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As NASL, USL combines open, lower-level landscape still in flux

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When the second division North American Soccer League convenes its player combine Friday, 80 players will compete to win spots on the 10 teams that will take part in the league’s spring season. When the 13-team USL PRO opened the third tier’s combine on Thursday, 102 players were scheduled to take part. Four times as many applied to go.

NASL’s potential players provide a more international flare, with 23 countries set to be represented on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. The raw numbers, however, are a reflection of the changing landscape of U.S. Soccer’s second and third divisions. Though NASL aspires to be a first division competitor to MLS, the real competition may be between the next two levels, where MLS’s cooperative agreement with USL PRO is quickly elevating the status of the third tier.

“[A] lot of MLS teams are starting to be affiliated (with USL PRO teams),” goalkeeper hopeful Brain Billings told the league’s web site, the former Bradley University No. 1 trying out at the league’s combine in Bradenton, Fla. Though Thursday, 10 affiliate agreements had been signed between MLS franchises and USL PRO teams.

“[W]hat better start than to try to start off the bat,” Billings said, “get a couple of starts here and there, and hopefully make the jump. You’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m glad to start at a level such as this.”

It’s a level that will include more professional-level talent than ever, with most of the nine MLS teams reaching affiliate agreements committing four players to their partner clubs. With 36 (potentially growing to 48) MLS-signed players taking part in USL PRO, more eyes than ever will be watching, evaluating, and looking for talent in the third-level league. And when players like new OKC Energy head coach Jimmy Nielsen retire from MLS, they’re more likely to look to go to a league that has defined relationships with Major League Soccer.

source:  There was once a chance for the NASL to have those type of relationships, with MLS and the second division coming close to their own affiliate agreement in 2012. Now, the relationship between the two leagues is unclear. Though some MLS teams still loaned players out to the NASL last year, a more-defined relationship with USL PRO means fewer talents will make their way to the second division. While a team like Los Angeles may still use the Fort Lauderdale Strikers to get games for players like Bryan Gaul and Kenney Walker (or, they may have their own unique situation), franchises with affiliate commitments will send their players to USL PRO.

It’s the prime example of how the second division has grown away from the first division, something the NASL may not necessarily mind. Expanding, signing players like Marcos Senna, and taking their first steps to poaching players like Andre Lewis, the league is trying to transcend the idea that theirs is an inherently lower-level circuit. Highlighting the array of international talent brought into their combine, NASL continues to position themselves as a potential competitor to MLS; if not now, then down the road.

That positioning was evident on NASL’s website on the eve of their combine. There, the league featured a profile of 19-year-old Spanish forward Noah Figueras, a player who trained at the Barcelona academy as a 12-year-old. Having recently moved to the United States, Figueras hoping to win a spot the U.S.’s second tier.

“Since I was a kid I always dreamed to become a professional soccer player,” Figueras told NASL.com. “I’ve worked very hard in my life and now that I have this opportunity I’ll do the best I can.”

“I’ve only been living here five months because of my dad’s work and I just tried out with some ID camps,” explained Figueras, who had been playing in Spain’s fourth tier.  “I can see that there is a total different style of play.”

A different style of play in a league that’s trying to blaze a different path. Whereas USL PRO is drawing players like Brian Billings to its combine — players who see the MLS/USL agreement as a path to the next level — the NASL is drawing from different sources. Of course, there’s bound to be some crossover, but more and more, the players who go to the NASL are embarking on a different path, if they’re not already on one.

Go to the second tier, and you’ll be part of a league that strives to create a profile to match MLS’s. Go to the third, and you may have your more direct route to the first.

Kasper Schmeichel wants to play for Denmark 6 days after hernia surgery

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City in action during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was tough, but his son might be tougher.

Leicester City shot-stopper Kasper Schmeichel had hernia surgery earlier Monday, and while that seems like it would sideline him for some time, apparently not.

The 29-year-old tweeted from the hospital bed that he is aiming for a return on Sunday – just six days removed from surgery – when his native Denmark takes on Armenia in World Cup qualification.

That’s…ambitious. Not surprising though, given the ambition Leicester City showed last season stunning everyone to win the title.

Schmeichel was injured against Swansea on Saturday in Premier League play when he made a clearance and came up notably uncomfortable. He was replaced in the 57th minute by new Foxes signing Ron-Robert Zieler. According to manager Claudio Ranieri, the club had already planned surgery for this problem even before Saturday’s flare-up due to the recurring nature of the problem.

Sadly, the Wednesday’s friendly against Liechtenstein comes a little too soon for Schmeichel. It will be the first international match he will miss since March of 2015. We’ll give him a pass, considering most of us would still be in post-op then.

Report: Zardes injury is serious, broken foot could end his season

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 16:  Gyasi Zardes #9 of the United States dribbles against Jefferson Montero #7 of Ecuador during the 2016 Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario match at CenturyLink Field on June 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The United States beat Ecuador 2-1.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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According to Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep, the injury that forced Gyasi Zardes to withdraw from USMNT consideration for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers is serious and could have much larger consequences.

Zardes reportedly suffered a broken right foot, and could not just miss the rest of the 2016 MLS season, but the rest of the calendar year, ruling him out of not just the two upcoming matches, but also the beginning of the Hexagonal in November should the U.S. advance to the next round.

The 24-year-old was injured just after halftime in an MLS match against Vancouver on Saturday, when he was brought down by Kendall Watson. It’s hard to see in full-speed what happens, but upon closer inspection, it appears that Watson’s follow-through catches the inside of Zardes’s right foot. He continued to play but looked less than healthy when he was finally substituted off in the 87th minute.

Zardes has been a rare youthful yet important cog in the USMNT machine the past few years. He played every minute of the Copa America run to the 3rd place match, and he has missed just two matches since making his debut in January of 2015, giving him 31 caps already despite a debut just 19 months ago.

The injury is also a serious blow for the LA Galaxy. Zardes had come onto the field in the 31st minute to replace an injured Steven Gerrard, and in-form defender Jelle van Damme had also departed the match with a knee ligament injury which will see him miss 2-3 weeks.

Michail Antonio thought he was being pranked when he got his England call-up

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28:  Michail Antonio of West Ham during the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham at Etihad Stadium on August 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Many were surprised when they saw West Ham winger Michail Antonio on Sam Allardyce‘s first England squad list.

Including Michail Antonio.

In fact, Antonio admitted he thought he was being pranked, or at the very least, the butt of a joke. Then he saw the proof, and began to get emotional.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Speaking with the official England Instagram account, Antonio said, “So literally I’ve done an interview at the end of the game [West Ham’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City on Sunday] and then I’ve come in and the physio’s come over to me and gone ‘you’ve been called up.’ I was like ‘haha funny’ and he’s gone ‘no no seriously’ and I was like ‘good banter!'”

[ MORE: West Ham falls to Manchester City 3-1 ]

The 26-year-old said he stared at the physio for a good 30 seconds before he was shown the official paper, at which point he began “welling up.” The water works came soon after. “So I gave my missus a call, obviously she doesn’t pick up. And then I just got myself mentally ready and waited for it to come out.”

Antonio has two goals in three Premier League games this season, although he struggled in West Ham’s season opener against Chelsea when forced to deputize at right-back. The London-born winger has never played under Allardyce, having joined the Hammers just a few months after Big Sam’s departure from West Ham.

Earthquakes fire longtime general manager John Doyle

SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 25: San Jose Earthquakes owner, John Doyle announces the San Jose Earthquakes new stadium ground breaking set for October 21st 2012 before the game between the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium on August 25, 2012 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Tony Medina/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Earthquakes fired longtime general manager John Doyle on Monday, replacing him with technical director Chris Leitch on an interim basis.

Coach Dominic Kinnear and his staff remain in place, the team said.

Doyle, who in 2005 was the inaugural member of the San Jose Earthquakes Hall of Fame, had been the general manager since October 2007 and helped bring the franchise back following a two-year absence. He is a former player, assistant coach and color analyst with the organization.

San Jose has a 7-8-11 record for seventh place in the Western Conference and was three points back of Portland for the final playoff berth.