U.S. World Cup 2014 roster outlook: FORWARDS

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We’ve already walked you through the back and the middle, giving you our read on how the U.S. Men’s National Team depth chart sits ahead of next month’s pre-World Cup camp in Palto Alto, Calif. Now comes arguably the most contentious part of the team, even if debate doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of clarity.

Three players are locks. Two others can solidify their places in the squad next month, while a second, younger pair look like long shots make the 23-man team. They’re just hoping to get called out to California, a trip that would give them a chance to make their final, desperate case to Jurgen Klinsmann.

Here’s how we see the U.S.’s potential World Cup 2014 forwards:

FORWARDS

We talked about this with regard to the team’s fullbacks, but it bares mentioning here, too: The only evaluation that really matters is Jurgen Klinsmann’s. You may not like a player, I may not like a player, but this is an exercise in reading tea leaves, not a thought experiment on how we’d construct a squad. We’re trying to determine who’s most likely to make the final team.

With that in mind, Jozy Altidore’s a lock. Just two months ago, Klinsmann noted the Sunderland striker was part of the core he’s built the team around. While he can’t be thrilled with Altidore’s lack of playing time, he’s probably come to grips with what he’s been handed. In lieu of other obvious options, Altidore is the team’s number nine.

For some, Aron Jóhannsson is that obvious option, though there’s no evidence to suggest the young AZ striker has claimed that spot. Given how Altidore performed in the Eredivisie, we need to be guarded about what Jóhansson’s production says about his ability beyond Dutch borders. Regardless, Jóhannsson has  a place in this squad.

Add in the team’s captain, Clint Dempsey, and that leaves one or two spots in doubt. The exact number depends on what Klinsmann wants to do in midfield, but was we discussed while working our way forward, the U.S.’s positional versatility allows Klinsmann to take five forwards. Particularly if Eddie Johnson is seem as more valuable in wide midfield than at forward, it becomes a easier to justify taking Chris Wondolowski.

As for Johnson, given how he’s been used by Klinsmann, he has always projected as more of a late game or injury alternative. Yet whereas just under a year ago Johnson was being brought into the Gold Cup to move Wondolowski to the bench, now he can’t claim a starting spot for an Altidore-less friendly against Mexico. Something’s changed.

If it’s Wondolowski impressing the staff (which is the story we’ve been told), it’s more likely the San Jose captain will take a spot from a midfielder. If, however, Wondolowski’s emergence also causes Klinsmann to start scrutinizing Johnson’s slow start with D.C. United, an eighth midfielder could make his way to Brazil.

  • Going to Brazil: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Aron Jóhannsson
  • On the bubble (one-to-two spots open): Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, Eddie Johnson, Chris Wondolowski

MORE: Goalkeepers and defenders | Midfielders | Forwards

Mascherano still believes Neymar is “the future” of Barcelona

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The Neymar-to-PSG saga has escalated quickly, and signs of the Brazilian’s move to Paris are growing, but one Barcelona player remains confident that his compatriot will stay in Spain ahead of the new La Liga season.

[ MORE: Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

PSG has shown a willingness over recent days to meet Barca’s worldly $260 million transfer fee for the 25-year-old, while Neymar has reportedly alerted his teammates that he will in fact be heading to the Parc des Princes next month.

Veteran Barcelona midfielder/defender Javier Mascherano is one of the Blaugrana players that hopes Neymar will stick around and help anchor the La Liga giants for years to come despite a possible massive payday in store.

“Obviously he is young and I hope he’s here with Barcelona for many more years,” the Argentina defender said to ESPN.

“He is a really important player for the club. Because of his age, he’s the future of the club and we hope we can keep on counting on him.

“He’s accustomed to the pressure and people talking. There’s always going to be rumours and news around him.

“It’s really difficult to give advice. Firstly, I’m not anyone to be giving advice and secondly, I see him really happy here, really happy. [Barca] are a club that have made it possible for him to perform at his best. But after that, each person has to make their own decisions.”

If Neymar does bolt for Paris the complexion of the MSN-Barca attack changes drastically despite still boasting elite talents Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

[ MORE: Man United drops Man City in Houston “Manchester Derby” ]

Barca has done little in the transfer market this summer, only adding Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo of Benfica. The club continues to pursue Liverpool attacker Philippe Coutinho, however, the Reds recently rejected a bid of $93 million.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.