The USMNT and the Changing of the Guard

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The face of the USMNT is changing. With a focus on younger players and development, and with one eye focused beyond the 2014 World Cup, Jürgen Klinsmann has already significantly altered the squad that so ignited crowds in South Africa four years ago.

Veterans Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo are already gone, ushering in a new era at the back. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are two of the new generation that will hope to find themselves on a plane to Brazil, with other young players hoping to slot in up top and in midfield.

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Of course, the defense won’t be what sticks in people’s minds when they remember the 2010 World Cup. Those clustered around television sets and straggling into bars for early morning viewings back then will mostly remember these faces of the USMNT: Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey. Most of all they will remember Landon Donovan, whose game winning goal against Algeria in the 91st minute ensured the U.S. would finish top of its group.

But, come 2018, the core that has shaped the recent face of U.S. soccer – and helped attract a generation of fans committed to the sport’s development – will no longer be present in the World Cup squad. Their legacy, however, will remain firmly in place.

Tim Howard (goalkeeper)

Howard got his start way back in 1998 with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, before moving to England in 2003 to join Manchester United. United loaned him out to Everton in 2006, and he’s been a Toffee ever since. Howard’s USMNT career began twelve years ago, although playing backup to Kasey Keller kept his number of caps low. Howard won the starting ‘keeper position back in 2007, a role he kept through to South Africa, where he put in a few impressive performances, including setting up the winning goal against Algeria.

It seemed as though Howard might face competition for the starting role from Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, but his form has dropped of late, and Howard is almost certain to start in Brazil.source: Getty Images

At 35, Howard’s career is coming to a close. Some might argue that goalkeepers only get better with age, and that at age 37, Keller started all three matches of the 2006 World Cup. But it’s mighty hard to believe that Howard will be starting come 2018, so it’s best for fans to enjoy him while they can.

Clint Dempsey (attacker)

Is he a “forward”? Is he an “attacking midfielder”? Does it matter? Dempsey comes into the 2014 World Cup in fantastic form, having scored eight goals in nine games for the Seattle Sounders. The USMNT captain has been impressing in training camp, prompting his teammates to speak of his play as being “on a different level.”

Dempsey, now 31, may feel he has something to prove after failing to impress in his first season with the Sounders. But for most fans of the USMNT, the upcoming World Cup is almost certain to just be icing on the cake of an extremely successful career. Dempsey’s professional days began at the New England Revolution, where his impressive performances prompted Fulham to come calling. After five and a half years with the Cottagers, Dempsey, hopeful of reaching the Champions League, moved on to Tottenham, where he spent a year before heading to Seattle.

Dempsey earned his first senior cap for the USMNT in 2004, and by 2006 he was part of the World Cup squad. In fact, Dempsey scored the only goal for the United States in that campaign, putting one past Ghana. His fantastic performances in the 2009 Confederations Cup meant that he was a lock for South Africa. There he became a hero when he equalized against England, making their goalkeeper Robert Green a laughingstock in the process.

Now, Dempsey’s hoping to build on his performances to lead his team on a deeper campaign in Brazil. He’s already scored 36 goals for the USMNT, making him the second-highest goalscorer, but should his astonishing form in MLS continue in Brazil, Dempsey may be singing one amazing swan song in his final World Cup.

Landon Donovan (forward)

Donovan was only 20 years old when he went to his first World Cup in 2002, but it feels as though that tournament launched him into stardom, making him the face of U.S. soccer. It certainly helped that the young forward scored the clincher against Mexico, giving the USMNT another “dos a zero” and ensuring they’d get through to the quarterfinals.source: AP

He was named the tournament’s top young player, going on to start for the USMNT in 2006, while in between, followers of the national team will remember him for impressive performances in the 2007 Gold Cup and the 2009 Confederations Cup. It was in 2010, however, that he really made casual fans sit up and take notice. Down 2-0 to Slovenia, Donovan scored the first for the US shortly after the break, paving the way for Bradley’s equalizer and setting up a crucial final group game against Algeria.

And, of course, that game is what endears Donovan to most USMNT fans. A win would put the U.S. top of the group, beating out England, but a loss could put them out of the tournament. The U.S. dominated much of the match, and Dempsey had a first-half goal harshly ruled as offside. Then, in stoppages, Dempsey raced through to fire point-blank at the Algeria keeper. Donovan pounced on the rebound, tucking it into the back of the net…and giving new meaning to the phrase, “The Crowd Goes Wild!

It’s hard to believe that Donovan won’t be around for the 2018 World Cup, but it’s even more difficult to fathom (especially for a casual fan) that he might not make it on the plane to Brazil. There’ve been questions about his commitment, particularly after he sat out 2013. There are rumors of a rift with Klinsmann. He’s carrying a lingering knock.

But for most fans, Donovan simply has to be part of the 2014 World Cup squad – if only to say goodbye to the man that’s done so much to bring attention to the sport in the country. If he goes to Brazil, Donovan’s presence won’t be a mere symbol, but it will certainly serve to highlight the changing of the guard, to showcase the way U.S. soccer continues to grow and develop.

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.

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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.