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Exclusive: David Villa talks 2017 MLS season, La Liga title race and more

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When David Villa arrived in New York City over two years ago the Spanish international was tasked with not only re-defining his playing career but also given the opportunity to help shape one of Major League Soccer’s newest franchises.

In just two full seasons in MLS, Villa has quickly established himself as one of the most successful additions to league in the Designated Player Era while also carrying NYCFC past several of its goals up until this point.

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The 35-year-old has racked up 41 goals in 62 league appearances for the Bronx side, tied with New York Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips for the most in MLS since 2015.

In addition to his many talents on the soccer field, Villa is also an ambassador for go90 Soccer — where fans can stream matches from the top leagues live, legally, and without hidden fees or traditional subscriptions.

Go90 has also released a new instant highlights feature which can be found at @go90Sports on Twitter.

As part of his work with go90, Villa recently selected his top seven moments from the La Liga season over the first half of the season (all can be found below).

[ Villa’s picks: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7 ]

Pro Soccer Talk recently caught up with the former Barcelona attacker for an exclusive interview where he discussed his thoughts on the La Liga title race, his hopes for NYCFC during the upcoming season and much more.

Having played for several of Spain’s top sides in the past, including the Blaugrana and Atletico Madrid, Villa is no stranger to the rigors of competition in one of Europe’s top divisions.

Real Madrid currently holds a slim gap at the summit of La Liga, and Villa expects the race to continue down a narrow path until the very end of the current campaign.

“Of course, Real Madrid is having a great season, but with many matches to play, I’m sure that Sevilla, Barcelona and even Atletico de Madrid are going to fight hard for make things difficult for them,” Villa told PST.

“All the teams [in La Liga] play good soccer and the competition is very demanding. If you lose a couple of games you may not win the title and you’re also in danger of relegation.”

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While his past endeavors in Spain were what made Villa the superstar name that has become known in households around the globe, the recent storm the veteran has brought to MLS has immediately put NYCFC on the map.

After having fallen short of the postseason in 2015, the club turned things around in a major way during its second season in MLS by not only qualifying for the playoffs but also earning a first-round bye in the Eastern Conference.

In addition to his team’s achievements, Villa was named MLS MVP after netting 23 goals and adding four assists for Patrick Vieira’s side.

For Villa though, his personal accolades have always taken a back seat to the overall success of the team that he represents.

“For me, the most important goal is to win collective titles with my team,” Villa told PST. “I will continue playing the best I can, and it would be great if finally I reach the golden boot, or the MVP, but it doesn’t make sense for me if we don’t perform well as a team.”

“Last year we improved a lot as a team and this season we need to continue growing. This is the third year of the team and we continue being a very young club, but NYCFC was born to win. We want to go one step further and try to compete for winning titles this season.

Villa also discussed his willingness to serve as the captain for NYCFC and his ability to set an example for the rest of the squad.

“During all my career I have enjoyed winning matches and titles. This is what I like much to do and is what I’m going to keep doing. I work every day to stay fit and try to help the team in the pitch and also outside the field.”

Much of NYCFC’s success of the club’s success in its brief existence can be traced to Villa’s contributions, however, in order for the team to take the next leap the Spaniard will need some assistance from the rest of the squad.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08: David Villa #7 of New York City FC is seen during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. This was the first game for both teams and the final score was 1-1.(Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

With second-leading goalscorer Frank Lampard no longer on the team, young players like Jack Harrison, Khiry Shelton and first-round draft pick Jonathan Lewis will be expected to carry a significant load in 2017.

Over the offseason, NYCFC has lost five regular starters from last year, including Lampard, Andoni Iraola and goalkeeper Josh Saunders, but Villa isn’t concerned about the squad’s current makeup and insists that he has confidence in the current crop of players.

“We trust our sporting director [Claudio Reyna] and all the technical staff and also feel confident as we are adding interesting new players to the roster,” Villa said. “The most important thing is to have a strong team, and we are going to be better with hard work in the preseason, and likely with other new players to come before March.

The mantra for the club over recent months has been that youth will be the key for Vieira’s team moving forward, and NYCFC’s latest roster proves that.

Vieira’s group features just three players over the age of 30, two of whom serve as Designated Players (Villa and Andrea Pirlo).

“Most importantly this year, we are going to add more young players in the roster,” Villa said. “They are hungry to succeed and I’m sure that we are going to watch some good performances for these young players.”

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

[ MORE: Chelsea sells Traore ]

Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

[ MORE: Full FIFA-Qatar report leaked? ]

Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

[ MORE: USMNT’s 23-man roster questions ]

That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

[ MORE: Chelsea sells Traore ]

Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?