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Landon Donovan steps into shadows for US Soccer

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There is an image of Landon Donovan that comes to mind. He was talking a bit about the dark times. You might know that the soccer career of Landon Donovan has been a particularly stark blend of shadow and light, brilliantly bright moments like his earth-shattering goal against Algeria in the World Cup four years ago and gray days when he was not even sure he wanted to keep playing.

The image comes from one of one of those colorless and bleak days when Donovan could not make sense of why he was even playing soccer. He has always been the most introspective of athletes, more artist than jock, and at various times in his life has wondered if this was what he was meant to do. He only started playing soccer because he was such a hyper child that his mother thought running around might tire him out. He scored seven goals in his first game, and the future was laid out.

Well, he was a natural. Donovan was faster than just about anybody — with or without the ball — had a special talent for finding open spaces and he would score more goals on the world stage than any American player ever. He would be a key player — maybe even the key player — in changing the way America viewed the world’s game.

Sometimes, though, he felt this lifelessness on the pitch, as if he had chosen the wrong path in life.

“I used to be on the field,” he said, “and think, ‘Maybe I’ll hear a song that will remind me of my family or where I came from or my wife. Maybe the crowd will get really loud … and that will lift me up.”

Thursday, the U.S. World Cup coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Landon Donovan off his 23-man roster for the Rio. It was one of those singular sports moves that made absolutely perfect sense to some fans and absolutely no sense at all to others.  There was no middle ground.

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On the one hand, Donovan is 32 years old, has been off form lately and a year ago he took a soccer sabbatical that clearly left Klinsmann and others wondering about his motivation and commitment to the sport.

On the other, Donovan is the greatest goal-scorer in American history, was pretty fantastic on the U.S. Gold Cup team just one year ago and, in the words of the London Daily Mail “has more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney combined.” Also the sabbatical clearly energized him.

On one hand, the U.S. is stuck in what people are calling the World Cup group of death — with Ghana, Portugal and Germany — and so are unlikely to advance anyway. Klinsmann seems to believe this is the right time, the perfect time, to break from America’s wobbly soccer past — a past Donovan represents. Klinsmann also might very be looking to make the statement that this is HIS team (with several German countrymen to prove it), and Donovan simply wasn’t his kind of player. He has not hidden his distaste for how the American media still celebrates him.*

*It would be tough to not see some personal animosity involved here after Klinsmann’s son Jonathan — a goalkeeper on the U.S. development team — wrote a mocking tweet to celebrate Donovan’s exit finished off with a blunt, “HAHA.” Jonathan deleted the Tweet and gave one of those pseudo “my sincerest apologies to anyone who was offended” apologies. But the point was not lost.

source: Getty ImagesOn the other hand, Donovan was in position to play in his fourth World Cup — putting him in that stratosphere with Pele and Diego Maradona — and he’s the most famous soccer player in the United States, and several of his teammates have been very vocal in their opinion that he belonged on the team. Bruce Arena, the 2006 national team coach and Dovovan’s coach now for the LA Galaxy, was blunt to the San Jose paper one day before the decision: “If there are 23 players better than Landon,” he said, “then we have a chance to win the World Cup.”

When Klinsmann cut Donovan, he made one of those rare decisions that people RABIDLY agree or disagree with — to the point of not even understanding the other side — which made it a perfect Twitter moment. And Twitter, predictably, exploded with soccer fans alternately hammering Klinsmann, defending him and yelling, “You just don’t know anything about soccer” at each other (as soccer fans are inclined to do).

The most fascinating part of this whole story, to me at least, is Donovan himself. He saw this coming, or at least the possibility of it coming, even when others did not. Just two days before the decision he talked about how making the team was no sure thing; he could sense Klinsmann’s wariness. Still, thinking you might get cut and actually getting cut are two different things. There is no doubt that Donovan was crushed by the choice; he did briefly mention his disappointment in a classy thank you note he wrote to fans on his Facebook page.

But, knowing Donovan a little bit, I know his feelings go much deeper than simple disappointment or anger or sadness. Frank Sinatra used to say that a big reason that his singing so deeply touched people was that he had “an acute capacity for sadness and elation.” That’s Donovan too.

At his athletic best, he was a little bit faster, a little bit bolder, a little bit more driven. If you look at his U.S. National team 57 goals, by far a record, what you often see is a young man blazing on the counterattack, sprinting past defenders who look as stationary as trees on the highway, pulling away and putting away the goal and then taking off his shirt and going to his knees to soak in the cheers. That’s Donovan at his boldest and, perhaps, his happiest.

The other times, when he was listening for music or searching for a memory to inspire him, the game was more than just challenging. He developed a reputation among some as soft, but that was never the right word. He was more like a great novelist with writer’s block. His breathtaking sprints would not yield chances. His uncanny sense of anticipation would feel blocked. He would start to think too much. Donovan admits that there are always a million thoughts buzzing around in his head, many of them about what he should be doing with his life. It’s no more surprising that he took a sabbatical from soccer than it is that he came back afterward. Unlike so many great athletes who know one destiny, Donovan was often conflicted.

And I imagine he’s conflicted now — hurt, no doubt, angry perhaps, but also contemplative. He has spent a lot of time considering his talent, his career, his life and what comes after. He has played such a big role in the how our country now consumes soccer, such a big role in making the world sport just a little bit more American. He says he wants to continue doing that; it will be interesting to see what’s next for him.

As for the team, it’s all speculation and the opinions are all over the map, but I’m guessing this would have been a better team with Landon Donovan on it. His form may be off, he may be a step slower, and he might not fit Klinsmann’s vision for this team. But he’s still the most accomplished player in the country, the best-known player in the country, he’s still capable of raising his level, and he has developed as a leader and a teammate.

Klinsmann has a plan, and as coach he should follow that plan, sentimentality aside. Still, when playing in the group of death, Klinsmann might just find that he is short a player who can score goals when he hears the music.

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LIVE – UCL group stage finale: Leicester, Tottenham both in action

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his sides first goal with team mates during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on November 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The final matchday of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League group stage takes place on Wednesday with two Premier League teams in action.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City is already through and has topped Group G with Claudio Ranieri‘s men securing a top spot for next Monday’s Round of 16 draw. The Foxes face FC Porto in Portugal with the hosts needing just a point to secure second place in the group and their spot in the last 16. Putting their Premier League worries aside, Leicester will aim to stay unbeaten throughout all six of their UCL group games.

Tottenham Hotspur wish they could say the same but Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have already crashed out of the Champions League with one game to go. They host CSKA Moscow at Wembley Stadium in Group E with Spurs needing just a draw to secure a place in the Europa League knockout stages. Bayer Leverkusen and AS Monaco has already qualified from Group E but Spurs’ Harry Kane insists they now want to go on and win the Europa League.

[ MORE: Permutations for each UCL group ]

Elsewhere Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund clash to decide top spot in Group F, while Juventus, Lyon and Sevilla are all still in the mix in Group H with the final game to come.

Below is a full schedule for Wednesday’s Champions League games, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

You can follow live commentary and stats of each game by clicking on the link above, while we will have reaction right here on ProSoccerTalk.


Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League schedule

Group E
Tottenham Hotspur vs. CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Monaco

Group F
Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund
Legia Warsaw vs. Sporting Lisbon

Group G
FC Porto vs. Leicester City
Club Brugge vs. FC Copenhagen

Group H
Juventus vs. Dinamo Zagreb
Lyon vs. Sevilla

Power Rankings: Top five players in the Premier League, right now

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The Premier League Player Power Rankings are out and now it is time to focus on the top five.

[ MORE: PST’s top 20 players, Week 14 ]

With two players from Chelsea and two from Arsenal, plus another from Tottenham Hotspur in the top five, Week 14 delivered plenty of goals and attacking players dominate our rankings.

Click on the link above to see our full list of the top 20 players in the Premier League, while in the video above Jenna Corrado and I discuss my top five players based on the last seven days of action.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ] 

Hit play on the video above to enjoy watching some silky skills and terrific goals as we guide you through the creme de la creme.

Why are Leicester struggling so much? Where can Man City improve?

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Last season Leicester City vs. Manchester City was a clash between two rivals fighting for the Premier League title.

This season? Not so much.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Leicester host Man City on Saturday at the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), with the reigning champs embroiled in a relegation battle with just three wins from their 14 PL games this season.

As for City, Pep Guardiola is finding the Premier League a little tougher to handle than Spain and Germany early on with City winning just three of their last eight games in the Premier League but they’re still sitting just four points off top spot. That said, City has lost to both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea already and their status as preseason title favorites is already being severely questioned.

For Leicester, their problems are worse than those at Man City.

There are multiple issues at play which could explain their stunning drop-off compared to last season. After 14 games this season the Foxes have 13 points. At the same point of their incredible title-winning campaign in 2015-16 they had 29 points and were joint-top of the table with Manchester City who actually have one more point this season than they had at this stage last season.

Back to Leicester and right now they are just two points off the relegation zone and have lost three of their last four games. Ranieri is very worried about relegation, as his recent comments in press conferences show.

“This moment is not the right moment for us. We wanted to get points here but of course it was a relegation battle, they won, well done to them,” Ranieri said after the defeat at Sunderland. “I said two, three weeks ago, always I look behind me. We are in the battle of relegation. For this reason we must stay calm, together and continue to work hard.”

At least Ranieri knows it, but how has it got to this point with Leicester breezing through their UCL group and into the knockout stages?

The loss of N'Golo Kante in midfield has been huge for Leicester with the French international midfielder already proving indispensable for Chelsea this season as he breaks play up, shields the back four and sets the tempo of the game for his team. Kante’s departure has left a huge hole in Leicester’s midfield but they’ve been equally hit just as hard with a lack of goals from Jamie Vardy who has scored just twice in the PL and Riyad Mahrez has suffered from a lack of creativity.

Mahrez set up 22 goalscoring chances for Vardy last season. This season the duo have combined just once. Maybe that is because Ranieri has been chopping and changing his team so much to cope with the demands of the UCL and PL, with Mahrez and Vardy often preferred for European action, but there’s no doubting that their level has dropped off and that’s happened across Leicester’s entire squad.

When you look at Leicester’s defensive displays, not much has changed but perhaps the rub of the green is going against them and they are falling behind to opponents extremely often which is making them chase the game and they’re getting out of their comfort zone. Simply put: Leicester isn’t doing what it is best at.

Ranieri knows it and said as much after their latest defeat at Sunderland which has put them further in trouble with plenty of tough games on the horizon.

“It is difficult to say what we miss. We miss everything,” Ranieri said.

In the latest PST Extra Jenna Corrado and I discuss the recent poor form of both Leicester and Man City and if fans of both teams should be worried heading into this big match on Saturday.

Click play on the video above to see us break it down.

Report: FIFA president backs 48-team World Cup, 16 groups of three teams

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA President Gianni Infantino poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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Gianni Infantino wants to freshen things up a bit.

The new president of FIFA has been steadfast in his desire to increase the number of teams participating at a World Cup to 48.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars

After all it was a huge part of his presidential mandate which got plenty of the smaller nations of the soccer world on board to vote for him, and reports from AFP are now circulating that Infantino and key figured at FIFA have indeed backed a 48-team World Cup from 2026 onwards.

Members of the FIFA Council had previously received outlines of four proposed formats, including staying with a 32-team World Cup, but it is believed Infantino wants a 48-team World Cup and the decision could be made next month at a FIFA Council meeting.

It is also being widely reported that Infantino wants to try something new and have 16 groups with three teams in each. It is also believed the top two teams would go through from each group to a Round of 32 knockout stage and then to a Round of 16 and so on.

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem too bad an idea.

It would certainly eliminate some of the boring third group games we have endured at most World Cups recently as the two teams going through to the last 16 are usually sewn up by that point and the two other teams are left around with another game to play. However, it will be intriguing to see how the game schedule is set up in the three team group scenario.

The cynical folks out there suggest that Infantino is merely trying to ramp up more revenue from increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 but when you look at it, the number of games would actually stay the same if there were 16 groups with three teams in each.

Think about it: more upset stories, more first-time qualifiers and more riding on each of the two group games for each team before heading straight to the knockout rounds.