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Arena will be cautious with players for World Cup qualifying

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MILLBRAE, Calif. (AP) Bruce Arena is preparing for a pair of critical World Cup qualifiers this month uncertain about the availabilities of forward Clint Dempsey, defender Geoff Cameron and goalkeeper Tim Howard.

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Arena spoke Monday with Cameron, who told him he was a bit sore after playing a full match for Stoke on Saturday for the first time since injuring a knee in October. While Arena is thrilled Dempsey has returned to the field for Seattle after dealing with an irregular heartbeat, the U.S. coach will be “very cautious” in determining Dempsey’s national team status before the March 24 qualifier against Honduras at the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium.

After losing their first two games in the final round of World Cup qualifying, the Americans fired Jurgen Klinsmann and brought back Arena, their coach from 1998-2006. His first competitive match is against the Catrachos, and the U.S. plays four days later at Panama.

“Well, I don’t think we’re hanging on by a fingernail yet, but we’re getting close,” Arena said Monday. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think they’re getting a plier out.”

Arena might lean toward using more players who have been abroad and are deeper into their seasons than those in Major League Soccer, whose seasons began last weekend, though the roster might be close to an even split of players from abroad and MLS.

“I’ve always felt the team would qualify for the next World Cup,” said Arena, the Bay Area for CONCACAF’s announcement Tuesday of Gold Cup groups. “Now, it’s obviously a little bit more challenging, but it can be done.”

Howard is still recovering from leg surgery in November and missed Colorado’s opener last weekend.

“I’ll follow their lead,” Arena said of the Rapids, “as well as following the lead of Seattle with Clint.”

“Between now and when the players report, there’s going to be a lot of issues, so we have a Plan A, a B and a C, and in a lot of cases we’re probably going to go to Plan C,” Arena said. “Two players, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, may not be available. It may be the case with Geoff. They’ve all been good players for the U.S. team. We’d like to have them all. The reality of the situation is that that’s not likely.”

The Americans will be without Timmy Chandler and Jermaine Jones for the Honduras match, both suspended because of yellow-card accumulation. In the November qualifiers, the Americans lost to Mexico 2-1 at home and 4-0 at Costa Rica.

“If they got a result against Mexico and lost to Costa Rica, then you’d believe everything’s not so tense? That’s the way it is,” Arena said. “There are eight games left. If there were two games left, I’d really be concerned. But I think we can close the gap real quick, or we can continue to, I guess then, start hanging on by our fingernails.”

Fabian Johnson scored two goals Saturday for Borussia Moenchengladbach and has been playing midfield, yet Arena is unsure whether he will be better suited at there or left back for the qualifiers.

Arena has been traveling regularly to get to know almost everyone from a pool of about 40 players from which the U.S. will build its roster. The roster announcement is likely March 15.

“I’ve visited all the countries you can visit,” he said before specifying Germany, England, Mexico and parts of the U.S.

Arena expects the Americans to have no issues once they reconvene – focused on one goal and not whether they are U.S.-born.

“All I know is they have that U.S. passport,” he said, while noting in the current political climate “today, everything’s crazy, what are you going to do?”

Howard raised concern in January about the national pride of American players born elsewhere.

“Those are the little games we don’t get involved in. We get together as a team and we’re a team when we show up,” Arena said. “Inside teams it’s a lot different than you think. I don’t think they’re having little verbal wars with each other. They’re going to be a team. They want to win. They’re going to all do their job and play for each other and represent our country in the right way. That’s what I’m anticipating.”

NOTES: The U.S. Soccer Federation announced last weekend that its membership adopted a limit of three four-year terms for president and vice president and four four-year terms for directors, with the provision current officers can run one more time. Arena figures Sunil Gulati, elected to a third four-year term in 2014, will seek one more. “I would think that he’ll give it strong consideration. I think he loves his job, I think he loves the responsibility,” Arena said. “The federation has grown tremendously under the leadership of Sunil and (secretary general) Dan Flynn. I don’t see any reason why it’ll change.”

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

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As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

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And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

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The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

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Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.