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Arena: USMNT ‘behind the eight ball’ in World Cup qualifying

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NEW YORK (AP) Bruce Arena opened a binder to a page with 48 names, his depth chart for the U.S. soccer team.

Back in charge for the first time in a decade, he views the Americans’ state as urgent following losses in the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying and already has plans.

“We’re fighting for our lives starting March 24. We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “We’ve got to close the gap, and we get six points in the next two games, the gap is closed.”

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During an hourlong session with reporters Tuesday, Arena said comments he made in 2013 about foreign-born players on the national team were aimed at the U.S. player development system, not a criticism of German-Americans who made up almost a quarter of the 2014 World Cup roster under Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I was told today, somebody, they referenced me in Spain as the Donald Trump of soccer,” Arena said. “I think that I’m at fault obviously for those statements, but I would like to clear that up. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s no way in the way I think.”

“I think the phrase foreign nationals is a very poor term, whoever uses it, and I will not use it. I will not use dual citizens. They’re national team players,” he explained. “The comment regarding foreign-born players, at the time I believe was referencing player development. And I was simply saying that if our senior national team program consists of a large minority of players, large majority of players that were born elsewhere, where are we going with our development? It has nothing to do with who should be playing on the national team, who should not.”

Now 65 and a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, Arena coached the U.S. from 1998-2006 and is the winningest coach in team history. He led the Americans to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, their best finish since the first tournament in 1930, then was fired after a first-round elimination in 2006. He took over from Klinsmann last week following a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 rout at Costa Rica.

“Mexico certainly came out and took control of the game early, and I don’t think that should happen at home,” Arena said. “I think the game in Costa Rica was not good from start to finish. In general, I think the theme in both games: Our back line played poorly, and I don’t think they’re poor players. I think they can play better, so we’ve got to get them organized, get the right players in the right spots and get them playing better as a unit.”

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Arena plans to open training camp in Carson, California, around Jan. 8 and follow with a pair of exhibitions with a roster mostly from Major League Soccer. Qualifying resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras, followed four days later by a match at Panama.

Feilhaber (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Arena says goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan need competition from the rest of the player pool, 31-year-old midfielder Benny Feilhaber likely will get an opportunity to return after playing just three games under Klinsmann and 35-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones “certainly still has something to offer.”

He views captain Michael Bradley as a defensive midfielder rather than a playmaker, a role Klinsmann encouraged Bradley to assume.

“He plays an important position and at his best he’s a key figure, and we’ve got to get him at his best,” Arena said.

Settling on the center of the field is one of Arena’s keys.

“We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field that can deliver the right ball at the right time,” he said. “Who that is remains to be seen. There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that that we’ll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area that we’ve got to identify. And that will help establish how we play. Do we play with one striker, two strikers? Do we play with three? How do we define our midfield shape based on that.”

Arena’s office at the StubHub Center moves only about 30 feet from his previous job as coach of the LA Galaxy, and his parking spot remains the same. As he takes over, he wants to change the Americans’ mentality and consistency.

“Too many peaks and valleys,” he said, moving his hands up and down. “We’ve got to get them to level out their performance a little bit more.”

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A former German star player and coach, Klinsmann criticized the level of play in Major League Soccer. Arena said it has come a long way.

“MLS isn’t on the level of the EPL or the Bundesliga or La Liga, Serie A. We know that,” he said. “But right after that, we’re in that area below that, and it will get better.”

Arena doesn’t tweet and isn’t that interested in statistics.

“I’m not a person that digs deep into analytics because I don’t think the sport of soccer is an analytic sport,” he said. “I think baseball clearly is. I think football can be, obviously, basketball a little bit more. I think soccer is a hard one.”

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.

Ballack acknowledges difficult decision ahead for John Terry

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For the better part of 19 years John Terry has been a staple of Chelsea’s backline.

[ WATCH: Zaha nets first international goal for Ivory Coast ]

With his future at Stamford Bridge becoming more and more in doubt though, it appears it’s time for the 36-year-old to move on from his longtime club, and that’s a decision that another former Chelsea player doesn’t envy.

[ MORE: Everton’s Coleman breaks leg on Ireland duty ]

Ex-Blues midfielder Michael Ballack knows that Terry has options, whether it be in Major League Soccer, the Chinese Super League or even with another Premier League club, but the German says it’s difficult because of what the centerback has meant to Chelsea.

“He is a player with that history and charisma,” Ballack, who spent four years with Chelsea during his playing days, told Sky Sports. “He’s such a Chelsea boy and they love him there.

“I know what it means if your career comes to an end and you’re getting older. You don’t know whether you extend your contract, play for another club or go abroad to America.

“I’m sure he has some options but if you think long-term, you have to feel comfortable with the decision.

For the first time in years, Terry has failed to establish himself as a first-team regular largely due to Antonio Conte‘s three-back system. The 36-year-old has appeared in just five PL matches this campaign, while making 10 appearances overall for the Blues, who currently sit atop England’s top flight and are in position to go for the double with the FA Cup semifinals lurking.

Terry himself has acknowledged that his career is nearing its end, but knowing the competitive drive that has made the Englishman great throughout his almost 20-year career, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll just give up his playing days without a fight.

Gabriel Jesus confident he’ll return for Man City this season

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Gabriel Jesus bursted onto the Manchester City scene upon arrival, but an injury back in February has left the talented Brazilian sidelined ever since.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break on Ireland duty ]

The lively attacker suffered a broken metatarsal last month against Bournemouth, which required surgery, but the 19-year-old remains confident that he’ll be able to feature again this season for the Citizens.

“I don’t know, I have no return prediction,” Jesus told SporTV. “But I hope I can still play some games this season.”

Initial thoughts were that Jesus would miss around three months, all but ending his first Premier League season. Now, Jesus is hoping that he’ll be able to pick up where he left off prior to the devastating injury.

“It’s good,” Jesus said on his road to recovery. “Thank God, the effort, not just mine, but from all the physiotherapists in Manchester, doctors and everyone. It was not easy for me.

“It’s my first injury. Not muscle injury, but it’s the first time something happens that leaves me out of games. So it was not easy.

“But I saw that, of course, no one wants this to happen, but it could be worse. So we operated soon, I decided to operate and give it time.”

In just his first four matches with Pep Guardiola‘s side, the young Brazilian netted three goals and even dethroned Sergio Aguero in the starting lineup.