Five key U.S. moments that shaped the United States’ successful World Cup qualification campaign

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – What you will notice about the critical moments as the United States reached a seventh consecutive World Cup: so many are clustered around that March turning point, as a team that could have easily wandered off the so-called Road to Rio found its better self and put things right.

(As for “Five key moments …” Clearly, clinching over Mexico qualifies as a key moment; but as that seems so obvious, and it happened just a few hours ago, meaning we’ve written plenty about it already, we drilled down a little further and picked something else.)

Sept. 11, 2012: U.S. beats Jamaica

The team had lost in Jamaica just days earlier, and the chorus of Jurgen Klinsmann doubters was getting louder. A loss that night in Columbus could have left the United States in a real tizzy, struggling mightily just to get out of the semifinal round. Plus, the symbolic weight of losing on 9/11 would have been a further sore spot to deal with. But the United States dominated the visitors that night, and Herculez Gomez’s free kick goal sealed the deal.

March 18, 2013: U.S. arrives into Denver

U.S. players and coaches arrived into Denver just as The Sporting News piece fell, pulling back the covers on some unpleasant business inside Camp Klinsmann. The least flattering parts of the story were or were not accurate, depending on whom you ask, but there was clearly something not quite right inside the locker room.

Meetings were had, things were said and, in the end, the entire camp seemed to benefit from that cathartic moment. They found a way to bond – even if was over their public outing of their inability to fully bond. Klinsmann and some of the players may not say so publicly, the United States national team benefitted from the story, getting things out in the open. (And what a talker it was for the rest of us.)

source: Getty ImagesMarch 22, 2013: U.S. beats Costa Rica in the Snow Clasico

Of course, the renewed sense of togetherness and good feeling could only “take” through a win over Costa Rica. And what a surreal night it was, as heavy snow blanketed the Dicks Sporting Goods Park field in a way that will never be forgotten, with something that only resembled soccer being played through all the fluffy white stuff. The Ticos were incensed, but never mind that.

Jermaine Jones had his best night in a U.S. shirt (finally demonstrating his value to U.S. supporters, who were understandably having trouble seeing it) and victory was had through an early Clint Dempsey goal … and what an important victory it was.

March 22, 2013: U.S. draws with Mexico

The scoreless draw with Mexico at fabled Azteca may not look as impressive now, given El Tri’s mighty struggles of the moment. But it was a big deal then, not only as a rare point earned at Azteca Stadium, but in helping sow further chaos in the Mexican camp.

Don’t forget, the United States’ was making significant changes, still ushering in the Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler era at center back, with former captain Carlos Bocanegra having to step aside. And Brad Guzan was in goal for the injured Tim Howard, so critical squad depth was being built at the same time.

Honestly, a win at Azteca a few months prior was just as important. It was just a friendly, but the historic 1-0 win that day did two things: It demonstrated to Klinsmann’s team they could, without a doubt, beat Mexico at Azteca. That helped tremendously in the March draw.

And as the positive results in friendlies piled up (a win at Italy, a huge win over Scotland, etc.) the messages that Klinsmann was steadily delivering were taking hold. Players were “buying in.”

June 7, 2013: Jozy Altidore scores again

Jozy Altidore’s ongoing success of that moment – he scored in a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Kingston – was emblematic of the overall program’s swell of success.

He was on a serious roll. The team was on a serious roll. The United States followed that result by traveling to Seattle and never giving poor Panama a moment to breath in a commanding 2-0 win. The strong stuff carried over as another crew of players propped up the highly successful Gold Cup bid, and the dash for World Cup 2014 in Brazil seemed to gain unstoppable momentum through that lofty June-July progression of accomplishment.

 

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).