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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.”

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.

Toure reportedly set for another year with Man City

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Never say never.

Yaya Toure looks like his season-long peace with Pep Guardiola will stretch into a new season, with Toure’s combustible agent admitting talks with Manchester City regarding a new contract.

Dimitri Seluk is among the worst agents on Earth Toure’s agent, and said, “We are talking. We will see what happens but City is a club that is in Yaya’s heart.”

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

But Seluk has not been in City’s heart, having made numerous poor decisions on when to open his mouth, deepening a rift between Toure and Guardiola that kept the player off the pitch for some time. Earlier this Spring, Seluk also suggested that Toure could join Manchester United.

So, yeah, smart guy. Hates microphones and publicity.

Toure turned 34 this month, and became a fixture for Guardiola once he broke into the lineup. The midfielder made nine-straight starts around the turn of the calendar, scoring five goals in the Premier League.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.