Matt Besler & Omar Gonzalez

Five U.S. stars who’ve emerged during World Cup qualification

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After yet another “Dos a Cero” win against Mexico in Columbus on Tuesday night, the U.S. national team qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The USA’s qualification has been all but secured for quite some time now, but you never know until that fat lady starts flexing her vocal chords… Last night she sang loud and proud in Ohio.

So, now that the U.S. is officially heading to Brazil for the big dance next summer, let’s take a closer look at the qualifying campaign that got them over the line. One thing that popped straight into my mind is that plenty of USMNT players, who are now starters, weren’t even in the picture when WC qualifying began in 2011.

(MORE: Dos a Cero again! … United States qualifies for 2014 World Cup after 2-0 win over Mexico)

Let’s find out who which players have propelled themselves into the spotlight during the USA’s domineering display in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. There’s still two games left in October… but I think it’s safe to say that these guys have made a good impression.

And remember, these are five names who previously were out of the picture. But if we were looking for revival artists, Eddie Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Clarence Goodson have all shone.

source: Getty ImagesMatt Besler

On January 29, 2013 Besler made his U.S. debut in a dour -0 draw with Canada in Toronto. And ever since then, the Sporting Kansas City defender has looked as solid as a rock as the starting left center back. Having dueled against Besler as a youngster at Notre Dame, I’ve always rated his ability to read the game and step in where necessary to stop plays developing. But the most impressive aspect of his play since being called up to the U.S. squad is that his physical presence and pace hasn’t been lacking. In the crucial 0-0 draw at the Azteca in March, Besler was incredible in keeping Javier Hernandez off the score-sheet and stepped in to help the USA bring home Gold Cup success during the knockout stages. He’s an old head on young shoulders and the partnership he has with Gonzalez has seen them both flourish as defenders of international caliber. One question mark surrounds his experience heading into the World Cup, after Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell tricked the referee into giving Besler a yellow card to leave him suspended for the Mexico clash. But Besler will pick that experience up over the coming years where he will surely be a regular for the USMNT.

source: APOmar Gonzalez

Klinsmann’s overhaul of the central defensive position continued with another young defender from MLS stepping in to excel; step forward Omar. The 24-year-old LA Galaxy center back has formed a formidable partnership with Besler at the heart of the USA’s defense. Gonzalez’ stock has risen considerably since being drafted out of Maryland and recently he was handed a Designated Player contract by LA to keep him in the league. The towering Mexican-American defender has flourished with the increased amount of pressure on his shoulders and has hardly put a foot wrong since starting alongside Besler against Canada back in January. That “Why not?” interview about possibly representing Mexico at national team level seems a long time ago as Gonzalez has solidified himself as one of the essential parts of the U.S. roster heading to Brazil.

source: Getty ImagesGeoff Cameron

In Major League Soccer circles we all knew exactly what Cameron was capable of after being solid and dependable for the Houston Dynamo. Yet his move to Premier League Stoke City last August really caught Klinsmann’s attention after not appearing for the U.S. once in 2011. Able to play in a variety of positions, Cameron is to the USMNT what Owen Hargreaves was to England; Mr. Versatile. However he’s really made the right back slot his own during this qualifying cycle and a calamitous fall from grace aside, Cameron will be play plenty of minutes in Brazil. Some pundits aren’t big on Cameron stepping into midfield as a backup holding midfielder, and he has been shaky in recent games playing in that role. The loss to Costa Rica last Friday saw Cameron have a poor game and give possession away cheaply but his role for the U.S. going forward will surely be at right back instead of in midfield. He has a fantastic engine and epitomizes the team spirit Klinsmann has engineered over the last 12 months.

source: Getty ImagesGraham Zusi

Okay, some of his sparkle may have vanished in recent qualifiers… but it’s still been a breakout few years for Graham Zusi. The 27-year-old Floridian ousted Landon Donovan out of Klinsmann’s plans for most of 2013, and that takes some doing. But apart from that Zusi has matured and adapted to the pace of playing at international level and proved to be a valuable asset for the USA. As I mentioned, the Sporting KC winger lost his starting spot to the more experienced internationals in the 2-0 win over Mexico but he’s still a regular in the squad and has gone from a U.S. maybe to important squad member in the space of six months. Zusi made his full national team debut in 2012 and has definitely used this World Cup campaign to springboard himself into the World Cup picture. Training stints in Europe over the offseason put his MLS future in doubt but the Maryland product has since signed a new deal with SKC. A bright future lies ahead for Zusi as his battle with Donovan for a starting spot intensifies.

source: ReutersFabian Johnson

We all knew the Hoffenheim man was available and impressing in Germany but he was hardly a regular in the U.S. setup before this qualifying campaign began. One of the much talked about German-Americans Klinsmann helped bring into the squad, Johnson has been the biggest success story out of the likes of Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, Danny Williams and others. 25-year-old Johnson made his debut against Guatemala on 12 June 2012 and has been around ever since switching his allegiances from Germany in 2011. Now he’s a starter and richly deserves the chance to play in the World Cup in Brazil after switching . Johnson has operated in a variety of positions during the Hex, twice filling in a right back against Mexico to varying degrees of success but mostly starring down the left-hand side as a defender or pacey winger. Not afraid to take on a full back or whip in an inviting cross, Johnson’s link up play with the U.S. forwards has been key throughout qualifying success. A shoe-in for the left hand side when the USA lineup in Brazil next year.

Burnley’s Andre Gray charged by FA over Twitter posts from 2012

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Andre Gray of Burnley during the Premier League match between Burnley and Cardiff City at Turf Moor on  August 13, 2016 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)
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A Premier League player is set to be punished by English football authorities for discriminatory comments he made on social media more than four years ago.

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The comments made by Burnley striker Andre Gray between Jan. 9 and March 11, 2012 appeared anti-gay. They came to light on Saturday, when they were retweeted by other people after he scored his first Premier League goal for Burnley in the team’s 2-0 win over Liverpool. Gray released a public apology after the match.

Gray was charged with misconduct on Tuesday by the Football Association, which said the alleged comments “were abusive and/or insulting and/or improper and/or brought the game into disrepute.”

Gray said in his apology “the tweets were posted four years ago when I was a completely different person to the man I am now.”

“I have experienced a lot over the past four years and have had to take responsibility for a number of things in my life which has enabled me to mature and grow as a person since that time,” the 25-year-old Gray said.

“I have a lot of regrets regarding a number of things I’ve done in the past and realize I have made some big mistakes, none more so than these tweets, but I would like to stress that I’ve worked incredibly hard to completely transform my life since that time.”

[ MORE: Champions League roundup — Roma self-destruct; Celtic sneak in ]

Gray said he wanted to clarify that he was “absolutely not homophobic” and to “ask for forgiveness to anyone I offended.”

The FA said Gray had until Aug. 31 to respond to the charge.

“He has moved a long way in life,” Burnley manager Sean Dyche said Tuesday. “He’s made that clear with an apology and also to remind the club, `It’s four years ago, I’m a different person.’

“A lot has gone on in his life to get him where he’s got to, I think he made that clear. It was authentic what he said (in the apology).”

Gray was the top scorer in the second-tier League Championship last season, helping Burnley achieve an immediate return to the Premier League.

Arsenal, Stoke target Jones part of Mourinho’s plans, will stay at Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Wes Hoolahan of Norwich City and Phil Jones of Manchester United compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Norwich City at Old Trafford on December 19, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Other Premier League clubs might be interested in Phil Jones, but Jose Mourinho has no intentions of letting the 24-year-old future England captain Manchester United center back leave anytime soon.

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Mourinho and Man United have received multiple approaches for Jones this summer, but never entertained the idea of selling, according to the Guardian. Arsenal were said to have been interested earlier in the summer, while Stoke City are presently trying to pry the Blackburn Rovers academy product away from Old Trafford, as confirmed by Mark Hughes’ assistant, Mark Bowen, earlier this week.

Jones moved to Man United in the summer of 2011 for a fee believed to be north of $20 million. While he’s endured his share of hard times in his five seasons at the club, Jones would easily be a 30-$35 million player giving fees paid for comparable center backs in recent transfer windows.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup — Roma self-destruct; Celtic sneak in ]

While Jones is yet to see the field early in the 2016-17 season, he remains a viable option, along with Chris Smalling, behind $40-million summer signing Eric Bailly and midfielder-turned-defender Daley Blind. Over the course of a 38-game PL season, the UEFA Champions League Europa League, FA Cup and EFL Cup, a busy schedule and injuries will provide plenty of chances to impress the new manager and reclaim a regular place in the first team.

MLS preview: Galaxy, Sounders, Toronto FC hit the road midweek

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
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Previewing the biggest games across Major League Soccer on Wednesday…

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Orlando City SC vs. Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET (MLS Live)

Quick quiz: Which is the hottest team in MLS right now? Answer: It’s TFC, who are unbeaten in their last six games, a stretch which includes five wins and an aggregate score of 16-4. OK, so how are they doing it? Don’t ask silly questions. In those six games, Sebastian Giovinco, who’s again running away in the MVP race and will become the first back-to-back winner in league history (only Preki has ever been a two-time winner), has scored eight goals and notched four assists. He’s been even better this year than he was in 2015. His 2016 season tally currently stands at 16 and 11. He’ll likely be the first player in MLS history to notch multiple 20-goal seasons, if Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has 15 this season, doesn’t get there first.

It’s not only Giovinco, though, but the return Jozy Altidore which has allowed the Italian superstar the freedom, the space, and the hold-up play to thrive as he’s done. Giovinco has been given a free role by head coach Greg Vanney, and Altidore’s ability to occupy two center backs at once, along with his ability to hold the ball up and draw the opposing defense toward him, has resulted in Giovinco scoring a number of easy chances no player of his quality should ever be allowed to see. It’s amazing what happens when you build a team and system around your best player, rather than try to make that player fit into something predetermined. Three points on Wednesday would vault the Reds into first place in the Eastern Conference having finally pulled level on games played with New York City FC.

[ MORE: NYCFC’s Jack Harrison on meteoric rise — “It can only get better” ]

Chicago Fire vs. LA Galaxy — 8:30 p.m. ET (MLS Live)

After rattling off four straight wins over the majority of July, the Galaxy are suddenly winless winless in their last four, though they’ve managed to salvage three points during that period. During the current four-game stretch, the attacking trio of Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes have combined to contribute just one goal and three assists, all but one assist of which have come from GdS.

No team in the Western Conference has won more points away from home (14) than the Galaxy this season, while no team in MLS has won fewer home points (17 — or points, period, 22) than the Fire. All signs point toward a Galaxy victory, but this is a Fire side that has steadily improved bit by bit in recent weeks, culminating in their first road victory in 25 months last weekend. The Vancouver Whitecaps await the Galaxy on the weekend — can you say, “trap game?”

[ MORE: U.S. teen skipping college, heading to La Liga ]

Houston Dynamo vs. Seattle Sounders — 9 p.m. ET (MLS Live)

If TFC are the hottest team in MLS, the Sounders are the second-hottest and without a doubt the hottest team in the West. Since firing Sigi Schmid four weeks ago, the bunch in Rave Green are unbeaten in four games, now having won three straight. The signing of Nicolas Lodeiro has been the spark that breathed life into a dying season, but one could reasonably argue that Cristian Roldan’s emergence deep in midfield has meant just as much to a Sounders side that, for the first time all season, has found a strong base between the attack and defense.

Osvaldo Alonso is no longer being ask to play the box-to-box role in which he thrived for a half-decade, instead acting as the organizer and director in front of the backline, with Roldan, the 21-year-old with many miles left in his legs, covering large swaths of space in midfield. The biggest difference between Roldan and your typical defensive midfield in MLS? He can see a pass in the final third, and he can hit it when it’s on. Lodeiro creates plenty of space for Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey with his unbelievable range of passing, and that’s been a huge part of the eight goals the Sounders have scored in those three wins, but Roldan’s presence alongside Alonso has been just as important in allowing just four goals in four games.

EFL Cup roundup: Chelsea, Liverpool advance; Watford, WBA lose to League 1 sides

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23:  Michy Batshuayi of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal during the EFL Cup second round match between Chelsea and Bristol Rovers at Stamford Bridge on August 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images )
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Watford and West Bromwich Albion were beaten by third-tier opposition in the English League Cup on Tuesday, while fellow Premier League sides Liverpool and Everton enjoyed big wins in the second round.

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Chelsea was pushed hard by third-tier Bristol Rovers before also advancing to the third round with a 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge.

Watford lost 2-1 to Gillingham after extra time and West Brom was beaten 4-3 on penalties by Northampton after they finished 2-2 after 120 minutes.

Northampton famously ousted Liverpool in the 2010-11 competition, but the Reds easily avoided a so-called “giant-killing” this time round by thrashing Burton Albion 5-0. Daniel Sturridge came off the bench to score two goals and wrap up victory over the second-tier side managed by former Liverpool forward Nigel Clough.

Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino also scored for a full-strength Liverpool team, and there was an own goal.

“Very serious, very professional performance by my side,” said Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp, who added that second-half injuries to Emre Can and Origi were not serious.

Everton also had a substitute striker scoring a late double, with Arouna Kone’s goals sealing a 4-0 home win over fourth-tier Yeovil.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup — Roma self-destruct; Celtic sneak in ]

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte‘s decision to field a team largely made up of reserve players nearly backfired. Belgium striker BatshuayiMichy Batshuayi scored two first-half goals as Chelsea took a 3-1 lead into halftime, before Rovers scored a 48th-minute penalty and struck the crossbar as they went in search of an equalizer.

Devoid of European football this season, Liverpool and Chelsea will likely take the League Cup seriously. They are two of the most successful clubs in the competition’s history, having won it 13 times between them.

Stoke, Swansea, Hull and Crystal Palace were the other Premier League teams to progress to the third round, when clubs involved in Europe enter the draw that takes place Wednesday.

Peter Crouch scored a hat trick – including one goal from a scissor kick – in Stoke’s 4-0 win at Stevenage, Oliver McBurnie scored twice on his debut for Swansea in a 3-1 win at Peterborough, Hull beat Exeter 3-1 away and Palace was a 2-0 winner at home to Blackpool.

Palace gave a debut to new record-signing Christian Benteke, who played the first half before being substituted.

Derby beat Carlisle 14-13 on penalties to equal the most goals scored in a shootout in the competition’s history.