US men's national team player Michael Bradley runs with the ball during a World Cup preparation match against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on May 27, 2014.    AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

MLS and the U.S.: Why the league is making a bigger impact on the national team

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Major League Soccer will have 21 representatives on Brazil’s fields at the World Cup, the highest number since 1998 – the first finals after the league began play in 1996. Unlike that tournament in France, however, most of MLS’s representatives are not going to be on the United States’ roster. Whereas 16 players from the nascent league made Steve Sampson’s squad in 1998, only nine MLS’ers are among the 23 that Jurgen Klinsmann will take to Brazil.

Considering so many have trumpeted 2014 as a World Cup resurgence for MLS, that figure may be seen as disappointingly small. It’s the second-lowest in league history. When you consider where the league was four years ago, however, you can see why the trumpets are out. Only four Major League Soccer players made Bob Bradley’s squad for South Africa.

In that light, the resurgence is both remarkable and, as if four years ago, unforeseeable, with its main effects apparent on the U.S’s starting lineup. Of the nine players Klinsmann’s taking to Brazil, five are potential starters: Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, and Graham Zusi. Not only are Major League Soccer’s numbers up; the league’s significance within the team is climbing, too.

The cause of all this isn’t a complex one. The league is just better than it was four years ago, when it was climbing out of its nadir of the early- and mid-oughts. The steep nature of that climb, however, deserves a little more examination. Within the U.S. team, MLS has gone from nearly irrelevant to a necessary part of the squad.

1. Core stability – While so many have focused on Major League Soccer’s lack of television viewers, the butts in seats continue to be solid. Combined with the league’s single-entity structure, that’s provided Major League Soccer with a reliable foundation from which it can grow. As the league becomes more aggressive in seeking out talent, it knows its large, loyal core of fans provides an enviable stability.

2. Increasing the quality of play – You can have all the fans you want, but if nobody’s going to improve by playing in your league, you’re not going to convince World Cup talent to stick around (or, come back). Thanks largely to its efforts in Central and South America, the league has been able to bring in affordable talent that’s significantly raised its quality of play. Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales is the poster play for this movement, but thanks to others like him, Major League Soccer is now a place where the likes of Davis, Kyle Beckerman, and Chris Wondolowski can improve. They’re all going to Brazil.

3. Money, Part I: Retention funds – Not every player is like Beckerman or Davis, however. If players like Besler and Zusi had come along five years earlier, they’d probably be in Europe by now.

With its new security, however, Major League Soccer has made it a priority to compete for those types of talents. Thanks to retention funds — a mechanism that allows teams to offer increased compensation without taking up a DP slot — players like Besler and Zusi, as well as a number of non-U.S. players, have been kept in the league.

source: Getty Images4. Money, Part II: Transfer fees – And then MLS really stepped it up, going into the transfer market to reclaim one of its own. Starting with the fee the league paid Tottenham Hotspur to bring Clint Dempsey back, the league committed to competing for the U.S.’s best talents.

This winter, the league struck again, paying AS Roma for Michael Bradley. In transfer fees alone, the league committed $19 million to two of the U.S.’s biggest stars, an amount that would have been unfathomable 10 years ago.

5. Increased international profile – Call this the David Beckham effect, but don’t forget the influence players like Thierry Henry have had on international perception, too. Whereas Major League Soccer was recently seen as a player’s last stop, it’s becoming more and more viable to make the switch earlier in your career. That not only means getting players like Tim Cahill and Jermain Defoe a year or two sooner than you would have before, but it also gives the Bradleys and Dempseys of the world reason to come back early.

Major League Soccer still has a long way to go, but some of the early returns will be seen at the World Cup. Only nine leagues across the world will have a greater representation in Brazil, and within the U.S. national team, there will be more than twice as many MLS’ers in the squad.

That may not mean the U.S.’s team is built around league talent, but if this new pattern holds, it won’t be too long before the domestic league is again claiming a majority of the national team’s spot.

Kelechi Iheanacho’s incredible rise to stardom

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City (R) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with his team mates Nolito of Manchester City (C) and Raheem Sterling of Manchester City (L)  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 10, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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What a story.

Kelechi Iheanacho is one of the top young forwards on the planet — he has the best minutes per goal ratio in Premier League history, by the way — but we don’t know much about how the soft-spoken youngster ended up at Manchester City.

Now we do.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

In the latest superb first-person piece from the Players’ Tribune, Iheanacho, still just 20 years old, recalled his journey from Nigeria to England as he continues to make a big impact at one of the biggest clubs on the planet.

Ahead of Man City’s big Premier League clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), below is an excerpt from the piece where Iheanacho talks about the impact of his mother’s death and that in-turn explains his goal celebration.

You can read the piece in full here via the Players’ Tribune, as he recalls how he watched Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal in 2012 in a games arcade in southern Nigeria.

Later that year, I was invited to play for the under-17 Nigerian national team, and it was a big opportunity for me. We went away to training camp on the other side of the country. But then at the start of camp, I received news from home that my mother was sick. I didn’t know how bad it was — I just knew she was sick. And it was a very long and hard camp, so I could not go home to see her. This was my chance to go for my dream. The next news I got from home, a few weeks later, was that my mother had died.

It is very hard for me to talk about this.

I felt so sad, and it was a very, very hard time, but I had to stay at the camp to keep training. My mother loved her children, and she had always pushed me to keep working hard, even when it was football and not books. So I just kept working hard. The next year, our Nigerian national team won the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup. I scored five goals in the tournament. Every time I scored, I would point my fingers to the sky.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 22

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Premier League action is here and things are tense at both ends of the table.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game, Week 22 ]  

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 2-0 Hull City – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 1-3 Everton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 3-0 Burnley – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-3 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

West Brom 1-1 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Stoke City 2-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Liverpool 1-1 Swansea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Manchester City 2-0 Tottenham Hotspur – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Steven Gerrard returns to Liverpool in coaching role

Gerrard's arrival in MLS is eagerly anticipated.
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Steven Gerrard is back where he belongs.

[ VIDEO: Spurs’ stunning new stadium ]

Gerrard, 36, will take up his first coaching role since retiring as a player in November.

Liverpool have described Gerrard’s new job, which he will start in February, as “a wide-ranging role in the professional development phase of the young players” and he will work under academy director Alex Inglethorpe.

The former Liverpool captain and legend hung up his boots after the 2016 Major League Soccer season ended with LA Galaxy and now he will begin life as a coach.

Speaking about his full-time role with Liverpool, which will see him work at the youth complex in Kirkby, Gerrard is excited to get going.

“It feels like completing the circle; returning to the place where professionally it all began. However, this isn’t a decision based on emotion – it’s about what I can offer and contribute to Liverpool. I don’t think I need to explain to people what this football club means to me, but when I knew coming back was a serious option I wanted to make sure it was a substantive role and a role in which I could really help the organisation.

“Meeting with Alex Inglethorpe, seeing the work they are currently doing and want to do in the future at Kirkby, it just felt right. The right option at the right time, for all parties involved. This gives me a great opportunity to learn and develop as a coach, while at the same time offering my knowledge, ideas and experience to the young players at an important period of their development.”

Gerrard grew up in Liverpool as a fan of the club and came through their academy system himself, making his professional debut as a 18-year-old and spending 17 years at the club as a first team player before moving to the LA Galaxy in 2015.

There is perhaps nobody better for this role as the former midfielder made 710 appearances for the Reds, scoring 186 goals and won 10 trophies in his time at Anfield, including captaining the side to a historic UEFA Champions League title in 2005.

He is Mr. Liverpool.

In this new role Gerrard will have a strong influence on the next crop of youngsters to come through at Liverpool and many will see this as the first step towards him having a big role in Jurgen Klopp‘s coaching staff and maybe one day taking over from the German head coach.

WATCH, STREAM: Premier League schedule, Week 22

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Week 22 of the 2016-17 Premier League season is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Liverpool host Swansea City (7:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at Anfield looking to grab a win which would close the gap on leaders Chelsea, while Swansea are scrapping for their lives at the other end of the table.

Stoke City host Manchester United (10 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s men aiming to extend their unbeaten run to 13 games in the Premier League. At the same time Crystal Palace host Everton (10 a.m. ET live CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) as Sam Allardyce looks to grab his first win as Palace boss in the PL against the in-form Toffees.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

Rounding off Saturday is a big game at the Etihad Stadium as Manchester City host Tottenham Hotspur (12:30 p.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com). Pep Guardiola has already conceded the title but Spurs have a real chance of Chelsea as Maurico Pochettino’s side are chasing a seventh-straight PL win.

On Sunday, Leicester visit Southampton (7 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both the Foxes and Saints in real danger of being sucked into the relegation battle. Then Arsenal welcome Burnley to the Emirates Stadium (9:15 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with the Gunners hoping to stay in the title hunt, while the Clarets seek a first away win of the season.

Rounding off Week 22, leaders Chelsea welcome Hull City to Stamford Bridge (11:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) as Antonio Conte had Diego Costa back fit and available but the Blues will be wary of new Hull boss Marco Silva after a positive start to his spell at the KCOM Stadium.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Manchester United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Everton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Sunderland – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. West Ham – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Arsenal vs. Burnley – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM