Brad Guzan of the U.S. blocks a shot from Costa Rica's Alvaro Saborio during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Commerce City

Jurgen Klinsmann says Brad Guzan has earned a U.S. start; he most certainly has

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Just so there is no confusion, Tim Howard remains the unquestioned U.S. starter in goal for Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team, as well ensconced in his role as anyone this side of Michael Bradley. No one should read too much into Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to give Brad Guzan the start Tuesday in Panama.

Klinsmann has said repeatedly that Howard is his starter, and the longtime Premier League man has done little to undermine his position.

Besides, in previous final-day World Cup qualifiers, when safe passage into the tournament or into the next round is assured, managers have frequently included a few of the trusted backups. It’s just a reasonable thing to do, rewarding the understudies and protecting the front line men.

There is some significance, however, in seeing Guzan get a start. First, it’s a reminder that Guzan is having an outstanding calendar year. The window of achievement actually started in late summer of 2012, when Guzan took the job at Aston Villa from Shay Given, putting a choke hold on the position and never looking close to giving it back.

(MORE: Guzan happy at Villa, downplays Arsenal chatter)  

Guzan was huge in filling in for the injured Howard early this spring, in the snowy white win over Costa Rica and then in the scoreless draw in Mexico. Both performances were tremendous demonstrations of composure under intense pressure.

Guzan getting a start here also underscores the exceptional depth Klinsmann has in goal right now. If Howard were to be injured between now and next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the United States would hardly suffer.

Finally, it does remind us that Guzan continues to push Howard, who probably needs pushing. He hasn’t really been challenged for years at Everton nor with the national team. While Howard remains as professional as they come, nothing squeezes the most quality from an athlete like a true challenge for his position.

Howard did OK on Friday, for instance, but probably needed to handle a couple of Jamaican balls into his six-yard box with just a little more certainty. Yes, it’s nit-picky, but when you have a figure like Guzan around, you can get a bit nit-picky. That’s the point; he can be better and probably knows that he needs to be.

“Brad Guzan has earned the opportunity to start against Panama,” Klinsmann said. “He has been outstanding for Aston Villa all year, and he has been huge in the games he has played for us in World Cup Qualifying. As I said before, we have one of the best situations in the world when it comes to our goalkeepers.”

(MORE: U.S. releases Howard, three others back to their clubs)

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET