Even after ‘rethink’, Klinsmann should find value in U.S.’s January camps

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CARSON, Calif. – You get the feeling if Jurgen Klinsmann had his way, there would be no January camp. In the wake to the U.S. men’s 2-0 win over South Korea on Saturday, the national team’s head coach pretty much said so.

Asked to reflect on his latest camp with mostly Major League Soccer-based talent, Klinsmann conceded the three-and-a-half week exercise was “very important” and “valuable,” particularly in a World Cup year. It allowed the team to get to Brazil, test the facilities ahead of this summer’s World Cup, and gather information that will inform May’s tough decisions.

More pointedly, however, Klinsmann said keeping his players in shape should not be the national team’s job.

“We have to cut [the players’] long break short. They can’t afford to have another month off,” Klinsmann said, falling back onto one of his favorite topics: The short Major League Soccer season.

“The camp was always looked at as a camp to get them back into shape … it shouldn’t be our job to cut their [offseason] shorter. That is the job of MLS. I always mention that I would like see the MLS season lengthened. Now we’re getting more teams, especially in 2015. So hopefully that happens.”

Should the league ever adopt that schedule – a change league commissioner Don Garber has described as impractical, in the near-term – Major League Soccer’s veterans will lose what’s become a valuable avenue into the U.S. squad. Among those who stood out in Saturday’s game, players like Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, and San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski have been able to use the prolonged camps to raise their stock. Two of those players are seen be some as likely selections for this summer’s World Cup.

“I give these January camps a lot of the credit for why I’m in with the U.S team right now,” Zusi said.

A second round pick out of the University of Maryland in 2009, the Sporting midfielder has had to slowly work his way through MLS success and into the national team. Seen as a probable starter in Brazil, Zusi got his first national team cap at the 2012 January camp.

“This is how I got my start,” Zusi explains. “It’s great way for some of the guys who are kind of around the edge to break in.

“It’s why I did. It’s what other guys have done. It’s what my teammate, Matt Besler, has done. [The camps are] a great way for you to get some quality games in and impress the coaches.”

When asking players about the camp, the ability to impress coaches becomes a reoccurring theme. Unlike a normal international break that gives players a week (at most) with Klinsmann’s staff, a January call-in allows the mostly MLS- and Scandinavia-based talents to be in constant contact with the staff. Particularly with a coach like Klinsmann, for whom extended physical preparation and the ability to assess fitness levels is especially important, the prolonged period is invaluable. It allows the staff to establish a firm baseline for the players’ performance, something that can be used as a reference point for future call-ups.

source: Reuters
With eight goals in his last nine national team appearances, San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski has kept his name in the conversation for World Cup 2014. The former MLS MVP has participated in extended camps each of the last two winters as well as in preparation for the 2013 Gold Cup. (Photo: Reuters.)

“You get a month-long, day-in, day-out (chance) to show and to learn from a great coaching staff,” Wondolowski explained after scoring twice against South Korea. “That only makes you a better player, and to be honest, especially these last two camps, there’ve been some of the most competitive players in there.

“Everyday, guys aren’t taking days off. Guys aren’t taking drills off. We’re trying to win every little small-sided game; every possession game. It just makes you push even harder – makes you better.”

Under Klinsmann, seven players have started the last two winter friendlies. That group features three players with inside tracks to starting jobs in Brazil (Zusi, Besler, Omar Gonzalez). The four other range from likely choices (Beckerman) and regular selections (Brad Evans) to players who’ve emerged as competitors at competitive positions (Wondolowski, Brad Davis). All veterans who were well into their careers in 2010, the seven veterans have been able to use the so-called “Cup Cupcake” to gain new traction toward 2014.

“In the January camp you get such a long period of time to really show what you got, what kind of person you are, what kind of teammate,” explained Beckerman, a player whose work ethic and leadership has been singled out by Klinsmann. A 31-year-old veteran who made his national team debut in 2007, the Real Salt Lake midfielder has gone some periodic consideration to regular selection since Klinsmann took charge.

“It’s definitely a camp you want to be in,” Beckerman said. “There are a lot of guys who aren’t here that would love to be in our shoes. Everybody that was here took full advantage of it.”

It’s an opportunity that may not always be there for the Kyle Beckermans of the world. Should Major League Soccer’s offseason continue to shrink or if Klinsmann decides to take another direction with the winter camps, players like Evans, Davis, and Wondolowski may not get the same a look. The precious time the national team staff has during FIFA windows to evaluate the established call-ins couldn’t be spent with hopefuls. The once-per-cycle, down-year Gold Cups would be veteran’s only chance to augment their MLS results.

source: AP
Graham Zusi was a 25-year-old, three-year MLS veteran when he received his first cap in Jan. 2012. Five months ahead of Brazil, the Sporting Kansas City midfielder is considered a lock for World Cup 2014. (Photo: AP.)

Even for the Beslers, Gonzalezes, and Zusis of the world – players we think of as established contributors to the current team – like without the winter camps would have been more difficult. There would have fewer opportunities to make the lasting impression it takes to win a regular spot. While the talent each player possesses means their break through was always likely, prolonged exposure to Klinsmann’s staff accelerated their progress.

But those are effects you see at the back-end of a World Cup cycle. For 2015, the U.S. looks set to take a different approach.

“We have to rethink the whole idea of the January camp, especially for next year, where there is no World Cup,” Klinsmann said, asked to assess the future of the January camps. “There will be a Gold Cup, yes, but obviously it doesn’t have the same meaning as this World Cup year. Maybe we change some things to [next] camp …”

“Maybe in the future we will more likely look at it as a developmental camp. Maybe we’ll cut it down to younger players and see how we can develop those younger players.”

Even then, according to Brad Evans, the camp will still need its veterans. Dismissing the word “cupcake” (“that’s stupid”) while espousing the virtues of cultivating MLS’s talent, June’s potential starting right back said January will always have a place for players looking to break through.

“Even if it’s just a U-20 camp, you’ll need veterans there to compete and provide experience and guidance,” Evans explained. “[Even then], there’ll always be spots.”

PL title & FA Cup in sight, Conte says Chelsea still rebuilding

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Antonio Conte might be just seven games away from guiding Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup double this season, but the Blues’ first-year Italian manager insists his squad is nowhere near being a finished product.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal triumph over Tottenham Hotspur, Conte insisted that the team he inherited last summer, after a disastrous 10th-place finish in the PL, is “in a period of transition” and that “[they] need time” as the club moves on from an accomplished, foundational generation — quotes from Sky Sports:

“I think that now at Chelsea we are in a period of transition. In this season, we have lost (Branislav) Ivanovic, (John Obi) Mikel and next season we lose John Terry.

“We are talking about players who wrote the history of this club. They won a lot. Now we have to find the right substitutes for these players and then work to put these players at the same level.

“I think that in the period with Carlo (Ancelotti) — and Carlo is the best Italian coach, I have great respect for him — he arrived at Chelsea when they had a really strong squad. Now we are building. We are building something important. We need time.”

[ MORE: Kante takes home PFA Player of the Year | Dele wins Young Player ]

Conte is doing two things with the above comments: 1) he’s tempering expectations for next season, when Chelsea will be back in the UEFA Champions League and automatically expected to repeat as PL champions — not to mention, taking a bit of pressure off in these final two months of the 2016-17 season; and, 2) pointing out just how impressive his work to date has been, the fact he’s potentially seven games away from lifting two trophies in seven days’ time next month.

Ligue 1: Mbappe, Falcao fire Monaco top again

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PARIS (AP) Strikers Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe continued their fine form with a goal each to help Monaco secure a 2-1 win at Lyon and reclaim top spot in the French league on Sunday.

Monaco moves above defending champion Paris Saint-Germain on goal difference, with Monaco having played a game less. PSG has four games left.

“It wasn’t easy and it was a big win for us tonight,” Monaco center half Andrea Raggi said. “We all play for each other and it’s now or never.”

It has been an astonishing season for Monaco, which has now scored 143 goals in all competitions and remains on course for the treble. Monaco faces PSG in the French Cup semifinals next Wednesday.

Falcao and Mbappe scored in midweek when Monaco beat German side Borussia Dortmund 3-1 in the return leg of their Champions League quarterfinal to reach the last four 6-3 on aggregate.

Lyon also did well in Europe, going through on penalty kicks away to Turkish club Besiktas to reach the last four in the Europa League.

Falcao and the 18-year-old Mbappe have combined for 51 goals.

Falcao put Monaco ahead in the 36th minute with a header from close range – his 28th goal of the season – and Mbappe made it 2-0 just before halftime with a trademark surging run and cool finish for his 23rd.

“I just try and give my best whenever I play,” said Mbappe, who has recently been called into the France team. “I wasn’t playing much at the start of the season, so I’m still quite fresh and I hope I can help us win the remaining games.”

PSG beat Montpellier 2-0 at home on Saturday with Edinson Cavani scoring his 31st league goal of the season and 44th overall.

Nice has already guaranteed third place and a spot in the qualifying round for next season’s Champions League.

But with four games remaining, it is six points behind Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Nice hosts PSG next Sunday.

Striker Corentin Jean gave mid-table Toulouse the lead in the 57th minute. Midfielder Valentin Eysseric continued his fine form with the equalizer three minutes later.

The game was briefly halted early in the first half after a group of Saint-Etienne supporters forced themselves into the stadium.

The match was supposed to be played behind closed doors as a punishment for unruly supporters during Saint-Etienne’s local derby against Lyon.

After a brief delay for police to remove the fans, Slovakia striker Robert Beric put the home side ahead in the 39th and center half Edson Mexer leveled just before the break.

Saint-Etienne is in seventh place, while Rennes is ninth.

Serie A: Napoli waste chance to go 2nd; Juve win big (again)

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MILAN (AP) Arkadiusz Milik scored his first goal since his lengthy injury layoff but it wasn’t enough to prevent Napoli from drawing 2-2 at Sassuolo on Sunday and missing the chance to move second in Serie A.

Milik scored two minutes after coming off the bench to rescue a point for Napoli and move it to within one point of second-placed Roma, which visits bottom club Pescara on Monday.

Second spot in Serie A secures automatic entry into the Champions League group stage, while the team that finishes third has to go through a playoff.

“The road to second spot has got more difficult, we have to hope our rivals slip up,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said. “We have a point more than last season, even though we played in the Champions League, even though we lost (Gonzalo) Higuain at the beginning of the season and Milik for four months, so I think the team has had an extraordinary season until now.”

After an even first half, Napoli broke the deadlock seven minutes after the break thanks to a rare header from Dries Mertens. It was the diminutive Belgian’s 22nd league goal of the season – as many as he had scored in total in his three previous seasons at Napoli.

However, Napoli gifted Sassuolo the equalizer seven minutes later as Marek Hamsik’s terrible headed backpass to Pepe Reina was intercepted by Domenico Berardi, who fired home from close range.

Mertens almost immediately restored his side’s lead but saw his free kick come off the crossbar, while Lorenzo Insigne’s effort also hit the inside of the post for Napoli.

Sassuolo took the lead 10 minutes from time following a superb save from Reina to deny former Napoli hero Paolo Cannavaro, but Antonino Ragusa hooked the ball back in from the byline for Luca Mazzitelli to drive into the bottom right corner.

Milik was brought on in the 82nd and immediately leveled. Jose Callejon’s corner was knocked down by Raul Albiol and the Poland international spun to fire in from close range for his first goal since he was injured on World Cup duty in October.

AC Milan missed a penalty as the new era at the famous Italian club continued without a win.

Milan drew 2-2 at city rival Inter Milan last weekend in the first match since the $800 million takeover of Milan by Chinese-led Rossoneri Sport Luxembourg ended Silvio Berlusconi’s 31-year reign.

Sunday’s defeat saw Milan remain in the last qualifying spot for the Europa League, two points above Inter.

“If we relate everything to the result, it didn’t go well but I shouldn’t do that,” Milan coach Vincenzo Montella said. “We created 15 chances, it’s difficult to create more in Serie A.”

Empoli took a surprise lead five minutes from halftime when Levan Mchedlidze headed in a corner.

Milan should have leveled shortly before the hour, after Lukasz Skorupski pushed over Mario Pasalic, but the Empoli goalkeeper made up for his error by keeping out Suso’s penalty and then parrying a follow-up effort from Gianluca Lapadula.

Empoli doubled its lead in the 67th when Massimo Maccarone nodded on the ball for Mame Thiam to score his first goal in Italian football.

Lapadula reduced the deficit five minutes later, curling into the bottom corner and Milan had a good chance to level when it was awarded an indirect free kick six yards out from goal after Skorupski got the ball, put it down and picked it back up again.

However, with all the Empoli players on the line, Milan couldn’t equalize.

Milan’s teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma kept his side in the match with a fantastic one-handed save to deny Maccarone and it almost proved decisive as Lucas Ocampos volleyed off the crossbar at the other end.

Keita Balde Diao notched a five-minute hat trick as Lazio crushed Palermo to move back into fourth in Serie A.

Ciro Immobile scored two in as many minutes to put Lazio 2-0 up inside 10 minutes, before Keita’s quickfire treble – including a penalty – ensured the match was all but over with less than half an hour played.

Lazio relaxed and Palermo threatened an unexpected comeback with two goals from Andrea Rispoli in five minutes at the start of the second half.

But Luca Crecco extended Lazio’s lead in the final minute with his first ever senior goal.

Juventus continued its march to an unprecedented sixth successive Serie A title by routing Genoa 4-0 to move 11 points clear of Roma.

Ezequiel Munoz scored an own-goal in the 17th and magnificent strikes from Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic put the hosts 3-0 up at the break. Leonardo Bonucci scored another stunning goal in the 64th after sprinting forward from inside his own half. Juventus also hit the woodwork three times.

Crotone kept its faint hopes of survival alive with a surprise 2-1 win at Sampdoria.

The result left it five points behind 17th-placed Empoli and safety with five matches remaining.

Elsewhere, Torino won 3-1 at Chievo Verona, while Udinese beat Cagliari 2-1.

MLS Snapshot: Sounders cruise, 3-0, as Galaxy struggles continue

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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy’s midfield remains… nonexistent, to put it very nicely. It was a problem in 2015; it was a major problem in 2016; and it remains a problem early in 2017. On Sunday, Curt Onalfo’s side (as a quick aside, no, his seat isn’t yet getting hot) sat by and watched — almost literally — as the Seattle Sounders found the back of the net three times in the first half at StubHub Center.

Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris scored the goals for Seattle, to go with an own goal from Ashley Cole. It’s LA’s fifth loss in seven games, while Seattle have their second win of the season and put to bed a three-game winless skid.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundup — FCD win battle of unbeatens ]

Three moments that mattered

29′ — Dempsey heads into an open net for 1-0 — Nicolas Lodeiro floated the cross toward the back post, and Dempsey made extremely easy work of it with Brian Rowe scrambling through no man’s land.

35′ — Cole applies the finish into his own net — If it happened at the other end of the field, we’d have said it was a cool, calm, composed finish. Alas…

44′ — Morris fires past Rowe for 3-0 — The counter-attack was quick, what with no one stepping to the ball as Seattle covered two-thirds of the field. The finish wasn’t so simple for Morris.

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Man of the match: Clint Dempsey

Goalscorers: Dempsey (29′), Cole (OG – 35′), Morris (44′)