moment to celebrate for U.S. Soccer, whose players, coaches and legion of supporters can now bask – officially so – in the high achievement of advancing into a seventh consecutive World Cup.
The United States will indeed be going to Brazil in 2014, having now reached every World Cup since last failing to qualify in 1986.
The United States did its part Tuesday against thanks to a huge Eddie Johnson second half goal and a late insurance strike from noted and longtime Mexico killer Landon Donovan. When Honduras tied with Panama down in Central America (finishing about an hour later, and therefore preventing more immediate player celebrations), Jurgen Klinsmann’s team was officially “in” with two games to spare.
So, 2-0 once again for the United States national team against Mexico. Of course. (“Dos a cero” is Spanish for 2-0, just so you know.) Just like in 2001, 2005 and 2009, all in Columbus, all against Mexico in those past World Cup qualifiers. Just like the 2-0 score from El Tri’s painful loss to the United States in a 2002 World Cup elimination match.
“Dos a cero! … Dos a cero!” as the packed crowd at Crew Stadium taunted Mexico mercilessly. Along with “You’re not going to Brazil … You’re not going to Brazil!” – a chant that was one thing against little Panama … but this was mighty Mexico! And with the border rival thrown tossed further into turmoil, the crowd just might be right.
“This is a huge, huge evening for all of us,” Klinsmann said “The team gave everything tonight, from the first second on, the effort, how they were dedicated to each other. The crowd, unbelievable. Amazing, amazing crowd here in Columbus, and it pushed these guys. … Obviously, they are enjoying the moment now.”
Mexico remains in fourth place in the six-team final round qualifying group. That would get beleaguered El Tri into a play-in series against New Zealand.
The crowd at Crew Stadium, brilliantly red and so alive in song through most of the night, had gone just a little quiet as the game, a bit frenetic early, slowed due to the heat. But the smoke bombs went flying as Johnson rose high and muscled his way out of a late challenge from Diego Reyes to slam in the Landon Donovan’s well-aimed 49th minute corner kick.
Johnson has four goals in his last six matches for the national team. He has 12 career goals in World Cup qualifying, tied for second best all-time.
Second half sub Mix Diskerud did much of the work on Donovan’s late goal, but Dempsey had just enough of a touch to get the official assist. Donovan, barring injury, will be going to his fourth World Cup.
Mexico had time and space early against a U.S. midfield having some trouble sorting itself out. U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard needed to be alert throughout the first 45, with big saves and plenty of traffic to work through on Mexican corner kicks.
Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman eventually located their bearings in the middle. And while neither will remember Tuesday as their best passing night, they effectively clogged the middle against a Mexican team that prefers to attack right down the middle channel.
U.S. center backs Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson were big in the middle, too, getting caught a little too high a couple of times in the first half but managing out outstanding nights otherwise. Right back Fabian Johnson was solid in defense as well before his halftime removal due to a hamstring strain.
Klinsmann, as he has done so often, had some lineup surprises for everyone. Fabian Johnson became the latest stop-gap at right back, replacing Michael Orozco, who had struggled to make the adjustment from his usual center back position against Costa Rica.
Fabian Johnson, who has mostly been a left back and a left-sided attacker for the national team, had not played at right back for Klinsmann since the 1-0 win over Mexico last August at Azteca Stadium – back when seeing El Tri struggle at Azteca was a bigger deal.
Also out of favor was Graham Zusi, whose impact Friday was minimal. Alejandro Bedoya replaced Zusi along the right. And as expected, the veteran Goodson, among the foursome of reinforcements summoned over the weekend to replace the injured and suspended U.S. men, was the choice to partner Gonzalez at center back.
Finally, to fill the midfield gap Klinsmann rewarded Beckerman for all that steady Gold Cup work with his biggest start in any match since the 2009 MLS Cup final.
While Mexico managed to find some gaps and make things uncomfortable for the hosts right away, the United States needed about 15 minutes for its first real scoring opportunity. After Clint Dempsey was fouled, Donovan found Gonzalez at the far post on a free kick. The big center back arranged a dandy shot for Jones, who swung big but went high with his left foot.
Mostly, though, without Michael Bradley’s abilities as a midfield conduit, early versions of the United States attack were all about long balls over the midfield, which was having trouble putting any passes together. There was way too much room, meanwhile, for Mexican midfielders, who had time to pick out passes.
Given the Mexican’s possession and ability to look dangerous in spots, Beckerman and Johnson were lucky to escape early bookings after late fouls.
The hosts slowly began finding their way forward. Dempsey, Donovan and Jones all came close, going wide or seeing big shots softened by deflections. Eddie Johnson rose well to head a corner kick at goal, but right at goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona.
Once the United States got its goal, Howard was never tested as the United States kept Mexican scoring star Javier Hernandez and the rest of El Tri mostly bottled up.
With Manchester United set to visit Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the Special One will be returning to his former stomping grounds, a place where he spent six tumultuous seasons spread across two separate reigns.
While Jose Mourinho insisted he has “no hard feelings” for his former club and the way things ended, but did not mince words the subject of his former boss came up.
While Mourinho insisted he has “respect” for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, telling Sky Sports, “We were never friends. We were never close to each other. So he is just a person that I keep very respected.”
Mourinho also said that, even if The Blues wanted to, “They couldn’t delete me from Chelsea history. They belong to my history too. No bad feelings,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. The owner, he decided to sack me…the fans, they have no power. They show day by day, match after match, that they wanted me, but in this profile of club, the fans have no power. In some clubs, especially in some Latin countries, the format of the club, the fans have real power on the board and with the president and owners, but here they have no power so Mr Abramovich decided to sack me, but I left with not one bad word about anyone or anybody at the club.”
The 53-year-old said the titles he won at Chelsea were proof that “I did my job.” He finished by saying that no matter the treatment from fans, he will always hold Chelsea as he does all his other stops. “From me, you are not going to have, ever, a bad word about any one of my previous clubs,” Mourinho said. “I keep always a very good feeling. It doesn’t matter what is going to happen. But, it is my nature. It is my job. It is my new club. On Sunday I will go there to try and do my job.”
In the midst of building a new youth academy, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has laid out his ideal setup for training youth players to be stars for the German giants.
Rummenigge told fans that his club would seek out youngsters to develop, but his strategy differs from the method of recruitment used in England. Heavily.
“We don’t want to bring some 10- or 11-year-old to Munich like the English do,” Rummenigge wrote in the club’s magazine. “You could almost consider it kidnapping and I would have moral reservations about that. I believe 14 is a good age for a youngster to come to Bayern.”
The Bavarians have produced some world-class talent in recent years, including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and current captain Phillip Lahm. However, the club has also become known for poaching top talent across the Bundesliga as well, most recently having snatched Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund and rising young star Josh Kimmich from Stuttgart. This has led to a period of dominance, but at the expense of parity in the Bundesliga title race.
The new academy, located just down the road from Allianz Arena, is expected to be completed next summer.
Rummenigge continued to take shots at English clubs, next targeting the amount of players they train, saying, “Imagine this: Chelsea currently have 41 promising players out on loan, including Andreas Christensen at Borussia Monchengladbach. I know that Manchester City can train up to 250 players at their facility, together with their parents. It’s virtually like a real-life village. But we want to be more cautious. We don’t want a football factory.”
In recent months, a number of top La Liga clubs have been hit with transfer bans for breaking FIFA rules regarding youth transfers, but it seems something has found its way under Rummenigge’s skin with regards to the behavior of English clubs.
From League One in 2009 to the Europa League in 2016 – some perspective: Inter won the Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble under Jose Mourinho in 2010, while Saints won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and finished 7th in League One — Southampton’s fans didn’t lose sight of the miraculous turnaround in their fortunes, even if one of the biggest nights in club history ended in defeat.
“There were tears in my eyes when I first arrived and saw it all,” Saints fan Adam Gray recalled as he stood in central Milan on Friday. “It was because it was a recollection of where we’d been and we are now is where we want to be. It was a realization that now we are here.”
For Saints fans “here” is Europe and they took over Milan for the past few days with thousands chanting along the Navigli Canals, the square in front of the Duomo Cathedral and all over the cosmopolitan, thriving hub of Italy’s economy.
As they reveled in their dream away day in Group K – Saints had never made the group stage of the Europa League before and had brief and sporadic campaigns in Europe in the 1970s, 80s and in 2003 — there was always a lingering feeling to remember just how far they’ve come.
Six years ago to the week of the Inter game Saints lost at Huddersfield Town in the Championship, just a few months after gaining promotion from the third-tier.
Back then the San Siro and Milan seemed a million miles away. Reaching Europe was a pipe dream which was talked about in the halls of St Mary’s following Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr saving the club from extinction in 2009. Nobody truly believed it would happen. But it is. Saints fans couldn’t stop pinching themselves. This was happening.
Lifelong fans John McManus and Martin Wolfe stood in the San Siro and looked down at their team taking on Inter: “It’s just surreal,” they both said, with a wry smile.
Close to 7,000 Saints fans packed into the away end of the San Siro, with Internazionale happily giving an extended ticket allocation after the initial batch sold out quickly.
It Itwas said to be one of the largest ever allocations for a team who had gone to the San Siro. The Milanese people were stunned as retro Panini stickers of Saints legend Francis Benali were popping up all over town, plus a friendly atmosphere was present throughout the three-day Southampton takeover with no hint of any trouble with the locals.
This was a once in a generation, maybe once in a lifetime, experience for Southampton’s fans.
THE BUILD UP
Southampton’s players and manager, Claude Puel, knew how much this game meant.
In the prematch press conference at the San Siro stadium on Wednesday, ProSoccerTalk asked manager Puel, who’d only took charge this summer, if he would playing his strongest team given the significance of the occasion.
“I don’t know my best team because all the time we can change five or six or nine players. For the moment we continue a good way with all the players,” Puel said. “It’s important to keep all the squad with a good concentration. If we want to stay with good results and a good physical level for all the games it’s important to respect all my players.”
“For example, of course this game is very important to us but after it is very important also the game away against Manchester City. All the games are important but for me my job is to have every time a good balance on the team with good players and good feeling between them, a good acquaintance. This is my job.”
The job of the fans was to get behind their team and that they did.
Walking around the streets of Milan, St. George’s banners were hung up with “Pride of the South” and “Southampton FC” emblazoned across them. There was dancing in the streets and late night chanting in bars. It was everything you could expect from a big European game. Except, Saints aren’t usually involved in matches like this.
This whole European campaign is seen as not only a reward for finishing sixth in the PL last season, but also their journey since the brink of extinction in 2009. It tastes ever sweeter given the fact they were knocked out of the Europa League in the playoff round the season before. That was only their second European campaign since 1981 and the thought of away days like this were snatched away from them at the final hurdle.
Then again, it could be a lot worse.
“I was talking to people and asking, what was our lowest point? Before the start of that 2009-10 season we had -10 points and no owners and were going to places like Rochdale and Hartlepool. Now we are in Milan and we are going to Prague. It’s incredible. It’s been a journey,” said Rich Caddick with a wide smile on his face.
Milan’s three airports — Linate, Malpensa and Bergamo — were packed with smiling Saints fans as they streamed in on journeys across from England. Some caught trains from Switzerland and neighboring Italian cities and some even traveled from New York City and other far flung destinations for this game. Many would stay for days after the game and some arrived early this week.
Everywhere you looked old friends were bumping into each other in bars and squares and for a few days Sotonians felt at home in Milan.
The contrast between the traveling band of supporters and the Milanese businessmen and women was stark. In amongst people dripping with Louis Vuitton and Prada were Saints fans tucking into a slice of Pizza with a pint in one hand and belting out a song.
On game day well over 7,000 Saints fans descended on Milan as tales of supporters buying corporate tickets and tickets in the home end filtered through. It felt like a lot more than 7,000. A lot more. From the square around the Duomo Cathedral in central Milan to the bars lining the Navigli Canals in the south of the city, red and white stripes were everywhere.
Before the match the plea from fans was simple: “Play the strongest team. This is it. This is the game we care about.”
A victory would give Southampton one foot in the Europa League knockout rounds in their first-ever appearance in the Europa League group stage. That didn’t happen with Charlie Austin, Steven Davis, Jose Fonte and Nathan Redmond not in the starting lineup.
The first time you walk up to the San Siro, it takes your breath away.
Especially on a foggy evening where the upper reaches of the iconic venue are shrouded in mist. It all added to the occasion.
Inside the stadium the crowd of just under 30,000 was made up almost one quarter Southampton fans.
To put this feat and occasion into American sporting terms, it is like a small college basketball team getting to the Sweet 16 and playing a powerhouse school at an iconic venue. It was a case of small town against big town. A small, yet proud, club against one of the biggest on the planet. We could keep going on with the comparisons but you get it. The stature of the two sides on the global stage is vastly different.
It’s not David vs. Goliath but Thursday’s game was a situation Saints’ fans never thought they’d be in.
“In 2008 we were thinking we were going to lose our club and all of a sudden we are now in the San Siro. It’s amazing,” lifelong Saints fan Karen Arkell said. “There are Saints fans who would have never experienced anything like this and there are younger a generation coming through who are getting used to it.”
The game itself saw Saints throw everything at Inter but somehow fail to score. From Jay Rodriguez’s early miss to James Ward-Prowse‘s shot which whistled wide, then both Charlie Austin and Virgil Van Dijk had two great chances to score but Samir Handanovic, Inter’s goalkeeper, was the clear man of the match as his manager Frank de Boer saluted him after the game.
At the final whistle Southampton’s fans were deflated. Down but not out was the message as their quest to reach the knockout rounds of the Europa League and continue this European adventure carries on.
The singing carried on, both at the final whistle (see below) and all over Milan as a mood of celebration was still around (along with a tinge of disappointment) as the cool Milanese air felt a little chillier than it would have had Saints secured a famous win.
“I am absolutely gutted. We could have had them. We should have won,” Gray reflected. “We just need to invest in putting those chances away. It put a little dampener on the mood after the game but at the end of the day, we are still here. There’s progress and we are enjoying that. The atmosphere was awesome. Better than any Saints game I’ve ever been to.”
The fact that pretty much every Saints fan was “gutted” at losing 1-0 to Inter Milan at the San Siro says it all. They’ve come a long way in a very short space of time.
“It’s just surreal,” said Wolfe and McManus said again as they sat in a trendy bar near Navigli Grande as Saints fans mixed with locals.
Speaking after the game several players saluted the supporters with captain for the night Virgil van Dijk perfectly summing up the emotions from everyone connected with the club.
“I’m so proud to be a Southampton player with those supporters. They deserved more and so did we.”
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
As strong coffee was sipped readily on Friday morning along Milan’s busting streets after a few days of celebrating Saints’ resurgence which culminated in this game, there was a realization that this may be as good as it gets.
Two mid-size teams in the Premier League, Southampton and Leicester City, are both in the group stages of Europe courtesy of their unexpected top six finishes last season. But with perennial powers strengthening this season, it will be a lot tougher to reach this tournament for the foreseeable future.
“This year with so much investment at Everton and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool improving, we won’t finish in the top six. I’m sure,” Gray said, reluctantly. “This is here for us to enjoy. This is it. Until the next time…”
Until the next time arrives (if it does at all), Saints’ fans will follow their team wherever they go. Do fans of the smaller clubs appreciate these occasions more?
“I think they appreciate it more than big clubs,” Saints fan Rob Peters said as the sun shone down on his red baseball cap. “We may not be in Europe for another few years. The big clubs take priority, so, as Saints fans, we have to just go for it.”
“Big clubs do it every season. They take it for granted,” Ruddick said. “They know they are going to come away again next year. We don’t. So we make the most of it while we can.”
May 2010🗓 – Inter win treble under Mourinho – #SaintsFC 7th in League One & won JPT
Now they’ve had a taste, Saints feel like they belong at this level.
Flicking through Gazzetta Dello Sport on Friday, the player ratings showed that Saints’ team ranked higher than Inter, as did the manager, and the man of the match was Inter’s goalkeeper. Little Southampton went to the San Siro and roughed up the 18-time champs of Italy, who were scratching their heads as to how they won.
“For a game that wasn’t so crunch — last night’s game wasn’t so important in the grand scheme of things, really — for a game like that, the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Gray admitted. “Everyone was right behind them. We’ve had a great few days and we couldn’t have asked for anything else… Other than a win.”
With home games against Inter and Hapoel Be’er Sheeva and a trip to Prague in late November (Saints only have 1,700 tickets for that game, which they’ve already sold out, but speculation says that double that are amount are expected to make the trip), everything is to play for in Group K with just three points separating first from fourth. Can Saints make it through to the knockout rounds as one of the top two teams?
“I’m a little bit nervous about it now after last night,” Peters admitted. “If we lose the next game at home against Inter we are in a little bit of trouble. We are good enough to go through. That’s for sure. We totally dominated them last night.”
There was a lingering feeling of what could’ve been (the amount of Saints fans I heard say ‘I just wanted to see us score at the San Siro’ was outrageous) among supporters but tales of parties in night clubs, bars and elsewhere long into Thursday night and Friday morning were rife.
“People were definitely deflated after the game but then we left the stadium, we got back into the city and then just kept singing in the pubs… Until five o clock this morning!” Caddick laughed. “The whole experience was the most important thing.”
This experience will never leave Saints’ fans and players. It is something few clubs of their size get to taste and it was a moment to savor.
Can it happen again? Can Saints’ qualify for Europe by finishing in the PL’s top six this season?
“It is just beautiful,” Gray said as he looked along a busy side street ahead of his girlfriend flying out to meet him for a quick vacation until next Tuesday. “The atmosphere has been great. It is just great to be here and now we wait for the next one.
When that next one is, we will have to wait and see. Fans are already signing about making their way to Stockholm, Sweden, where the Europa League final is being held on May 24, 2017.
Although that may be a tad hasty, Southampton’s trip to Milan showed the team from the biggest city on the south coast of England is ready for the biggest of stages.
With fans landing back home, the home game St Mary’s against Inter Milan in two weeks sold out early on Friday morning.
Europa League fever continues to grip Southampton and their fans don’t want it to end.
A pair of important yet relatively unsung players could make things interesting at the top of the table this weekend.
Tottenham, sitting third in the Premier League standings, travel to Bournemouth in an early Saturday game without critical defender Toby Alderweireld.
The 27-year-old Belgian is the Premier League’s newest Iron Man, having played every single league minute for the club since he joined in the summer of 2015, a massive string of 46 matches that ended this past weekend when he was forced off after an hour against West Brom with a knee problem.
Alderweireld’s injury was a let-off, with the club initially fearing worse but scans midweek showed no lasting damage. However, he has been ruled out for this weekend, and for the first time Mauricio Pochettino will have to craft a teamsheet without his most reliable player. Pochettino moved Eric Dier back to central defense for the midweek match against Bayer Leverkusen, but with Dele Alli and Victor Wanyama teaming up to replace Dier in front of the back line, Spurs struggled to create much of anything and were ultimately lucky to find themselves with a point from a 0-0 draw.
Should Pochettino wish to return Dier to the defensive midfield so as not to lock his more creative players down, he could use 22-year-old Kevin Wimmer to deputize at central defense. The Austrian defender has made just 10 Premier League appearances for Spurs, all coming in a row last season during a spell without Jan Vertonghen, a spell which saw the club register seven wins and a single loss conceding seven goals.
Just a single place above Spurs in the Premier League table sits Arsenal who face a similar situation. Santi Cazorla, the often unsung midfield playmaker in a squad among more flashy stars, will potentially miss this weekend’s date with Middlesbrough thanks to an Achillies problem he suffered after being kicked by a Ludogorets player in the midweek Champions League match. With Granit Xhaka suspended and Aaron Ramsey also injured, the Arsenal midfield is looking relatively thin, but none of those other misses bear similar to that of Cazorla’s.
Cazorla has yet to return to his stunning form from two seasons ago, with injuries having derailed his consistency since, but he still remains a key part of the Arsenal machine. The Spaniard has started every Premier League match this season but one, mostly back in a deeper midfield role, pushed back alongside a defensive midfielder thanks to the form of wingers Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott. Without Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny will be forced into the side. Coquelin started the season in poor form and has seen less of the field since, while Elneny has been a squad player since joining in January.
The deeper role has seen Cazorla’s productive numbers decline, with Mesut Ozil’s creativity now front and center, but the 31-year-old’s importance as the link between back and front remains strong, with a 91% passing accuracy through the season’s first eight matches. Elneny and Coquelin will have to figure out a way to recreate Cazrola’s ability to push the team forward to break down Middlesbrough’s stout defensive shape.
Lastly, Chelsea is looking resurgent this season under Antonio Conte, and while not injury related, they could be without a similarly productive piece for this weekend’s massive matchup with Manchester United. One of the only bright spots in Chelsea’s lost season last year, Willian has maintained his ability to produce from the edge this season , but could be sidelined on Sunday due to the loss of his mother.
Through eight matches this season, the Brazilian has concocted 23 chances for his teammates, a stunning rate that has him third in the Premier League despite having missed two of those eight games. Should he continue this pace, Willian would end up with 110 chances created this season, a number that would have sat him second last season behind just Mesut Ozil’s 125.
Last time out, Chelsea didn’t miss Willian against a shell-shocked Leicester City side that seemed to unravel after Diego Costa‘s seventh-minute goal, but against Manchester United it seems unlikely that Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses could again fill the shoes of the Brazilian. With Oscar also possibly out, Conte will need to rely even more on his outside backs in the attack, leaving the wings potentially exposed to the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard.
The top of the table is suffering from some important losses, and those could see chaos reign this weekend.