Julian Green

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.

Thibaut Courtois committed to Chelsea despite links to PSG

WATFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 03:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Chelsea at Vicarage Road on February 3, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Thibaut Courtois has denied reports he could leave London for Paris Saint-Germain this summer after a disappointing season at Chelsea.

The 23-year-old goalkeeper missed a large portion of the season through injury and failed to regain his top form when healthy as the Blues struggled throughout the year.

With a new manager in Antonio Conte taking over in June, some believed Courtois would be sold to allow the Italian to bring in a goalkeeper of his choice.

[ MORE: Atletico Madrid reach UCL final ]

Despite recent reports linking Courtois with a transfer to PSG that would make him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, the Belgian international does not fancy a move to France.

Speaking to French newspaper Le Parisien, Courtois said he is happy at Chelsea and will “100-percent” be back at Stamford Bridge next season.

I have never had any contact with PSG. I have played a lot against PSG recently – twice last season, again this season in a friendly and twice more in the Champions League this year.

They are a good club who win their league easily. Me, I like playing in England. Paris is a very good club but I am happy at Chelsea.

I have a contract for three years, so I will say 100 per cent [be staying at Chelsea]. Rumours affect any club where things are going badly. People think the top players want to leave because they are not in the Champions League.

Those words show quite a change from Courtois’ opinion a few months ago, when he cast doubt over his Chelsea future.

At just 23, Courtois has already made more than 200 appearances in his career for Atletico Madrid and Chelsea. Although he did not have a standout season this year, Courtois has shown his talent as a potential top-five goalkeeper in the world and Conte would be wise to keep him.

Former CONMEBOL president has petition to stop extradition rejected

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ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) Paraguay’s top court has rejected a petition by Nicolas Leoz, the former head of the South American football confederation, to halt his extradition to the United States.

Leoz is being held under house arrest in Paraguay. He is accused of receiving millions in bribes and kickbacks and was among dozens of top officials indicted in the FIFA corruption scandal.

[ FOLLOW: Leicester City’s miracle ]

Leoz’s lawyer Ricardo Preda told The Associated Press that his petition was turned down, but that he would continue to appeal against the extradition.

Leoz was the head of CONMEBOL from 1986 until 2013 when he resigned, and was replaced by Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay.

Figueredo is under house arrest in Uruguay on similar charges. Figueredo was replaced by Juan Angel Napoul of Paraguay, who is under house arrest in Miami.

Cristiano Ronaldo back healthy for Real Madrid; will play vs. Man City

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 03:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid warms up during a training session ahead of the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg between Real Madrid and Manchester City at Valdebebas training ground on May 3, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has confirmed that Cristiano Ronaldo is “100-percent” for Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal match against Manchester City.

Ronaldo missed the first leg at the Etihad while recovering from a thigh injury, which ended a scoreless draw.

[ MORE: UCL semifinal preview ]

The Champions League’s all-time leading scorer with 93 goals, Ronaldo has not featured for Real since suffering the injury in a La Liga match against Villarreal on April 20.

Real Madrid had the better of chances in the first leg in Manchester, but Joe Hart’s heroics stopped Zidane’s side from grabbing an all-important away goal. However, Ronaldo’s absence was clearly visible and his return is a massive boost for Real.

[ RELATED: Atletico Madrid eliminate Bayern Munich, advance to UCL final ]

Even if Ronaldo is not 100-percent fit as Zidane claims, his inclusion in the lineup is still vital for Real’s success. A threat in so many different aspects of the game, his presence alone can throw off opposing defenses, leaving more time and space for his teammates to expose a City back-line that has its flaws.

Premier League chairman: Leicester City made mugs of all of us

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester reacts to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore has been around football for a long time, but even he can’t explain Leicester City’s miraculous title run.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Leicester coverage ]

With the Foxes now officially champions of England, Scudamore hailed the achievement as “the biggest sporting story ever.”

Speaking to BBC Sport, the Premier League’s top exec said Leicester’s run has silenced all the bookmakers and critics who said it could never happen, but that he wouldn’t want it any other way.

It’s probably the biggest sporting story ever and the biggest sporting achievement ever.

Nobody saw it coming and even when it was halfway through the season nobody said it could be sustained.

We don’t know what the future holds because we’ve all become completely hopeless at predicting anything, including the bookmakers and everybody else – because this one nobody saw coming.

It’s made mugs of all of us and that is just the most fantastic feeling.

If the bookmakers had it as a 5,000-1 event, you would imagine you should achieve these type of things once every 5,000 years. It gives us 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years of being able to say: ‘Leicester 2016. Just remember Leicester 2016.’

Pegged as pre-season favorites for relegation, Leicester defied the odds (5,000-1 odds) and claimed the most unlikely of championships. A top executive with the Premier League since 1999, even Scudamore had to admit he had a bit of egg on his face.

[ VOTE: What is the top moment from Leicester’s fairytale run? ]

Scudamore may not have believed in the Foxes, but few outside the city really did. One thing the chairman did have right though, is that we will all remember ‘Leicester 2016.’