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USMNT’s Danny Williams eyes the Premier League

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LONDON — Sat in a coffee shop down by the banks of the River Thames in London, England, life is treating Danny Williams pretty well.

There is however one burning desire eating away at the ambitious German-American midfielder as we chat: he wants to play in the Premier League.

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At Reading for the past three years, the 27-year-old came close to making the Championship playoffs in his debut season in England but the last two campaigns have been disappointing for the Royals as they aim to get back to the top-flight.

After starting his career in Germany’s top-flight with Hoffenheim, Williams feels he’s now entering his prime and is ready to push into the PL.

“When I first came here to England I said I wanted to help Reading get back to the Premier League,” Williams said, fidgeting as he lent back in his chair. “We missed the playoffs in the first year by one goal and I was in form back then and then I had a knee injury so I missed the last three or four games of that season.

“The last few seasons we’ve failed with that ambition but I’ve always said it to everybody, my ambition is to play at the highest level in the world. I was fortunate enough to experience the Bundesliga which is a great division to play but the Premier League, which kid doesn’t want to play in the Prem, you know? I would be lying if I say that I want to play in the Championship all the time. I’m too ambitious for that.”

He’s had strong looks from Swansea City in the January transfer window earlier this year, plus he’s been linked with moves to other Premier League teams but Williams is remaining focused on the here and now.

“What has been said in the press, there is always a lot of speculation, especially when you only have a year left on your contract and all these kind of things,” Williams said. “My goal is just to focus, to stay healthy and stay fit and last year I played 46 games. When you stay fit everything else will come together.”

READING, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 20: Danny Williams of Reading scores the opening goal of the game during the Sky Bet Championship match between Reading and Blackburn Rovers on December 20, 2015 in Reading, United Kingdom. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

More of a combative, holding midfielder during his days in the Bundesliga, Williams has transformed his game in recent seasons to become a more traditional box-to-box midfielder.

“I’ll do whatever the manager wants me to do but for myself, I think I have too much energy to just be sitting in front of the back four and to tackle and pass the ball to other plays,” Williams said. “I see myself being able to influence the game a bit more with box-to-box runs. There’s a reason why over the last two to three years managers have seen me as a box-to-box midfielder because they are experienced managers. My best position is No. 8 where I can be a bit more involved in the attacking and also going back. Hopefully I get some more chances this year to prove that.”

[ VIDEO: Williams scores screamer vs. Brazil ]

Last season he scored six goals, the best haul in one season in his career, and he’s ready to score even more this season to push Reading on. New Reading manager Jaap Stam has used Williams in midfield in a 4-3-3 system and he’s counting on the U.S. international to be a leader for the Royals this season. Of the current squad only three players have played for Reading more than Williams has over the past three seasons as he’s become the energetic hub of their midfield.

“I always wanted to be more of a threat in front of goal,” Williams explained. “Since I move to England, people have seen me as a box-to-box midfielder. In Germany I had played in a more defensive role and for the national team as well. In Reading I have the freedom to go box-to-box and I told myself ‘if you want to be a box-to-box midfielder you have to add goals.’ So I worked hard on that in the training ground. I could have had a few more but six was alright…”

Sipping on a milky latte and smiling with his heavily tattooed arms crossed, Williams had just been dashing around central London prior to our chat. He’s relaxed and happy with life off the pitch as the man from Karlsruhe loves living in south west London, a close commute to Reading.

With new manager Stam in charge this season at the Madejski Stadium, Williams revealed he’s been impressed with the legendary Dutch defender in the short time he’s got to spend with him on the training ground. They will aim to keep the ball and with a young team they’re an unknown quantity. This weekend they kick off their Championship campaign against Preston North End as the grueling 46-game season begins in England’s second-tier.

“We are kind of like the underdogs this season,” Williams said. “Compared to three years ago when Reading had money to spend, everybody is a bit unsure as to what the season will bring but that is a good thing. Players are ambitious, we have a lot of young players and I hope that we are going to do well especially at the beginning of the season because that gives young players confidence.”

HIGH WYCOMBE, ENGLAND - JULY 24: Danny Williams of Reading during the Pre Season Friendly match between Reading and Swansea City at Adams Park on July 24, 2015 in High Wycombe, England. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

After runs to the FA Cup semifinals and quarterfinals in the past two seasons, it’s clear the makings of a good team are present at Reading. But in a league which now boasts fallen PL giants Newcastle United and Aston Villa, plus the likes of Norwich, Brighton, Leeds United, Wolves and many other huge clubs with large fanbases, getting out of the second-tier is increasingly tough.

Should Reading consider themselves among the favorites to reach the promised land of the Premier League?

“After the last two seasons we can’t say we are one of the favorites,” Williams said. “Obviously the long-term goal of the club is to be back in the Premier League and the club has all the conditions and facilities to be in the Premier League. After the last two seasons which were very disappointing, I think we should lower the expectations a little bit and we shouldn’t put as much pressure on ourselves. We have a lot of young players so I don’t know how they will deal with the pressure of saying ‘okay, we are going to go straight up.’ That’s a bit unrealistic. We have to take it game by game. Every year in the Championship there is one surprise team. Look at Brighton last year who fought against relegation the year before and then finished in third. If we are that team this year then that’s great.”

[ VIDEO: Williams rifles home beauty for Reading ]

On the international stage Williams has made 19 appearances for the U.S. national team since 2011 but in the past 12 months he’s had some ups and downs with the USMNT. From scoring a stunning goal in the USA’s incredible 4-3 friendly win against Holland in Amsterdam in the summer of 2015 to netting a peach against Brazil in another friendly, the past few months have been tougher.

Called up for a training camp in Miami in May and then appearing in a friendly against Puerto Rico, Williams was left out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad for the Copa America Centenario in the U.S. this summer with the likes of Perry Kitchen, Kyle Beckerman and Darlington Nagbe selected ahead of him.

Williams admitted it hurt to watch on from California as his teammates made the final four without him.

“I followed it and watch it with my friends and everything. It obviously kills you when you are not involved,” Williams said. “It kills you. In 2014 I missed the World Cup due to a knee injury and then in 2016, I would say I did enough to maybe be selected and be in the squad. Like I’ve always said, the Championship is not a bad league. It is really, really tough. I played a lot of games and was in really good shape and I felt like I could really help the team.

“I was a bit sad that I didn’t get a chance to help the team but that’s the decision of other people and it is not in my hands. That’s why I say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There is 2018 around the corner anyways, so I just have to stay healthy and look to get my spot with the national team.”

With the USMNT having two 2018 World Cup qualifiers coming up in September, Williams is aiming to have a bright start to the season and get in Klinsmann’s squad.

“As a player you want to play in every game, especially for the U.S. The nation is just unbelievable,” Williams said. “I know a lot of players there really well. They are friends and it is always good to be with the national team. I made my debut about five years ago. I’ve been there for a long time. I would love to be involved in these World Cup qualifiers but like I said it is not in my hands. I will try to play well, stay fit and add more goals but at the end of the day it isn’t my decision. You have to work hard and see what happens.”

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 08: Danny Williams #14 of the United States reacts after scoring a goal during an international friendly against Brazil at Gillette Stadium on September 8, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
(Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

The plan for Williams’ future in England is a little more clear cut. With one year left on his contract at Reading, now is his time to make the step up.

“When you’re 27 you are not too old, you’re not too young. When I look back I would say before I was maybe a little bit naive,” Williams said. “Now you know your body better, on the pitch you deal with situation’s different than when you were younger. You definitely know what you have to do to be the best you can be on the pitch. I feel like I am in my prime.”

Reflecting on his career path to date, Williams is hungry for more while he’s in his prime.

“I’m hungry for more because I am not playing at the highest level… yet,” Williams said, with a smile on his face. “I’m happy with the education I had in Germany because that helped me a lot. Germans are always good technically and tactically. That has helped me a lot. So does growing up playing with players who are now in the Champions League. That’s a good thing. I can sit here and talk about them and see them playing in the Champions League… but I don’t play there. So, it’s about me now and what I want to do for myself.

“I am ambitious enough to get even better, to stay hungry and to move higher up. That’s what I’m aiming for at the moment. Some players do their head in because they look too much at what their friends are doing and saying ‘why is he there and why is it not me?’ I am happy with my choices I made. I love it in England. I am fortunate enough to live in London at the moment. I am settled here now and I am just looking forward to the season.”

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]