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A dreaded World Cup draw having arrived, Jurgen Klinsmann’s transformative efforts are about to pay off


When discussing the United States’ draw, painful as a bad toothache it seemed, someone quipped that U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann should add a psychologist to his World Cup preparations, someone to lift spirits and ward off doom and gloom through mood-altering techniques of Zen and such.

My response to him: Klinsmann has been doing that all along.

Forging a positive, confident, aggressive mindset was a cornerstone of Klinsmann’s efforts to transform the United States national team from Day One.

Klinsmann told us all along – although it seemed to take a while for it to sink in – that any transformative efforts would not start at tactics. Whether the team lined up in 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or even that notorious 3-6-1 was almost irrelevant. What did matter was the way his team approached the game. The way it attacked the entire project.

He wanted a team that imposed rather than reacted – tactically and in mental approach. In fact, that mind-set, that positive framing, was absolutely paramount.

He wanted the United States to stop being considered this sleeping giant and start acting like one. That meant imposing its will, regardless of the opposition. He wanted the players to lean on teams the way a New Jersey goodfellow leans on a target. He wanted a team that strode fearlessly into any situation – and then go take it to the poor saps.

So he stressed the benefits of seizing the initiative … and then not letting loose. He scheduled friendlies in tough places and then said “go take it to them!” No, it didn’t always work out in those friendlies, but winning friendlies was never the destination.

Against the lesser sides, if the team got ahead by a goal he wanted the players thinking “get a second.” When a two-goal lead was achieved, he wanted the charges thinking “now we need a third!”

The tactics and strategic approaches (like pressing up higher) would help create a mindset; the mindset would then help drive those strategic approaches, thus completing the behavioral circle.

source: Getty ImagesAnd now we see this tough draw and must say: Klinsmann’s drive to establish a different, more aggressive mentality is about to pay off.

It’s not like Klinsmann had a crystal ball and had somehow become aware that the United States would be heaved into such a difficult situation. But he definitely wanted the team prepared for such an eventuality, ready to see a pit of despair and see a way out rather than feel bad about wading into it.

And now that the United States has, in fact, been lumped in with three teams that are either favorites to win the whole thing (Germany), blessed with one of the world’s best players (Portugal) or a historical troublemaker for the United States (Ghana), there is reason to believe the immediate, psychological blast wave has been deflected.

Listening to the United States players last week, there was zero indication of any real intimidation. While it’s reasonable to assume the United States players would say such positive things, and while it’s dangerous to guess what is rattling around someone’s noggin, from up close it certainly looked and sounded like Clint Dempsey (pictured above left), Omar Gonzalez, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and others were just happy to know more about the impending task – and ready to get the heck after it.

If the United States makes some hay in Brazil next summer, we’ll have to point back to Klinsmann’s initial initiative, his efforts to craft a more positive, less reactionary mindset – his essential Klinsi-ness, really – as a major contributing factor.

Barcelona, Neymar make it formal: Signed into 2021

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19: Neymar of Barcelona holds off pressure from Raheem Sterling of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City FC at Camp Nou on October 19, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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T’s are crossed and i’s dotted on Neymar’s new contract, keeping him at the club through the 2020-21 season.

Neymar, 24, will make his 100th La Liga appearance with his next step onto the pitch.

Lionel Messi’s deal runs through 2017-18, and Luis Suarez’s goes through 2018-19.

[ MORE: Guardiola on Aguero omission ]

He’s scored 59 goals in league play, and has 91 total when you include all 150 of his matches in a Barca kit.

Neymar is on a similar scoring rate to last season, when he netted 31 times. The Brazilian also has 49 international goals in 73 caps.

Guardiola seethes at reports Aguero unwanted at Man City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City is congratulated by Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester City FC and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Etihad Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola is seething with reports that claim star striker Sergio Aguero is not in his plans for Manchester City’s future.

Aguero started on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League loss at Barcelona, inspiring talk that the Argentine star wasn’t long for the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Conte on Mourinho, Pogba ]

Guardiola says that’s garbage, and that he simply needed more midfielders for his attack. Next time, just ask.

From the BBC:

“It was a tactical decision. I wanted one more midfielder, I tried to keep the ball in the Camp Nou and when you have the ball, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez don’t.

“I spoke with Sergio and he was understanding, I thought in the last 30 minutes, with the Barcelona centre-halves tiring, he could help a lot from the bench. When Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision. Next time before you (the media) decide he is not in my plans you can call me.”

Still, not using Aguero is risky business.

The striker believes, rightly, that he’s among the most dangerous players in the world. Guardiola has said as much, too.

While few would put him in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s difficult to imagine either being sat for tactical reasons against one of the best teams in the world.

Chelsea: Conte expects warm reception for Mourinho; Terry is fit

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  A fan wears a Chelsea scarf with the image of the club's former manager, Jose Mourinho before the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Watford at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.

Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.

[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]

Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.

“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”

Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. Pogba is coming off a starring role in United’s 4-1 win over Fenerbahce, and Conte guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.

“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”

Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.

Canada vs. U.S. among top-notch CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 20:  Gershon Koffie #28 of the Vancouver Whitecaps brings the ball up field against Dax McCarty #11 of the New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place on June 20, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images)
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The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.

No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.

[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]

The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.

Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.

Full schedule
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)

The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).

Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).