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.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.