USA Training & Press Conference - 2014 FIFA World Cup

No illusions: Unconventional Klinsmann instills confidence in United States

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So it has been, what, a week since we were calling the United States World Cup group (cue scary music, woman shrieking, young child with glowing eyes) the “GROUP OF DEATH.” In retrospect, that might have been a bit of an overstatement. “Group of Moderate Pain” might have been more apt. Or maybe “Group of Pretty Severe Heartburn.” Or “Kind of Tough Group.”

From the start, we probably should have known that the only team in the U.S. group with a real and viable chance of winning the World Cup was Germany. There’s no question about Germany’s awesomeness, which has already been on display. The others? Ghana has been a thorn in the U.S. side in recent World Cups, but come on, they are ranked 37th in the FIFA World Rankings.

Portugal is ranked very high in the World Rankings, but the most intense soccer fans I know seemed to think of them as somewhat insubstantial – a team that relies too much on the singular greatness of Cristiano Ronaldo. With Ronaldo possibly hurt (and possibly not; soccer loves its mysteries) and with the memory of the 4-0 drubbing by Germany fresh in the mind, Portugal has become a 40-to-1 long shot to win it all.

And that leaves the United States – a team very few fans around the world take seriously. Like I say – tough group. But Group of Death? This is a bit like some of the later U.S. Olympic basketball teams still trying to call themselves “Dream Teams.”

*If there is a GROUP OF DEATH out there it probably should be Group D – D for Death – with stunning Costa Rica, Luis Suarez’ inspired Uruguay, perennial power Italy and poor Mother England.

The U.S. has a very real chance to advance with a good performance against Portugal on Sunday – Ronaldo’s health is in question, superb defender Pepe is out – and you can’t help but wonder if all of this is playing out along the strange, serpentine path set out in the mind of the United States’ quirky and outspoken coach, Jürgen Klinsmann.

He’s a fascinating character in every way. You probably know his life story: Klinsmann apprenticed as a baker – his parents owned a bakery famous for its pretzels – but he was a soccer prodigy. According to a superb story Alex Wolff wrote about him in Sports Illustrated before the 1994 World Cup, Klinsmann once scored 16 goals in a youth soccer game. He was a breathtaking scorer his entire career – he became the first man to score three goals or more in three consecutive World Cups. He also was so famous for taking dives that he won England’s heart by taking fake dives after scoring goals when playing in the Premier League.

And he was an iconoclast off the field. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle. He traveled to places like South Africa to learn about the situation there. Wolff reported that he would sometimes sing to himself the German protest song “All People Will Be Brothers” while the German national anthem played before matches. There was something deeper always going on with him.

This was true too when he became coach of the German team. The team was pretty much a wreck going into the 2006 World Cup, and nobody was happy with Klinsmann. The defense was something of a shambles and many thought Klinsmann – always the most aggressive of offensive players – didn’t particularly care about defense. The Sun newspaper’s official 2006 World Cup song was “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Jürgen Klinsmann?” But the team made it all the way to the semifinal, losing to eventual champion Italy. And cynics had to grudgingly concede that Klinsmann turned out to be good at this too.

[ MORE: Three areas of focus for the U.S. against Portugal ]
[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]

Ever since he took over the U.S. team – the 35th coach in United States soccer team history – he has been shockingly blunt about his mission to make U.S. soccer unlike U.S. soccer. For instance, he cut Landon Donovan – the most famous and perhaps best soccer player in American history – creating a stir. His explanation for cutting Donovan at the time seemed pretty weak; he simply said that others were in better form. But the REAL explanation emerged in his interview with Sam Borden of the New York Times Magazine … with Kobe Bryant being collateral damage.

“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann said, referring to stars becoming bigger than logic. “Kobe Bryant, for example – why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

The key sentence in there, I think, is not the Bryant stuff but the line: “This always happens in America.” Klinsmann loves America, has been fascinated with our country since he was young. But there are American qualities that make no sense to him, especially when it comes to soccer. He thinks Donovan is finished as a world-class player. He thinks this is pretty obvious. And he thinks Americans are too sentimental about such matters of mortality.

He also thinks we Americans can be unrealistic – and so he has said point blank, on numerous occasions, that this team can’t win the World Cup. He has said it about 50 different ways. “We are not at the level yet,” he told the Times. And then: “Basically, it’s not possible.”

Think of another coach in any American sport would ever say anything is “not possible.”

But this is Klinsmann and it is part of his effort to make U.S. soccer bend to his will. He coaches a soccer team that has had little-to-no international success and yet recently had a youth program called “Project 2010” because the organizers honestly believed the U.S. would win the World Cup by 2010. He coaches in a country where we never stop believing in American possibility, and we never quite forget that we got to the moon first.

[ MORE: ProSoccerTalk covers all-things USMNT at the 2014 World Cup ]
[ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2014 World Cup central  |  All-Access ]

So, he has stripped away all illusions. The past is the past. The team isn’t good enough. The U.S. has almost no chance to survive the GROUP OF DEATH. He did not come up with the last one, but I’m sure it suited his purposes.

Then, Monday, Clint Dempsey scored that super-quick goal against Ghana. The U.S. was promptly outplayed for 80-plus minutes. The game was ugly for the U.S. – the team does not often play beautiful soccer, anyway, but against Ghana there were stretches where it seemed they could not complete two passes in a row. Ghana dominated the ball and threatened again and again. But somehow the U.S. fought off the challenges for much longer than seemed possible. And after Ghana did score the equalizer, the U.S. found a way to get a corner kick, and then the ball found the head of John Brooks, who put away the thrilling game-winner.

Now, the U.S. plays a wounded and demoralized Portugal team – with rumors about Ronaldo’s health buzzing – and with a win they are basically through the Group of Death. With a draw, they still have an excellent chance of getting through. This is a much better position than anyone could have possibly expected, and everyone is getting really excited.

But perhaps this sort of hope is precisely the thing Klinsmann has railed again. Portugal has perhaps the best player on earth in Ronaldo, who they insist is 100 percent healthy. Portugal has had quite a bit of success the last 10 years including a fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, and a semifinal at Euro 2012. Portugal has a much richer soccer history than the U.S. Klinsmann, no doubt, wants everyone to understand that the U.S. has little chance of …

“We believe we can beat them,” Klinsmann told reporters this week.

Wait. What?

“We have very good players in this squad, “ he said, “and we have the confidence to go into that game and say, ‘we are here and we want to beat you and get into the next round.”

“It can’t get any better,” he said.

Well, like I say: You never know with Jürgen Klinsmann.

La Liga roundup: Sevilla flying high after Ben Yedder brace

SEVILLE, SPAIN - AUGUST 20:  Wissam Ben Yedder of Sevilla FC celebrates after scoring during the match between Sevilla FC vs RCD Espanyol as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on August 20, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Seville and the Spanish language have been puzzling French forward Wissam Ben Yedder.

On the football pitch, though, he’s no longer confused.

Ben Yedder proved he’s got his groove back with a pair of goals – the second in stoppage time – to snatch a 2-1 win for Sevilla over a tough Alaves side at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on Saturday.

The victory pulled Sevilla provisionally level with Real Madrid on points at the top of the Spanish league, and underlined for the second time this week the worth of Ben Yedder’s offseason signing. On Tuesday, the former Toulouse standout also scored in a 1-0 victory over Lyon in the Champions League.

“I’m very happy for (Ben Yedder),” coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “He was having difficulties adapting to Seville, to the language, his teammates, understanding my orders, our system, many things. But in these two games he has shown why he is at Sevilla.”

His first goal came in the 74th when substitute Ganso passed superbly to set him up. Ganso had his back to the goal and was falling forward from a collision, but still managed to flick his left boot back and send a perfect assist for Ben Yedder to fire home.

After Alaves defender Victor Laguardia scrambled in the equalizer from a corner kick in the 84th, Ben Yedder’s winner went in off the side of his left heel, deflecting Victor “Vitolo” Machin’s low cross under goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco.

Before the late flurry of goals, the match was marred by several leg injuries, with all the injured walking off the pitch when substituted.

Alaves lost Kiko Femenia and Daniel Torres in the first half, while Sevilla lost forwards Samir Nasri and Luciano Vietto in a three-minute span with a half-hour to play. Referee Mateo Lahoz also had to be replaced late because of a calf problem.

Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday when Barcelona, which trails Madrid and Sevilla by a point, visits Celta Vigo.

Ben Yedder’s second goal was one of three injury-time scores that swayed results across La Liga.

Former Liverpool midfielder Ryan Babel scored a scorching goal from outside the area in stoppage time to give Deporitvo La Coruna its first win in six rounds.

Babel joined Deportivo two weeks ago on a free transfer. The Dutchman had most recently played for Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates.

Babel went on with just over 20 minutes to play and made his impact when he sent his right-footed strike streaking in off the post, dealing Sporting a fourth consecutive defeat.

Another stoppage-time goal completed Las Palmas’ fightback at Osasuna, denying the hosts an elusive first win of the season.

David Garcia scored from a rebound off the upright after 90 minutes to take the point for the Canary Islands outfit.

“We deserved this point because we were the only team that should have won today,” Garcia said. “We carried the weight of the match throughout.”

Osasuna said coach Enrique Martin left the match in the first half because of an unspecified health issue.

Leganes continued its excellent debut in the top flight with a third win in seven rounds. This latest pushed Granada to the bottom of the standings.

Leganes defender Alexander Szymanowski struck in the 76th with a left-footed shot from the edge of the area after Robert Ibanez sprung a counterattack.

Granada’s latest loss ruined the debut of its caretaker coach, Lluis Planaguma, who took over managing duties following the firing of Paco Jemez.

PL Sunday preview: Spurs-Man City; Man United, Arsenal in action

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Four-game Sundays are something of a rare sight in the Premier League, thus we must cherish such an occurrence when the soccer gods are kind enough to bestow upon us a four-game slate of fixtures like the one which awaits us this Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Manchester United vs. Stoke City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

With Wayne Rooney dropped from the starting lineup last weekend, Man United looked the best Red Devils side since — dare we say it — Sir Alex Ferguson retired. That’s all well and good, until Jose Mourinho has to pick his next starting XI for a PL fixture, Sunday against bottom-of-the-league Stoke City. The United and England captain has played in over 500 games for the club (all competitions), and scored nearly 250 goals, yet he’s no longer an automatic starter for the club. Not by coincidence, Paul Pogba scored his first United goal once allowed to push further forward, into Rooney’s regular position just behind the striker, which is something he’ll be expected to continue doing as the most expensive signing in the history of the world.

As for the Potters, it’s been a miserable start to the season — yet to win a game; just two points from six games — and Mark Hughes will undoubtedly be wondering, “Am I in danger of being fired?” The answer is simple, Mark: yes, if you’re still at or near the bottom of the league in a month’s time. The elusive first trio of points looked on the cards last weekend, but a 91st-minute equalizer scored by Salomon Rondon extended Stoke’s winless start to the campaign. The last time Stoke won at Old Trafford, in any competition, the date was April 21, 1976.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Key wins for Chelsea, Liverpool ]


Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Six weeks into the season, there are exactly two remaining unbeaten sides in the PL: Man City and Tottenham, who sit first and third in the league table, respectively, heading into Sunday’s showdown at White Hart Lane. For the second straight season, Mauricio Pochettino‘s Spurs possess the league’s best defensive record (three goals conceded), with Pep Guardiola‘s City a close second (five, level with Everton). The two managers know each other well, from their days as Catalonian rivals, at Espanyol and Barcelona, respectively. Pochettino has managed just one win in seven all-time meetings (to Guardiola’s four), though the Argentine has never taken a side as talented as this Spurs squad into a clash with his Spanish counterpart either.

Both sides will be without key figures, with Harry Kane (ankle ligament damage) and Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring) out weeks beyond Sunday’s duel at the Lane. Nolito (suspension) and Vincent Kompany (hamstring) will also be unavailable for City, while the quartet of Mousa Dembele (hamstring), Eric Dier (hamstring), Danny Rose (hamstring) and Moussa Sissoko (concussion) will all face late fitness tests to determine their status on the day. Heung-Min Son has shouldered the goal-scoring load in Kane’s absence, tallying five times in five games (all competitions). City’s 100-percent record is on the line, against a side that turned them over twice in 2015-16, by a combined score of 6-2.

[ MORE: WATCH — PL Download celebrates Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal ]


Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9:15 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

The defending champions, Leicester, are due a victory on Sunday, if their recent form is any indication. The Foxes have alternated wins and losses — both defeats coming via 4-1 scorelines — over their last four games, with the latest thrashing delivered by Man United last weekend. They’ve managed to hit the ground running in their maiden UEFA Champions League voyage (two wins in two), but the early-season league form has all but removed Claudio Ranieri‘s side from this season’s title race. Southampton, meanwhile, have found their footing under (another) new manager, Claude Puel, with back-to-back wins (and clean sheets) after a four-game winless skid to start the season.

[ MORE: Conte revels in Chelsea’s intensity in win at Hull ]


Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Name a time in the last decade in which Arsenal looked more fluid, more balanced, and more ruthless with every foray into the final third. You’d be hard-pressed to do so after recent performances — four straight PL wins, by a combined score of 12-3, including last weekend’s demolition of Chelsea. Throw in the fact Arsene Wenger is celebrating 20 years in charge of the Gunners this weekend, and all of that equals another dominant Arsenal victory, right? Of course, because Arsenal have never once fallen flat on their face when you least expected them to do so.

Burnley have already claimed a pair of impressive scalps — Liverpool and Watford — at Turf Moor this season, which is critical for the Clarets, because they’ve been woeful away from home (two losses in two, both by 3-0 scorelines). With the second-fewest goals scored (five) in the PL this season, Sean Dyche will pin his side’s hopes on a potential third clean sheet of the season.

Ilkay Gundogan returns to Germany squad for qualifiers

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: IIkay Gundogan of Manchester City in action during the UEFA Champions League match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) Ilkay Gundogan will return for Germany after nearly a year out with various injuries for World Cup qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland.

The Manchester City midfielder last played for Germany in a friendly against France on Nov. 13, the night of multiple attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

[ MORE: PST talks with Michael Bradley ]

Gundogan missed the European Championship in France.

Striker Mario Gomez and defender Jerome Boateng are also back after injuries at the European Championship.

Germany began its defense of the World Cup title with a 3-0 win in Norway. The team plays the Czechs in Hamburg on Oct. 8 and Northern Ireland three days later in Hannover.

Germany is the favorite to win Group C and qualify directly for the 2018 tournament in Russia.

WATCH: New PL Download — Celebrating Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal

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In an era where managers are frequently hired and fired barely 12 months apart, Arsene Wenger has managed to stay afloat — and thrive like few others have done — for 20 years today, Saturday, October 1.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It’s an unbelievable milestone for the Frenchman, who will finish the 2016-17 season just shy of 1,200 games managed at the club. For the latest episode of Premier League Download, NBC Sports’ Roger Bennett sat down one-on-one with the Gunners’ legendary boss (above video).

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Key wins for Chelsea, Liverpool ]

Their conversation was wide-ranging, from Wenger’s early days at the club, to the world-class players he’s had the privilege of working with, to his personal philosophy about what it takes to be a successful manager.