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.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.