As loss to Belgium exemplified, time is now for US to develop game-changing players, style

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Every now and again, it is fun to think about: What if just ONE of America’s greatest athletes had played soccer instead? What if LeBron or Cam Newton or Mike Trout or Adrian Peterson or Patrick Kane had chosen soccer instead of their sport?

Tuesday, I think, we saw what it might have looked like: It might have looked just a little bit like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Did you see him? Holy cow: Did you SEE him? Apparently Lukaku has been disappointing for much of this World Cup, listless, indifferent, unready for such a big stage. That, I guess, is why he was a substitute on Tuesday. Lukaku is only 21 years old, and he has spent much of his young career in the Premier League getting loaned out. He’s clearly trying to find his place.

But talent? Absurd. He’s 6-foot-3. He’s brilliantly fast – have you seen that Quicksilver scene in the new X-Men movie? Yeah, he’s like that fast. Most of all, he’s just overpowering when he runs. Like Peterson. Like LeBron. The Guardian named Lukaku one of the 10 most promising players in Europe.

And Tuesday, in extra time, he came in and he made the World Cup his own by running through a game but tired United States defense again and again – unstoppable, unbreakable, untouchable. It was mind-boggling. The United States would send one, two, three defenders at him and he would just smash through them. He set up Belgium’s first goal by simply running through a stumbling U.S. defender. He scored the second with a powerful run to the near post where he shielded off the defender and left-footed a smash past goalkeeper Tim Howard. He had various other moments that almost ended up as goals.

[MORE: Belgium sinks U.S. in extra time, advances to World Cup quarterfinals]

The United States has had many good soccer players. They’ve had scrappy defenders and tough midfielders and blazing fast forwards. Their goaltender, Howard, put on a display for the ages against Belgium with 16 saves, the most ever recorded for a World Cup game. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world; America has had a few good goalkeepers. Well, we’re good with our hands.

[MORE: Howard’s heroics not enough in ‘heartbreaking’ U.S. World Cup exit]

But they’ve never had a Romelu Lukaku. Or, more to the point, America’s Romelu Lukakus have spent the last few decades driving hard to the basket, plowing through linebackers and crashing into fences after long fly balls. What kind of goal scorer could Barry Sanders have been? How about Dave Winfield? What about Tim Tebow?

So far America has never had that soccer force who can scare the heck out of the rest of the world. So far America has not had a player who can take over games the way Lukaku did. And it seems that until American soccer has a Lukaku (never mind a real soccer genius like Messi or Neymar), a player capable of making magic time after time, this round of 16 business just might be their limit.

Oh, make no mistake, this was a very nice World Cup for the United States. Few thought they could escape the so-called Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal both ranked in the FIFA Top 5 and the added bonus of Ghana, the country that ended America’s last  two World Cups.

It wasn’t easy. The U.S. scored almost instantly against Ghana this time, then withstood a furious barrage, and finally scored a late game-winner. The U.S. outplayed Portugal and should have come away with a victory but took the draw after a singular bit of magnificence from Cristiano Ronaldo. Then, even in a loss to Germany, they showed will and gritty defending against a clearly superior team.

What they rarely showed, though, was brilliance. Throughout the tournament, the key word was “possession” – the U.S. gave the ball away again and again … they could rarely build any sort of sustained attack because they couldn’t keep possession long enough. A team can have some success at the World Cup with a well-organized defense and a couple of lightning-bolt goals. But sooner or later, that style runs its course.

[MORE: USA player ratings vs. Belgium  |  Signs of progress small, but clear]

Yes, the United States could have beaten Belgium on Tuesday – if Chris Wondolowski had punched home that remarkable chance in the final minute of regulation, the United States surely would have won. But talking about missed chances in soccer isn’t especially helpful; if Howard had not been Superman, the United States would have lost 6-0. The bigger point was the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed by a much more talented team. The U.S. might have stolen the game, but it would have been just that: A steal. Belgium was much, much better.

And if the U.S. is to take the next step, they cannot go into games where they are thoroughly outclassed. The U.S. needs to develop some players who go beyond tough, beyond rugged, beyond resilient and fit and hard-working. They need to develop some players who can do wizardry.

This is something people have been talking about for decades – the “when will America develop a world-class player” stories were written 30 or 40 years ago – but I suspect the time is now.

Sure, people will keep arguing about soccer’s place in the American landscape. Some will point to the extraordinary way this World Cup took hold in the United States. Others will point to the extremely low ratings of MLS. Some will see the trend of young people embracing soccer. Others will point to the many years of youth soccer dominance in America and how little impact it has had on soccer as a spectator sport. That argument isn’t stopping anytime soon.

But wherever soccer ends up on the great American sports spectrum, there is no question that this is a moment for the team to build on. Two young players – DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green – had auspicious debuts this World Cup. But there’s something else, too.

You know the story of Pelé, right? He was 10 years old in 1950, when his home country of Brazil lost to Uruguay in one of the most famous matches ever played. The young Pelé saw his father crying after the loss. Pelé went up to his father and said, “Don’t worry. One day, I will win it.”

Something like that could very well have happened at this World Cup, too. This was the most-watched World Cup in American history and by far the most talked about. So maybe a 10-year-old who plays all the sports – maybe a whole bunch of 10 year olds – saw the brilliant passing of Ronaldo, the magic of Messi, the sheer physical sway of Belgium’s 19-year-old wunderkind Divock Origi and his replacement, Lukaku. And maybe they thought, “That’s what I want to be.”

The U.S. fell in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup. They played hard, and they held up well, and they gave us a final 15 minutes to remember, and they were not good enough. But if those kids were watching … this could be the most important result in U.S. World Cup history.

Hazard and Co. set up NASL club in San Diego

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Soccer in SoCal continues to boom.

[ MORE: Sanchez, Aguero swap deal?

The North American Soccer League (NASL) announced Monday that San Diego will have a second-tier team for the 2018 season as professional soccer returns to San Diego County.

In a statement from the NASL it was revealed that San Diego’s new expansion franchise is owned by star players Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Moussa Sow, as well as executives with experience of the San Diego market.

Hazard, a star for Chelsea and Belgium, revealed exactly why he believes San Diego deserves a soccer team.

“San Diego is a beautiful place and the love and passion that the people have for soccer made this an easy choice for us,” Hazard said. “My friends and I are honored to turn this dream into a reality and we can’t wait to get started and win some games.”

The quartet do not have a name, logo or colors for the team, but that is expected to be announced in the coming months. Bob Watkins will serve as the club president and Ricardo Campos, former technical director for thew New York Red Bulls, will serve in the front office alongside Katy Temple as the pieces are put in place for another new soccer team in California.

NASL will have 10 teams for the 2018 season with Orange County also joining the league that currently shares second-tier status with the much-larger USL which boasts 30 teams.

With Orange County and San Diego arriving in NASL in 2018, LAFC to join Major League Soccer in 2018 and a consortium led by former USMNT star Landon Donovan hoping for an MLS expansion team in San Diego in the years to come, soccer in SoCal is booming.

How involved Chelsea star Hazard, Crystal Palace midfielder Cabaye, Shanghai Shenhua striker Ba and Al-Ahli forward Sow get remains to be seen but they’ve obviously seen a gap in the market in San Diego.

Bakayoko to Chelsea, Matic to Man United close

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Two defensive midfielders will have new homes very soon.

[ MORE: Aguero, Alexis in swap deal? ]

Tiemoue Bakayoko, 22, is closing in on a move to Chelsea from AS Monaco as he is set to replace the outgoing Nemanja Matic who will link up with his former boss Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.

Multiple reports, including this one from the BBC, state the deal for Bakayoko is close to completion with Chelsea and Monaco agreeing the $41.8 million fee and the French midfielder is expected to be a Chelsea player in the next 48 hours.

As for Matic’s imminent arrival at Old Trafford, the Serbian destroyer, 28, will reportedly complete his move this week with the Guardian stating the clubs have agreed a price of around $50 million and wages of $197,000 per week have also been agreed between the player and United.

United badly needed a defensive reinforcement in central midfield and Matic (who has won two Premier League titles in three seasons since rejoining Chelsea in 2014) would fit the bill. Able to start attacks and possess the ball as well as a fine reader of the game who uses his lanky frame to intercept passes and sweep up in front of the defense, Matic would surely be the perfect foil for Ander Herrera in United’s engine room and they’d allow Paul Pogba to roam free.

As for Chelsea, there’s no doubt that losing Matic is a blow but Bakayoko is rated as one of the top defensive midfielders in Europe after excelling for French champions Monaco in Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League last season. He’s a more composed version of Victor Wanyama and alongside N'Golo Kante he’d provide Chelsea’s defense with a formidable shield. This is just the type of midfielder Antonio Conte loves.

Both United and Chelsea would considerably improve their central midfield areas with these additions.

Frank de Boer named new Crystal Palace manager

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The Eagles have gone Dutch.

Crystal Palace appointed Frank de Boer as its new manager Monday, announcing the Dutch legend has signed a three-year deal at Selhurst Park.

De Boer, 47, previously won four consecutive Dutch titles in charge of Ajax from 2010-16 before a less successful spell in charge of Inter Milan last season as he lasted just three months (and just 14 matches) in charge of the Italian giants.

“I am thrilled to be appointed as manager of Crystal Palace Football Club. It is a great honor to take charge of such an historic club, a club that is known around the world for its hugely proud and passionate fan base,” De Boer said. “This role is a hugely exciting opportunity for me, and I cannot wait to get started in the Premier League with the players and staff here in south London.”

There’s no doubt De Boer’s playing career means he will demand the utmost respect from Palace’s players — he won five Dutch titles, a UEFA Champions League and Europa League at Ajax, a Spanish title at Barcelona and was capped 112 times by the Netherlands — but adapting to a new league may be difficult for the Dutchman, although he did spend time with Glasgow Rangers and had stops in Turkey and Qatar during his illustrious playing career. He’s no stranger to change.

Palace chairman Steve Parish revealed that De Boer’s arrival aligns with the ambitious plans for the club who also aim to develop their young players.

“We have undertaken a thorough interview process to ensure we are in a position to appoint a manager of the caliber and experience that Frank brings with him,” Parish said. “I am pleased to welcome him to Crystal Palace and I know he cannot wait to get started and prepare for our record breaking fifth season in the top flight.”

After Sam Allardyce announced his retirement at the end of the 2016-17 season after keeping Crystal Palace up in the Premier League, the Eagles have been searching for a new boss diligently. Parish is said to have favored former Hull boss Marco Silva to take charge of the south London club, but Silva opted for Watford.

Palace stretched out their managerial search with Mauricio Pellegrino, appointed by Southampton on Friday, also on their shortlist, but De Boer has now arrived to take charge of the ambitious London club.

With big money spent on the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye in recent seasons, the Eagles were supposed to be challenging for a top 10 finish. The past two seasons they’ve flirted with relegation under Alan Pardew and then Allardyce, with new American majority owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer yet to see the success they’d hoped for.

De Boer stated he would give every player at Palace a chance before making signings, but judging by the inconsistent displays by a squad largely built by Pardew and then patched up by Allardyce the Dutch coach will have a big job on his hands to turn the squad around and create a new identity for the Eagles.

He is a big name in the soccer world and Palace’s passionate fans will no doubt be excited by the prospect of De Boer bringing a new possession-based playing philosophy to Selhurst Park.

Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero swap deal in place?

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A huge swap deal for two of the Premier League’s biggest stars is reportedly being discussed.

[ MORE: Mourinho’s father dies ]

The Daily Star reports that Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero could involved in a swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester City this summer.

Per the report, the deal would be a straight-swap and when you think about it for a moment, it would be the perfect solution for almost everyone involved and with Aguero aged 29 and Sanchez 28, it’s a close to a perfect swap as you’ll find for both clubs.

The South American superstars are both in tough situations with their current teams, but this would also be a tough deal to get done.

Arsenal do not want to sell Sanchez, especially to a Premier League rival, but with the Chilean superstar having just 12 months left on his contract his transfer value is rapidly diminishing each week he doesn’t sign a new deal. And with Aguero dropped by Pep Guardiola on multiple occasions last season despite scoring 33 times in all competitions, the Argentine would get the chance to be the main man at Arsenal.

Everything should be on board with this, right?

Well, Aguero would have to sacrifice UEFA Champions League action for at least one season with Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League in 2017-18 which could throw a considerable spanner in the works of this rather outrageous deal. However, Arsenal would be getting one of the greatest finishers of his generation, and in Premier League history, which would mean they’d finally have the prolific forward they need to finish off the multiple gilt-edged chances per game they create.

Wenger went after Jamie Vardy last summer but failed and with Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott around, all three are far from prolific. Aguero would be one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw for Arsenal but both clubs would argue they’d want to keep their stars and add the other. The only way City would be able to add Sanchez is if they offer up Aguero.

Sanchez was signed by Guardiola at Barcelona and the Chilean would perfectly slot into City’s fluid front three alongside Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. Aguero didn’t fit that system well last season and despite Pep stating the Argentine striker would be at the club in 2017-18, you have to think he’d pick Alexis over Aguero.

Although this swap deal seems to suit almost everyone, it still seems incredibly far-fetched. That said, both Premier League clubs would save face in losing a star name and financially there would be no huge losses.

Hmmm. The more you think about it, the more this makes sense.