Michael Bradley, Tim Howard

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


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)

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.

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

Follow AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

VIDEO: Southampton’s Boufal scores stunner on home debut

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Sofiane Boufal of Southampton in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sofiane Boufal, take a bow.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw

Southampton’s club-record signing has had to hang around at St Mary’s for two long months while he recovered from injury.

But, on his home debut, the Moroccan international wasted no time in opening his account for Saints in stunning fashion.

Boufal arrived in August for $19.5 million from French side Lille but was nursing a knee injury from the end of last season. He had appeared off the bench against Inter Milan and Manchester City over the past week but on Wednesday he made his first start for the club and his first appearance at St Mary’s.

He didn’t disappoint.

In the 66th minute of a largely unforgettable game, Boufal scored the game-winner as Southampton beat Sunderland 1-0 to move onto the EFL Cup quarterfinals where they’ll face Arsenal.

The 23-year-old took a mesmerizing first touch out of the air, then jinxed inside and sent an unstoppable shot into the far top corner.

I was at St Mary’s last night and was right behind this strike. It has to be one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live.

See it for yourself, below.

First the touch…

Then the finish…

And why not have another look from another angle…

Jose Mourinho charged over referee comments

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho is never far away from controversy.

[ MORE: Crowd trouble in EFL Cup ]

On Thursday the English FA announced the manager of Manchester United had been charged for comments about referee Anthony Taylor before their game against Liverpool last Monday.

Ahead of the 0-0 draw at Anfield, Mourinho had questioned the appointment of Taylor as referee given the fact that Taylor resides close to Manchester and some may influence some of his decisions.

This is what the FA had to say, as there is a clear rule in place which bans managers from talking about refereeing appointments before the game.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has been charged with misconduct, in respect of comments he made relating to the appointed match referee prior to the Liverpool FC v Manchester United FC fixture on Monday 17 October 2016.

It is alleged his comments were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute contrary to FA Rule E3(1).

Mr Mourinho has until 6pm on Monday 31 October 2016 to respond to the charge.

So, what did Mourinho actually say about Taylor’s appointment as the referee?

“Somebody with intention is putting such a pressure on him. I feel that it will be difficult for him to have a very good performance.”

Mourinho went on to say he thought Taylor was a very good referee but still, those comments have landed him in hot water with a potential touchline ban and/or fine heading his wau.

No contentious decisions were made by Taylor during the derby game and after the match Mourinho asked his press officer what he could say to the media about the referee for fear of further action.

Mourinho is no stranger to being charged by the FA when it comes to comments against referees.

In October 2015 he was fined for his post-game comments in Chelsea’s loss to Southampton where he said referees were “afraid” to give decisions for his team. Then in November he was fined and handed a one-game touchline ban after going into the referees dressing room at half time of a defeat at West Ham to contest their decisions.

FA to investigate crowd trouble between West Ham, Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  A Chelsea fan (C) gets past the police line and walks over to West Ham United fans during the EFL Cup fourth round match between West Ham United and Chelsea at The London Stadium on October 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Ugly scenes marred the end of West Ham United’s 2-1 EFL Cup win against London rivals Chelsea on Wednesday night.

Fans at the London Stadium clashed in a walkway separating the two sets of fans.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw ]

So far seven individuals have been arrested and now the English FA has opened an investigation into what occurred.

Here is the statement they released on Thursday morning.

“The FA is investigating crowd disturbances at last night’s EFL Cup match between West Ham United and Chelsea. We are in dialogue with all relevant authorities.”

Before the London derby, the first to played at the London Stadium, both teams issued statements asking for fans to behave but as we have seen on numerous occasions this season at West Ham’s new home, trouble flared up.

Although it was a small minority of fans who ripped up seats, hurled coins, threw punches at each other and had to split up by riot police, the scenes highlight the severe issues West Ham are having with segregation.

After moving into the stadium this summer, there have been incidents of in-fighting between West Ham’s own fans, clashes with supporters of Middlesbrough and Watford and now this latest unrest suggests there are serious problems to fix after the venue was transformed from an athletic stadium into a soccer stadium.

London’s Metropolitan Police were on site for this game and extra stewards were present but they still couldn’t stop fans clashing. Expect a larger police presence for the upcoming games and especially for derby games against London rivals.

It is truly sad to see the video footage below.