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Arena aims for quick start to save USMNT World Cup hopes

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CARSON, Calif. (AP) Bruce Arena realizes he has very little time to get back into his groove with the U.S. national team. After all, two vital World Cup qualifiers are looming just two months away.

Luckily for Arena, he has done this job before. He’s also returning to work in extremely familiar surroundings.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me personally, but it’s an important time for this team,” Arena said Wednesday. “Our goal is pretty clear: We need to qualify for Russia in 2018.”

Arena convened the first training camp of his second stint in charge of the U.S. team under sunny skies at its training base south of downtown Los Angeles. The complex also is the home of the LA Galaxy, where Arena served as the coach and general manager of the MLS club for the past 8 1/2 seasons.

Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann in late November, accepting the task of salvaging the Americans’ World Cup qualification hopes. Two losses last year dropped the U.S. into last place in its qualifying hexagonal, albeit with eight games to go.

The transition isn’t easy, and the stakes are high. But Arena seems to be better equipped for the task than just about anybody.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Arena said with his usual sardonic tone. “I haven’t had to move. The hotel is about a five-minute drive from my house. I’ve been coming here for the last eight years. I had to move about 30 yards from my past office. So life could be worse.”

Although the U.S. players on European club teams can’t attend this camp, Arena held his first practice with 28 players, including several MLS stalwarts who couldn’t crack the Eurocentric Klinsmann’s talent pool.

Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber, FC Dallas’ Matt Hedges, the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and the Red Bulls’ Dax McCarty will get a look from Arena’s fresh eyes during the monthlong camp. Arena also has changed Klinsmann’s strict rules for diet and fitness, hoping to restore a team spirit that appeared to fade late in the German’s tenure.

“You can expect honesty from Bruce,” said the LA Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, who broke through on the U.S. team under Klinsmann. “He’s easing us into camp, but he’s already made a terrific speech about knowing each and every player, so you don’t have to impress him. I love playing under him.”

Arena has personal history with several camp invitees. Along with Galaxy stars Zardes and Lletget, Arena previously coached DaMarcus Beasley, Nick Rimando, Chad Marshall, Jozy Altidore and captain Michael Bradley, who had a thick, lustrous head of hair when he got his U.S. break in 2006.

“I’m very excited to be back playing for Bruce,” Bradley said. “He was the one who gave me my first opportunity with the national team, and that’s something you never forget. … He’s going to create an environment where guys are going to compete, guys are going to enjoy themselves, and there’s going to be a real team and a real spirit and a real feeling that we’re all in something together. But when it’s time to work and time to compete, we’re going to do that, and I think he’s going to be very clear and tell it exactly like it is, which is very important, which is exactly what we need.”

Bradley’s father, Bob, replaced Arena as the U.S. coach after the 2006 World Cup. Bob Bradley was Arena’s assistant at the University of Virginia and with D.C. United.

“I knew Michael Bradley as a little baby, which is interesting,” Arena said with a bemused smile.

Arena is counting on Michael Bradley and fellow veteran Jermaine Jones to be leaders for the U.S. over the next few months. He also complimented Beasley, the 34-year-old veteran hoping to continue with the American team two years after announcing his international retirement.

“Obviously he’s not the same player as he was (when) playing in the 2002 World Cup,” Arena said. “But good players, guys that can think on the field, know how to compete, use their experience well, are always good to have around.”

The camp will end with friendly matches against Serbia on Jan. 29 and Jamaica on Feb. 3. The Americans face Honduras on March 24 and Panama on March 28 in World Cup qualifiers.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.