Michael Bradley, Tim Howard

USA fear toughest ever World Cup draw but relish chance to make history

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EXCLUSIVE — After asking plenty of U.S. national team players how strong the other nations are that they’ll be facing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I got the same initial response from most of them.

They puff their cheeks out and look down to the ground in a reflective pause before answering the question. Without saying anything, they’ve already answered my question.

On Friday, the draw for the World Cup next summer in Brazil will finally be made after 32 nations have risen to the top of international soccer and qualified. Now they’ll find out who they can pit their wits against in the Group Stages in South America next June.

Arguably the 20th edition of the world’s greatest sporting showpiece will be the hardest test yet. Is that the way the USA see it?

“Yeah… that’s the way it looks when you break down the pots,” U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard said. “Who can get who and potential match ups. It’s hard with so many different challengers. I’ll be an interested observer come December 6. But at the moment I’m not trying to figure out too many scenarios.”

(MORE: 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw – Here’s how it’s going to work)

Central midfielder Michael Bradley, who will arguably be the USA’s most pivotal player in Brazil, echoes Howard’s sentiments that an incredibly tough task lies ahead as all the big names in world soccer will be in Brazil.

“For sure, when you start looking at the pots and looking at the draws… you realize it,” the AS Roma maestro said. “Look. it’s going to be a good World Cup and there’s not going to be any easy groups, that’s for sure.”

Placed in Pot 3, the USA are unseeded for the tournament and know a clash against either the host Brazil or one of the big names in European or South American soccer awaits. Jurgen Klinsmann’s side are up for the battle and after an encouraging year that has seen them knock off some top European opponents in friendlies and totally dominate CONCACAF, they’re better equipped than they’ve ever been for a World Cup, expect this one is a tournament many are calling the toughest in living memory.

(MORE: What US Soccer wants from the World Cup draw)

Howard believes the fact that he’s now a veteran of two World Cups, and most of his teammates are too, will help the USA reach the top of their game when the big matches come around in Brazil.

“When you play at the highest level the more big matches you can have, the bigger occasions you can have, it just kind of hardens you and allows you to have that fear factor dissipate,” Howard said furrowing his brow. “Because you’ve been there before and you’re not rattled by the crowd, the occasion or the moment or ‘oh my god this is a big game, we need a result.’ We’ve been there and done that, so that’s what you see our players are all about. And that’s why it’s  important to have senior players in your team so you can settle everyone’s nerves.”

(MORE: 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw – Everything you need to know)

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Klinsmann and his team face an anxious wait on Wednesday to see which nations they’ll face in the Group Stage.

There will be some World Cup virgins in the U.S. squad though, and Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron is one of them. Recently when I spoke to the man many believe is nailed on to be the USA’s starting right back at the World Cup, Cameron insisted he’s just focusing on getting to Brazil and isn’t too bothered about the draw.

“It’s all about just putting your name on the list,” Cameron said. “That’s obviously the goal, going to the World Cup. You just have to be consistent and be a regular player and go from there, little baby steps you know? I’ll watch the draw on December 6 and kind of go from there.”

(MORE: 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw – The sum of all fears scenario for the United States)

Right now, as all the different permutations and worries about who the USA will be playing in Brazil swim around the heads of management, players and fans, what we can expect when the USMNT turn up in South America in six months time has sort of fallen by the wayside.

(MORE: 2014 World Cup Simulator – One last time, lets fret over how hard it’ll be for USA)

So, what can Klinsmann’s men achieve? Is a semifinal berth out of the question, or is the aim to just get out of the group?

“It’s always a tough one to put your finger on,” Howard said. ‘I think our best ever finish was quarter finals [in the modern era], I think if you look at this team and the results that we’ve had and how we’re put together, certainly we want to get out of our group as we did in 2010. Unfortunately we lost in the second round, but we feel like if we can win that game and get ourselves to the quarter finals… we’re in touching distance of doing something special. What that is, I don’t know. But we’re all going to try and get ourselves back to that quarterfinal game.”

Make sure you log onto NBCSports.com and ProSoccerTalk for live updates of the World Cup draw and plenty of analysis and reaction from Brazil.

West Ham United 2-1 Liverpool: Ogbonna strikes after 120 minutes

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Jordon Ibe of Liverpool takes on Pedro Mba Obiang of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Angelo Ogbonna is now an FA Cup hero.

Two sides willing to move the ball and attack produced a fine FA Cup tie on Tuesday at the Boleyn Ground, with Ogbonna heading home the match-winner in the 121st minute of play for a 2-1 win.

Michail Antonio scored a first-half goal for West Ham before Philippe Coutinho equalized for the visiting Reds.

[ WATCH: Coutinho’s cheeky free kick ties the score ]

All told, West Ham heads to Ewood Park for a fifth-round date with Blackburn Rovers. Peterborough United hosts West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday to sort out the fourth round’s other replay.

Liverpool played a more second-string set than the home side.

Brilliance met brilliance in the 38th minute, as Dimitri Payet struck a gorgeous dipping free kick over the wall only to see Mignolet get the slightest touch to help the ball crank off the goal post. Cheikhou Kouyate failed to scissor kick the rebound, and Mignolet flew back into the picture to parry Antonio’s header.

Antonio would get his glory next, as Enner Valencia took Payet’s pass and dribbled through the left side of the 18 and toward the end line before crossing the ball. Antonio let the ball sink to hip height before volleying home. 1-0, 45′.

There were three goal posts struck in the first half.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Coutinho scored on a clever free kick from the edge of the 18, betting on the wall jumping and cheekily rolling his shot under it and past Hammers keeper Darren Randolph.

Christian Benteke started and nearly finished a 56th minute chance inside the box, but his shot was blocked.

West Ham should’ve been awarded a penalty when Tiago Ilori pulled down Valencia in the box. Roger East didn’t see it that way.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or UEFA Champions League final a must ]

The match went to extra time after eight minutes of second-half stoppage time.

Mignolet made a solid flying stop on Mark Noble in the first frame of extra time. At the other end, Benteke struck a low chance wide of the right post. Moments later, Randolph came out to thwart Benteke on a breakaway.

If anyone needed a reminder of Daniel Sturridge‘s skill, the late sub let fly with a 108th minute bullet that missed the goal by inches.

Then Lucas Leiva gave up a free kick just as two minutes of extra time stoppage began, and Ogbonna struck.

LINEUPS

West Ham United: Randolph, O’Brien (Moses, 83′), Reid (Collins, 64′), Ogbonna, Cresswell, Kouyate (Carroll, 76′), Noble, Obiang, Antonio, Valencia, Payet.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Flanagan, Stewart, Tiago Ilori, Smith, Teixeira (Origi, 60′), Lucas, Chirivella (Milner, 102′), Ibe, Benteke, Coutinho (Sturridge, 60′).

WATCH: Liverpool’s Coutinho bewitches West Ham with cheeky free kick

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09: Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores from a free-kick during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Philippe Coutinho has some gumption.

Liverpool’s Brazilian wizard tied things up with West Ham United in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at the Boleyn Ground, and did it in style.

[ MORE: Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must ]

With a free kick from just outside the 18, Coutinho thought West Ham would expect he’d hit a ball that would get up quick before dipping after the wall.

They’d jump, he figured, and he’d roll it under the wall. He was correct (video courtesy Fox Soccer):

USWNT’s Solo says Zika fears could make her skip the Olympics

Hope Solo attends the premiere of "He Named Me Malala" at The Ziegfeld Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
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As it stands, Hope Solo would skip the Olympics if fears over the Zika virus don’t subside in Brazil.

It’s been speculated that Zika increases the odds of certain birth defects, and Solo said playing in the Olympics is not worth risking future pregnancies.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

With CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying heading to NBC Live Extra at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday against Costa Rica (All games of the tournament will be streamed on Live Extra), Solo is set to star between the sticks for the USWNT.

But in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the 34-year-old netminder is far from ready to commit to the tournament.

She went as far as to say she wouldn’t go if the tournament was today, elaborating in this story from SI.com:

“I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” said Solo, 34. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”

Brazilian officials claim there will be minimal risk by the Summer Games because of the change in season, but that won’t alleviate all the concerns of female athletes. It will certainly be interesting to monitor how the situation develops in the coming months.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
Brian Westerholt/AP Images for International Champions Cup
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.