2014 World Cup Team Preview: United States

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Getting to know… United States

The U.S.’s appearance in the semifinals of the first World Cup (1930) was a high point, but at the time, it wasn’t necessarily an isolated success. Counting the Olympics, a tournament that was considered a world championship at the time, the U.S. qualified for all five major competitions from 1924 to 1936. It wasn’t until the 1938 World Cup, when the U.S. withdrew from qualifying for financial reasons, that the Americans finally missed out on a big tournament.

Unfortunately, that absence became a pattern. Though the U.S. qualified when the World Cup resumed in 1950 (famously defeating England in Brazil), the team would miss the next nine tournaments. It wasn’t until Paul Caligiuri’s Shot Heard Round the World found the net at Port of Spain in 1989 that the U.S. returned to the international stage:

Starting with Italy 1990, the U.S. has taken part in six straight World Cups.

Brazil represents number seven, with the team finishing first in CONCACAF qualifying to get there. Over the past 24 years, the team has gone 4-13-5 at finals, advanced to three knockout rounds, and scored 20 times (while conceding 35).

Record in qualifying

With a 7-2-1 record in CONCACAF’s final round, the U.S. established itself as the clear leaders in its region, doubling the points of rival Mexico. Defeating El Tri 2-0 in Columbus on Sept. 10, 2013, the team booked its place in Brazil with two games to spare.

The U.S.’s final point total in “The Hex” (22) was the second-highest for any team since CONCACAF started using its six-term, round robin format in 1998. It was also two points more than the U.S. accumulated in 2010.

What group are they in? 

The Group of Death moniker has become an empty cliché, but that doesn’t make the U.S.’s task any easier. The team should be considered slight favorites to beat Ghana, but it will be underdogs against both Portugal (FIFA’s third-ranked team) and Germany (ranked number two). If there is an early pecking order in Group G, the U.S. is number three.

Game schedule:

16 June, 18:00, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

22 June, 17:00, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

26 June, 12:00, Recife – United States vs. Germany

Star player: Michael Bradley

Five years ago, as a still emerging midfielder playing under his father, fans used to see the current Toronto FC star as the beneficiary of nepotism. Seriously. As ridiculous as that sounds now – as ridiculous as that sounded at the time, to those around the team – fans wondered if the then-Borussia Möchengladbach player was an attacking talent being wedged into a defensive role. And the only possible explanation for that? Father Bob was intent on putting his son in the team.

One year later, Bradley was the U.S.’s best player at the 2010 World Cup. Now the central midfielder, who has settled into a box-to-box presence for both club and country, is unquestionably the team’s most important player. With a midfield built around Bradley’s high tempo, all-around talents, the U.S. will lean on the one-time object of derision in Brazil. On the few occasions the U.S. has had to play without him, the team looks like hollow.

Manager: Jurgen Klinsmann

A world champion as a player, Klinsmann became a hot commodity as a coach when he reshaped Germany ahead of the Nationalmannschaft’s 2006 semifinal appearance. The benefits of the youth movement he accelerated are still being felt in one of 2014’s favorites.

A brief spell at Bayern Munich dimmed that star, yet after the U.S. was beaten decisively by Mexico at the 2011 Gold Cup, federation president Sunil Gulati brought in Klinsmann to rebuild the national team. Dramatically expanding the player pool and changing the team’s style amid his long-term project, the 49-year-old Californian takes his rebuilding team into Brazil as reigning Gold Cup champions and decisive winners of CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament.

Secret weapon: Fabian Johnson

If fitness, speed, strength are going to be decisive in Brazil, then the U.S.’s versatile Gladbach wideman could be one of its most valuable weapons. Able to play midfield or defense, on the left or right, Johnson’s speed leaves him capable of patrolling goal-line to goal-line, something that will liberate the likes of Graham Zusi to pinch in and augment the U.S.’s two-man midfield. Expected to start at right back, his strength and fitness will be tested against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marco Reus, giving the U.S. a high-level European talent to matchup with their opponent’s high-level European stars.

Prediction: Third place is the fair pick, but the U.S. could finish anywhere from second to fourth in Group G. The key will be an opening match win over Ghana – a team that’s beaten the U.S. at the last two World Cups. With three points against the Black Stars, the U.S. creates a near win-and-in opportunity against Portugal.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.