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.

“It can’t get any worse” West Ham captain Mark Noble slams team for struggles

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 10:  Mark Noble of West Ham United looks thoughtful after the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on May 10, 2016 in London, England. West Ham United are playing their last ever home match at the Boleyn Ground after their 112 year stay at the stadium. The Hammers will move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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West Ham is in a massive slump, and with questions being asked around the whole squad, captain Mark Noble has said things are at an all-time low.

“If I’m honest, it could have been six in the end had Adrian not pulled off some good saves. On the bright side I don’t think it can get any worse.” Noble claimed after the 3-0 home loss to Southampton. The London club has the worst defensive record in the Premier League, having given up 16 goals in six matches this season, with the most recent games especially bad.

[ RECAP: Charlie Austin, Dusan Tadic down West Ham 3-0 ]

“We’ve conceded 11 in three games and it’s laughable and not good enough. We know that,” Noble conceded. “To be honest I think we could have kept playing until tonight and I don’t think we would have scored. It doesn’t seem to be going in for us at the minute.”

But he also preached togetherness if the team is to lift itself out of the relegation zone.

“We’ve got to stick together and not blame each other,” Noble said. “We have to do this as a team, because it’s not good enough.  You’ve got to work hard for each other. You can’t start talking in your little circles and blaming each other because we’ve got to look at ourselves. Luckily enough it’s early in the season and we’ve got a chance to turn it around.”

Bundesliga roundup: Schalke misery continues, Leipzig gets road point at Koln

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24:  Markus Weinzierl the head coach of FC Augsburg speaks during the FC Augsburg Press Conference ahead of their UEFA Europa League round of 32, second leg match against Liverpool at Anfield on February 24, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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Schalke has spent 24 seasons in the German top flight, and made regular appearances near the top of the Bundesliga table in the past eight years.

This season is not looking true to that form. Schalke has yet to pick up a single point through five matches, with another loss today on the road at 9th-placed Hoffenheim 2-1. The visitors went ahead just four minutes in thanks to Eric Choupo-Moting, but they coughed up the lead, making way to goals from Lukas Rupp and former Leicester City midfielder Andrej Kramaric.

Schalke manager Markus Weinzierl only took charge this summer, and that has him already under pressure as the only team without a point in the German top flight, the club’s worst ever start to a Bundesliga season. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, picked up their first win, moving them to the top half of the table on seven points. The club had four draws in four matches up to this point.

Elsewhere, Red Bull Leipzig picked up a road point at FC Koln with a 1-1 draw. Both goal came early in the match, as 19-year-old Scotsman Oliver Burke scored just five minutes into his Bundesliga debut for Leipzig, and Koln answered on 25 minutes through Yuya Osako.

In that match, 20-year-old Leipzig striker Timo Werner became the youngest player to ever reach 100 appearances in Bundesliga play. Leipzig moves up to eight points with the draw, while Koln has 10 points moving them up to a surprising third, still without a loss.

West Ham 0-3 Southampton: Austin, Tadic pile on West Ham woes

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Charlie Austin remained hot, scoring his fifth goal in his last four matches to open the scoring, and it only got worse for the home fans at the Olympic Stadium as West Ham slumped to yet another defeat, this time to surging Southampton 3-0 behind goals from Austin, Dusan Tadic, and James Ward-Prowse.

West Ham pressed forward in the early going, seeing a number of touches inside the Southampton box, but the Saints held strong. As the first half progressed, the teams dribbled back and forth through the midfield, with the occasional moment of excessive physicality, keeping referee Jon Moss busy.

Oriol Romeu was cautioned in the ninth minute for a very heavy challenge on Manuel Lanzini near the mid-line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Southampton began to build themselves into possession past the half-hour mark, and with five minutes to go until the break, West Ham’s leaky defense opened the door again. Ryan Bertrand overlapping on the left cut back to Charlie Austin at the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot past Adrian to put Southampton in front.

Following halftime, the visitors pushed for a second, nearly grabbing it in the 52nd minute when Dusan Tadic’s effort from close range was stopped expertly by a wonderful Adrian save down to his left. That sprung West Ham to life, and the Olympic Stadium responded with a ringing endorsement from the home fans.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Simone Zaza was booked for diving on the hour mark after flopping over a nothing challenge in the box from Romeu. Down the other end, Southampton struck again. With the Hammers dispossessed in their own half, a brilliant flick from Austin sprung Tadic free on goal, and he rounded Adrian and tapped home Southampton’s second.

Down 2-0, Slaven Bilic threw on young Ashley Fletcher and Sofiane Feghouli, both of whom had an impact. The Hammers screamed for a penalty in the 70th minute as Feghouli looked to clean up bright play from Payet, but his shot hit the arm of Bertrand, although from close range it would have been hard for Bertrand to react properly to avoid the contact, and Jon Moss did not award a spot kick.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The home side continued to flood forward past the 75th minute, with Southampton content to sit deep and look to counter. Adrian was needed to keep things from getting worse, as he produced quality saves to keep out both James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in the 86th minute. Ward-Prowse would tack on a third in added time, as a deflection off Angelo Ogbonna opened up the young Englishman to poke home easily.

The three points sent Southampton shooting up the Premier League table, into the top half with nine points after their second straight win. Meanwhile, West Ham sits on just three points, shut out for the first time this season and owners of the leakiest defense in the league with 16 goals conceded.

Report: Kevin de Bruyne sidelined a month with hamstring injury

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 24: The Manchester City team check that Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City is okay after being fouled during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Kevin De Bruyne had been in the form of his life under new manager Pep Guardiola, but that will temporarily come to a screeching halt.

The 25-year-old has suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him out around four weeks, according to a report by City Watch, meaning he will miss significant time. He was brought off in the 81st minute of the 3-1 win over Swansea City on Saturday.

That one month span includes an international break, leaving new Belgium manager Roberto Martinez without one of his most in-form attackers. Through six Premier League matches, De Bruyne has two goals and five assists, leading Manchester City to a perfect start to the year as they sit atop the table.

[MORE: Antonio Conte furious with Chelsea’s defensive woes ]

Should four weeks be his time off the pitch, he would miss not only Belgium’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gibraltar, but he would also miss Premier League matchups against Tottenham and Southampton, plus vital Champions League trips to Celtic and Barcelona.

De Bruyne’s absence will be a huge loss to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. According to Squawka Statistics, the Belgian playmaker has created 20 chances through six Premier League matches and has completed eight of 10 attempted take-ons. Guardiola said a week ago that De Bruyne was in the class of player just below Lionel Messi. “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”

One man central to City’s ability to keep pace without De Bruyne will be new purchase Ilkay Gundoguan. The former Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder has started the last two matches after returning from an injury of his own, but has yet to play a full 90 minutes.

UPDATE: Belgian reporter Kristof Terreur of HLN has confirmed the report.