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.

Former Fulham midfielder Sidwell tells another amazing Felix Magath story

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German manager Felix Magath has always been known as a mercurial individual, but as time passes from his failed stint in charge of relegated club Fulham, more and more stories continue to flow from former players that absolutely boggle the mind.

The most famous story thus far has come from former Fulham defender Brede Hangeland about Magath’s suggestion that applying cottage cheese directly to his ailing knee would help solve his injury problem. Hangeland also spoke of how Magath would make the team run in the dead of night after returning from away trips, calling him “an awful human being.”

Now, former Fulham midfielder Steve Sidwell, who spent three years at Craven Cottage, spoke up about his own experiences under Magath. Sidwell, now with Brighton but yet to make a Premier League appearance, told BBC 5 Live Sports about another time Magath was frustrated with his squad, and how he chose a different way to express that during training.

“We played poorly – I can’t remember what game it was – and we got off the bus and he said ‘right, well everyone in tomorrow at 8:00 and we’re gonna train.’ We was due a day off but we’re gonna be in for training. So everyone got in, we got outside…there was no balls coming out with us so we’re thinking ‘right, ok.’ So he’s gone ‘right, your formation yesterday, can you get in your positions?’ So we got on the pitch…goalkeeper, back four, midfield four, two strikers…stood there. And he said, ‘right, you didn’t want to run around yesterday, we’re not gonna run around today.’ And he just blew the whistle, and he said ‘everyone just stand still.’ And we had to just stand still. And it was a cold day, and there was a couple lads with gloves on, they was off straight away. There was leaves blowing across the pitch, you couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, you had to just stand there, and I think we was just there for about 40 minutes just standing there.”

In. Credible. Stuff. Sidwell also said that Magath had every player participate in a pint night before each and every away game, often in the hotel bar.

Magath was fired in September of 2014, just seven months after his hire, with Fulham having suffered an eleven-game winless streak. The Whites were eventually relegated later that season, and have not recovered since, still in the Championship looking for a return to the top flight.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Manchester United

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  • Southampton has 3 clean sheets in 5 PL games this season
  • 8 players have scored for MUFC, the most in the PL
  • Saints have lost to MUFC 24 times, more than any other PL team

Manchester United can equal its club record best start to a Premier League season if they defeat Southampton at St. Mary’s Saturday morning (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

The Red Devils, as they were all of last season, have one of the best defensive records in the Premier League, conceding just two goals through five matches, joint-best alongside Manchester City.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

The Southampton defense, however, will be most hyped in this match as Virgil Van Dijk is likely to make his first start for the Saints since January. The Dutchman has been out of action after holding out of preseason and the start of the campaign over transfer rumors, but is back with the club after returning as a substitute last time out.

Southampton has conceded just four goals in five games without their most coveted defender, but they have also scored just four goals on their way to eight points thus far, which leaves them in ninth position.

On the other side, Manchester United will be missing Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo, but otherwise have a clean bill of health as they look to at the least keep stride with their cross-town rivals atop the league table. Jose Mourinho has six away fixtures over the next four weeks across all competitions, and will likely look to rotate the squad at some point during that stretch.

What they’re saying

Mourinho on Southampton: “Southampton to be fair, I played them in my second spell in England, I played them and they had Mauricio [Pochettino], and then [Ronald] Koeman, and then [Claude] Puel and now Mauricio [Pellegrino] – and I don’t see many changes. It’s the kind of club where they are very stable in the way they play, the way they think (about) football, the qualities of their players. It’s a good team to be a manager. Honestly, it’s a very good club to be a manager and I see the match as a very difficult match.”

Pellegrino on Manchester United: “When we play against the biggest team in the world, it allows us to draw some conclusions about how we are. This is for me the nice challenge and we have to strive for this. Playing against Manchester United is one of the most beautiful things. I will live this opportunity, I will live this game, and now we have to try to enjoy this game.”

Prediction

This could be a difficult match for Manchester United. Southampton’s defense is very stout, and the Red Devils could potentially find themselves frustrated should they find themselves goalless through the first 60 minutes. Ultimately, the smartest play here is a close 1-0 win for Manchester United with a late goal, but a similar result in the other direction wouldn’t be the most shocking thing.

PSG’s Neymar out with foot injury

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PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain says Neymar will miss Saturday’s French league match at Montpellier because of a right foot injury.

The 25-year-old Neymar has scored four goals and delivered four assists in five games with PSG since he joined from Barcelona in a world-record transfer worth 222 million euros ($262 million). It’s the first game the Brazil international will miss with PSG since he was authorized to play.

PSG travels to Montpellier aiming to extend its perfect league record this season to seven matches.

It is unclear whether Neymar will have recovered in time for next week’s Champions League game against Bayern Munich.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks, previews

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The big games just keep coming in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

Click play on the videos below for quick previews on each game complete with a score prediction from yours truly.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Manchester City vs. Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Arsenal vs. West Brom – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

West Ham vs. Tottenham – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Southampton vs. Manchester United – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Stoke City vs. Chelsea – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM

Burnley vs. Huddersfield Town – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Brighton vs. Newcastle United – (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]  

Swansea City vs. Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

http://imgur.com/SF8MzIP

Everton vs. Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Leicester City vs. Liverpool – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]