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.

 

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

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Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.

Former Sunderland forward Scocco scores five goals for River Plate

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Veteran forward Ignacio “Nacho” Scocco is quickly endearing himself to the River Plate faithful.

Nearly three months since joining River, Scocco scored an incredible five goals in the second leg of his team’s Copa Libertadores quarterfinal matchup with Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Scocco scored a first half hat-trick and added two more in the second half as River turned around a 3-0 deficit heading into the second leg.

Scocco had a mostly frustrating spell in 2014 ahead of the World Cup with Sunderland, joining the club as they staved off relegation by one point. Scocco failed to score for Sunderland in eight appearances, all off the bench.

However, since then, he returned to his native Argentina and starred for his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys before moving this summer to River as a replacement for Sebastián Driussi, who completed a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Here’s a look at all of Scocco’s goals Thursday evening.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

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Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

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Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.

Paulinho has silenced his critics at Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Brazil midfielder Paulinho wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes when he arrived in Barcelona.

Fans made it clear they were not too thrilled to see the club spend 40 million euros ($48 million) on a defensive midfielder who was playing in the Chinese league.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

They were expecting a blockbuster signing after Neymar’s departure and ended up getting a player they knew very little about.

Paulinho didn’t have any links to the club’s youth academy and his style apparently didn’t suit the team’s traditional ball-possession game.

A video of Paulinho struggling to juggle the ball during his presentation at Camp Nou Stadium didn’t help, going viral and igniting even more criticism against the player and the club.

But things have changed quickly in favor of the low-key, hard-working Brazilian.

After five Spanish league games, Paulinho has done enough to mollify the critics.

He has two goals, including a late winner against Getafe last weekend, and showed some of the prowess that led him to success in Brazil and made him an indisputable starter for his national team.

He thrived after coming off the bench in his first four matches, and eventually earned a start on Tuesday against Eibar.

“I’m happy with how things have gone for me,” Paulinho said. “I’m glad that I’m playing well, it helps me get adapted to the club. I’m playing alongside some great players and they have all been supporting me a lot.”

The 29-year-old Paulinho has added versatility to the midfield. He is solid as a defensive midfielder but also excels with attacking runs that often surprise defenders.

That’s how he scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 win against Getafe, making a run between defenders and entering the area to fire a firm shot into the far corner. His second goal was a header in a 6-1 rout of Eibar.

“He will end up being a cheap signing,” Brazil teammate and former Barcelona player Dani Alves said.

Paulinho has a lot more presence in the area than some of the team’s other midfielders, including Ivan Rakitic and even Andres Iniesta.

It was this that made Paulinho a key player in the Corinthians team that won Club World Cup in 2012. His success with the Brazilian club prompted a move in 2013 to Tottenham, where he disappointed in his two seasons before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.

Paulinho, who signed a four-year contract with Barcelona, said he had regained his confidence while playing in China. And his good performances with Brazil also helped.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. He can help us in many different ways,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Barcelona’s next game is on Saturday at Girona. The Catalan club has won its first five Spanish league games and has a two-point lead over second-place Sevilla.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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