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.

Money from Wembley replay will “support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years”

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone