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

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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.

MLS Snapshot: Sounders cruise, 3-0, as Galaxy struggles continue

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy’s midfield remains… nonexistent, to put it very nicely. It was a problem in 2015; it was a major problem in 2016; and it remains a problem early in 2017. On Sunday, Curt Onalfo’s side (as a quick aside, no, his seat isn’t yet getting hot) sat by and watched — almost literally — as the Seattle Sounders found the back of the net three times in the first half at StubHub Center.

Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris scored the goals for Seattle, to go with an own goal from Ashley Cole. It’s LA’s fifth loss in seven games, while Seattle have their second win of the season and put to bed a three-game winless skid.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundup — FCD win battle of unbeatens ]

Three moments that mattered

29′ — Dempsey heads into an open net for 1-0 — Nicolas Lodeiro floated the cross toward the back post, and Dempsey made extremely easy work of it with Brian Rowe scrambling through no man’s land.

35′ — Cole applies the finish into his own net — If it happened at the other end of the field, we’d have said it was a cool, calm, composed finish. Alas…

44′ — Morris fires past Rowe for 3-0 — The counter-attack was quick, what with no one stepping to the ball as Seattle covered two-thirds of the field. The finish wasn’t so simple for Morris.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Clint Dempsey

Goalscorers: Dempsey (29′), Cole (OG – 35′), Morris (44′)

Chelsea’s Kante claims PFA Player of the Year award

Photo credit: PFA / Twitter: @PFA
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Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante, who many felt was hard done by in not winning the award during Leicester City’s miraculous title-winning season of 2015-16, was named the 2016-17 PFA Player of the Year on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

With Chelsea six games from claiming this season’s Premier League title (they currently possess a four-point advantage on Tottenham Hotspur), it’s impossible to ignore Kante’s presence and impact on each of the last two (presumed) title-winning sides.

While his goal and assist numbers (1 and 1 this season) don’t come anywhere close to those of past winners (Riyad Mahrez tallied 17 and 11 en route to last season’s award), Kante’s industry, energy and rugged, ball-winning ways have integrated so seamlessly into Antonio Conte‘s debut Chelsea side.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

The Blues splashed the cash — $40 million was the fee — to sign Kante last summer, and they’ve reaped unbelievable, immediate return on investment from the 26-year-old.

Spurs’ Alli wins PFA Young Player award for 2nd straight season

Photo credit: Tottenham Hotspur / Twitter: @SpursOfficial
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Dele Alli joined Wayne Rooney (2004-05 and 2005-06) on Sunday as the only repeat or back-to-back winners of the PFA Young Player of the Year award winners since the turn of the century.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Alli showed in 2016-17 — much like his Tottenham Hotspur teammate and 2014-15 Young Player of the year winner Harry Kane — that he’s much more than a one-season wonder, improving upon 2015-16’s goal and assist numbers (10 and 9) with a 16-goal, 5-assist season this time around.

Alli was signed by Tottenham (out of League One and relative obscurity) for a fee just north of $6 million in 2015. Recent rumors have linked the 21-year-old with a move to join the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, for a transfer fee well over 10 times what Spurs paid to MK Dons.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

Between Alli and Kane, Spurs players have won the last three Young Player of the Year awards, and five of the last six (Gareth Bale in 2012-13; Kyle Walker in 2011-12). Only Eden Harzard could break up Spurs’ stranglehold on the award, in 2013-14.

Ryan Giggs (1991-92 and 1992-93) and Robbie Fowler (1994-95 and 1995-96) are the only other players to win the award in back-to-back seasons.

El Clasico: Messi scores 499, 500; Barca, Madrid level on points

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After 31 (and 32, respectively) games played, three points were all that separated Real Madrid and Barcelona at the top of the table in La Liga.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

After another 90 scintillating, pulsating, thrilling, plot-twisting minutes of El Clasico on Sunday, there’s not a single thing to separate the two sides (other than Barca’s current tiebreaker on head-to-head meetings, and Madrid’s game in hand). This time, it was Lionel Messi who outshone Cristiano Ronaldo in the meeting of the world’s brightest stars, the former scoring twice and reaching the 500-goal mark in his Barcelona career (all competitions).

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 33 23 6 4 94 32 62 12-3-1 11-3-3 75
 Real Madrid 32 23 6 3 84 36 48 12-4-1 11-2-2 75
 Atlético Madrid 33 20 8 5 60 24 36 12-2-2 8-6-3 68

Casemiro opened the scoring with a tap-in into an empty net in the 28th minute. Marcelo floated a ball to the back post, where Sergio Ramos made clean contact but came up with nothing but hit nothing but woodwork. Fortunately for Los Blancos, the ball ricocheted off the post, bounced across the face of goal and found the Brazilian midfielder all by his lonesome.

The lead was short-lived, though, as a bloodied Messi scored yet another of his patented Messi goals just five minutes later. With two touches atop Madrid’s penalty area, he slalomed past and beat three defenders before applying the cool finish past Keylor Navas with that magical left foot of his.

Following the halftime break, the balance of play tipped in Barca’s favor. Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez went oh so close to putting the visitors ahead either side of the hour mark, but Navas produced a pair of stunning saves that’ll (perhaps) go a long way toward silencing his increasingly vocal critics.

[ MORE: Griezmann scores no. 25 as Atleti win to hold onto 3rd ]

There was absolutely nothing the Costa Rican no. 1 could do about Rakitic’s 73rd-minute strike, though. Cutting inside onto his left foot, the Croatian caressed and curled the ball toward the far post, where it made a hard right turn at the last possible second and nestled itself into the

Already up a goal, the game appeared to swing totally in Barca’s favor just four minutes later. Sergio Ramos, the most Sergio Ramos player to ever Sergio Ramos, went lunging in, with two sets of studs exposed, on Messi. He was rightly shown a straight red card.

Another pair of plot twists were still to come, though, as James Rodriguez got on the end of Marcelo’s cross and slammed the first-time finish past Marc Andre ter Stegen with four minutes of regular time remaining.

Then, with all of 13 seconds remaining in stoppage time, that man — the undisputed best player in the world and the greatest of all time — broke Madridista hearts once again. Sergi Roberto started the sequence all the way back in midfield, and Jordi Alba supplied the cross to the top of the box, and Messi drove that same left foot through the ball to beat Navas for the last-kick winner. The shirt-off-held-aloft celebration was simply salt in the wound.