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.

“The Moment” of each Premier League team’s season

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Sometimes the moment that defines a Premier League team’s season is a turning point. Other times it’s a wonderful goal or a horrific mistake while others find that moment off the field.

Sometimes, that moment is easy to select  — See: City, Leicester — while others aren’t so simple.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Arsenal – They fooled us again, you know? Arsenal ran through the Premier League following an Opening Day loss to Liverpool, not seeing another ‘L’ until a Dec. 13 loss at Everton. That one could count as a moment, but we’ll choose the following match. Raheem Sterling finished a classy Kevin De Bruyne pass to give the Gunners’ two losses in a row, and Arsenal wouldn’t beat a PL contender until toppling injury-hit Manchester United on May 7.

Bournemouth – Eddie Howe‘s bunch were winless in seven and trending downward when it arrived at Old Trafford on March 5. Marcos Rojo put United ahead in the 22nd and ex-Red Devil forward Josh King leveled via penalty in the 40th. The Cherries seemed doomed when Andrew Surman was sent off in the 45th, but somehow held on to grab a point (A missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty didn’t help things). Bournemouth won its next two, then drew Liverpool and Southampton en route to a top half finish.

Burnley – The Clarets can thank Mike Dean for their signature moment, a 1-0 win via a handled Sam Vokes effort that moved Burnley into ninth place in the league. Ninth place for little old Burnley. Sean Dyche‘s club would stay up. Now where will it go?

Chelsea – The Blues led the Premier League after August, but had dropped to eighth by the end of September. By the start of November, Chelsea sat fourth in the table. Everton arrived at Stamford Bridge, and the Blues absolutely throttled the Merseyside club. Eden Hazard scored twice, the first moments before Marcos Alonso made it 3-0, and both Diego Costa and Pedro had also scored before the match was through. 5-0 spelled the fifth-straight win, and the Blues went on to win a historic 13-straight PL games.

(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Crystal Palace – This one’s pretty easy. With respect to Sam Allardyce‘s record of not being relegated as a manager, Palace opened the vaults to buy Patrick Van Aanholt and Luka Milivojevic, also scooping Mamadou Sakho on loan from Liverpool. The club was already talented in attack, so the January window was the “moment of the season” for Palace.

Everton – It was a season, or at least half-season, of “so close” for Ronald Koeman‘s men. It didn’t get much clearer than the match that followed the Toffees’ second loss in the Merseyside Derby. Everton looked set for a rebound and a win at Old Trafford when Ashley Williams’ handled Luke Shaw’s stoppage time shot to allow Zlatan Ibrahimovic a penalty kick that stole a point for the Red Devils.

Hull City – Unsure if this counts as “the season”, but Steve Bruce quitting the club three weeks before the season because of a lack of transfer ambition (amongst other things) spelled doom for the club far before Marco Silva nearly saved their season.

Leicester City – Firing Claudio Ranieri was a massive risk. The Foxes had posted the most remarkable season in world soccer less than a year before cutting ties with the Italian. While some — like me — would argue that transfer pick-up Wilfred Ndidi was the real reason for the turnaround, it also coincided with the managerial change.

Liverpool – The Reds had a knack for playing like results were expected against lesser lights, and late conceded goals are easy to find when reviewing their season (See Swansea below). It happened against powerful Manchester United, but it also happened against Sunderland. Jermain Defoe scored the second goal of his brace in the 84th minute to cost the Black Cats two points… again.

Manchester City – Pep Guardiola led City to six-straight PL wins at the start of the season, but could only watch as Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs bettered him 2-0 at White Hart Lane to drop City to 6-1. It was one of just six losses on the season, five of which came away from the Etihad Stadium. That away form didn’t impress Guardiola, and it didn’t help City chase the title.

Manchester United – While their moment may still be coming in the form of Wednesday’s Europa League Final against Ajax, we’ll go with Jose Mourinho’s first tournament win with United: the EFL Cup Final. NBC analyst Robbie Earle often talks about good teams needing to find a way to win when they aren’t at their best, and United did it at Wembley. It could be a harbinger of what’s to come.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Middlesbrough – Boro went to West Brom on Aug. 28, unbeaten in a pair of PL matches. It remained unbeaten following the 0-0 draw, but the zero on its side of the scoreboard was extra significant for one reason: It was the first of a whopping 19 times that the Smoggies were kept off the scoreboard, including seven scoreless draws.

Southampton – Most of these moments are related to Premier League play, but the perfect summation of Saints’ up-and-down season may be the EFL Cup Final. Many believe Saints were the better side that day, only to fall short. The same can be said for their Europa League campaign. But results matter, and Saints didn’t make it back to Europe via either route.

Stoke City – Mark Hughes‘ bunch suffered through a slow start to the season, going winless in seven matches. And every time the Potters started to build a head of steam, it would find a hiccup like this 1-0 home loss to Bournemouth. But let’s not dwell on the negative, instead focusing on Stoke’s vibrant fan base, and Peter Crouch giving his jersey to a man in a Speedo.

Sunderland – The Black Cats managed to take multiple steps back for every step forward, so it’s fitting that we mark the 4-0 loss at home to Southampton on Feb. 11. It followed a 4-0 win against old manager Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace and a scoreless draw against Spurs. Sunderland was battered by a pair Manolo Gabbiadini goals, and the loss started a run that saw the Black Cats manage points in a whopping three of its 14 remaining matches.

Swansea City – Swans could’ve crumbled after tossing aside a 2-0 lead to Liverpool at Anfield on Jan. 21, but Gylfi Sigurdsson‘s 74th minute goal started one of two winning runs that saved its Premier League status. Swans had never won in league play at Anfield, and Paul Clement had a result on which to hang his hat.

Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs lost just four Premier League matches this season, and responded to each with a PL win. Three of those were blowouts, and the fourth was a 2-1 May win over Manchester United. One of those bounce backs happened to be two weeks after a road loss to Liverpool and three days after Spurs were bounced from the Champions League by Genk, as Harry Kane scored one of his four season hat trick and Dele Alli also scored in a 4-0 demolition of Stoke City.

(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Watford – Every time the Hornets looked on the cusp of dipping into the relegation battle, Walter Mazzarri‘s men engineered an exit. The most gritty? Probably holding onto a 2-0 lead for a long spell with only 10 men to their credit in dispatching West Brom late in the season.

West Bromwich Albion – There’s a moment in every season which sees Tony Pulis‘ Baggies tease us with what they could do if they just allowed a little bit of open play to hamper their “Just Survive” mentality. This year it was a 3-1 win over Arsenal which begged West Brom supporters to imagine life in the Top Seven, only to let them down with another post-safety collapse. Woof.

West Ham United – The club offered fans the opportunity to bring in their old Dimitri Payet jerseys for a free replacement, but finding the player to fill his void wasn’t nearly that easy.

Hertha Berlin signs Australia forward Mathew Leckie

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BERLIN (AP) Hertha Berlin has signed Australia forward Mathew Leckie from relegated Ingolstadt for next season.

Hertha says the 26-year-old Leckie signed a contract on Monday, though it doesn’t give details of its length nor the transfer fee.

Kicker magazine reports that Hertha took advantage of a release clause in his contract at Ingolstadt and the club is paying around 3 million euros ($3.4 million) for his transfer.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

Hertha coach Pal Dardai says, “Leckie is a versatile player and has shown that he has the pace to bomb up and down the flanks, and that’ll benefit us a lot when it comes to attacking.”

Leckie has already played for Borussia Moenchengladbach, FSV Frankfurt, and Ingolstadt since switching from Adelaide United in 2011.

He has 39 appearances for Australia.

Carli Lloyd sent off after throwing elbow in FA Women’s Super League (video)

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“Hey Annie, you played in Buffalo, too, right?”

“Yeah, Carli. Why?”

“Taste some wing.”

That’s a fictional account of a conversation occurring between Yeovil Town’s Annie Heatherson and Manchester City star Carli Lloyd a moment before the USWNT star threw a ruthless red-card winning elbow in the mug of her mark.

No need for that Carli.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

The red card will bring a three-match ban for Lloyd, which could keep her from seeing the field again before the end of her loan to Man City from the Houston Dash.

The 33-year-old Heatherson scored seven goals in nine appearances for the Buffalo Flash, the precursor to the Western New York Flash that employed Lloyd from 2013-14.

Griezmann says move to Manchester United “6/10” chance

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Atletico Madrid fans should be on red alert regarding the future of their star attacker.

Antoine Griezmann is openly flirting with Manchester United in the press, essentially giving the Premier League club a 60 percent chance of securing his services.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews ] 

The talk gives both Atleti, United, and agents the pressure to find what’s best for their groups and Griezmann… and soon.

Like two weeks soon. From the BBC, and French outlet Quotidien:

“I think I will decide [on my future] in the next two weeks,” he said.

Asked if United would be his new club he replied: “Possible, possible.” Asked to give the chances on a scale of one to 10, Griezmann added “six”.

There’s a reported $112 million release clause in Griezmann’s contract, and few clubs will be able to meet it. The player has said he’s loyal to Diego Simeone, and the manager said he’s staying at Atleti.

Still, is Griezmann to Old Trafford fait accompli?