Mexico v United States - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

Anxiety factor low, but opportunities still exist as U.S. readies to meet Jamaica in World Cup qualifying


KANSAS CITY – What a stinging irony, wonderful and just a little bit damaging all at once. By achieving something with flying colors, the United States has removed a little bit of valuable opportunity factor.

Here’s the deal:

The United States has qualified for the World Cup with two full games to spare. So that rings the bell of accomplishment, and pretty loudly. (Don’t think so? Look at Mexico, still fighting Friday for its World Cup life!)

On the other hand, qualifying for a World Cup was never the main mission for Jurgen Klinsmann and his team; it was always more of a weigh station along the road to Brazil, if we’re being honest. Getting to a World Cup was mostly a starting point for this group.

So any chance to improve as a group is a grand opportunity, right? Of course, but by qualifying 8 games into the 10-game final round, the United States has significantly diminished one of the few opportunities between now and next summer to assemble and test itself under pressure.

Ironic, eh?

But as Klinsmann likes to say, “It is what it is.” So the United States faces Jamaica at Sporting Park on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and on Spanish language UniMas), there’s virtually nothing on the line. Yes, the United States might possibly improve its chances of getting a more favorable draw in December when 32 qualifiers are placed into groups. But it’s a big “might,” and no one around the team seems to be talking or thinking about FIFA and its unpredictable, idiosyncratic seeding methodologies.

From the moment the United States clinched qualification – into a seventh consecutive World Cup – Klinsmann has been adamant that opportunities to fine tune would not be wasted, that his best players would be summoned.

There certainly are some opportunities here; 15-16 players probably have locks on roster spots for next summer in Brazil, which means seven or eight spots may still be there for the taking, with perhaps 14-15 players eyeballing those spots.

Friday represents one of five official FIFA dates between now at the opening of training camp for World Cup 2014, so if a Sacha Kljestan or a Brad Davis or an Aron Johannsson (just to name a few) wants to be noticed, he has to “say something” to the coaches on Friday against the Jamaicans, and he had better says it loud and say it strong.

Still, the mood at training on a brilliant fall Thursday afternoon at Sporting Kansas City’s Swope Park seemed jovial and quite loose. Again, that’s about a match that doesn’t mean anything. (By the way, there isn’t much on the line for the Jamaicans, either. The Raggae Bozy are in last place and have virtually no chance of getting that fourth-place playoff spot.) Is there a different feel to this U.S. camp compared to others?

“There’s not as much anxiety coming up the game,” American midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “If we were in a different situation, like Mexico or Panama, you could feel the pressure mounting. Here it’s all about just putting in the work, becoming a better team and getting ready for Brazil.”

Beckerman did mention those opportunities. There are more of them due to injuries or other concerns for front line men like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Omar Gonzalez. They are all in good shape in terms of getting to Brazil, but they aren’t in Kansas City today.

There is even some opportunity factor, although a different kind, for guys already in good shape to make the roster. (Yes, so much of the talk for the next six months is going be “roster chatter,” so we’ll go back to this topic again and again.)

For instance, the injury to Gonzalez means Matt Besler will require a central partner. Klinsmann said on Thursday that Geoff Cameron’s best spot is at center back, even if he plays right back for Stoke City and proved he could hold his own this summer as a holding midfielder. That versatility will help get former Houston Dynamo man to Brazil, but if he gets a shot at center back Friday alongside Besler, Cameron could possibly improve his positioning in the depth chart at that position.

It’s another chance for DaMarcus Beasley to show that he can hold down the left back spot, that he’s more than just a stop-gap there. (Remember, Beasley was an emergency option just a few months ago at left back.)

source:  Brad Evans may find himself at right back Friday, but veteran Steve Cherundolo remains in the conversation. So any chance for Evans to demonstrate his abilities cannot be wasted.

Between Sacha Kljestan (pictured left) and Mix Diskerud, there’s probably only room for one versatile, hybrid midfielder. Diskerud seems to have pulled ahead, so Kljestan may need to think more along the lines of “making up ground” on Friday.

“For all of us, it’s another audition,” said Landon Donovan, who is probably a little past the “audition stage” of his career, even if he is taking nothing for granted. “So at this point of the game, you really cannot take a step backward if you want to be on the World Cup roster. I think we all see it that way.”

Following Friday’s match at Sporting Park, the United States will close out final round qualifying four days later at Panama, inside Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.