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After donning Darth Vader outfit, Gonzalez becomes force

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Omar Gonzalez had just left the LA Galaxy to join Mexico’s Pachuca when his new club’s chairman had a request: Would the 6-foot-5 defender walk into his introductory news conference dressed as Darth Vader?

Of course, he obliged. Ever since, he has become a defensive force.

“I had signed a contract 15 minutes prior to that, so I was like, `Yeah, sure.’ It was a bit small,” Gonzalez recalled of the costume Tuesday. “I don’t know if they met any other Mexican my size.”

Now 28 years old, Gonzalez is among the U.S. players trying to impress returning coach Bruce Arena in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Americans play El Salvador on Wednesday night in a quarterfinal match.

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He made his national team debut in August 2010 during an exhibition against Brazil, which gave a teenage forward named Neymar his first international appearance that night in New Jersey.

Gonzalez went on to become among Major League Soccer’s highest-paid players, but his career stalled: first a torn knee ligament during his initial training session following a January 2012 loan to the German club Nuremberg, then a knee injury that kept him from starting the first two games of the 2014 World Cup.

But worst of all was malaise during his final seasons with the Galaxy.

“I was just doing enough to get by and things were OK,” he said.

Gonzalez decided to change his attitude and alter his rest regimen. He signed with Pachuca in December 2015, helped that team win last year’s Clausura title – and now he is flourishing on a team that will be in this year’s Club World Cup.

“Everyone said this is the next so-and-so. And that’s all well and good, but until you get out there and prove it,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard explained.

“He’s matured. When you have ability and other people think you have ability, it’s great. When you actually realize your own ability and potential, I think the game slows down for you a little bit and you get very comfortable with your own movements and your own communication.”

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Born in Dallas to Mexican-American parents, Gonzalez could have played for either country. An All-American at Maryland, he was the third pick overall in the 2009 MLS draft and then that season was voted MLS Rookie of the Year with the Galaxy, all while being coached by Arena.

During the defender’s time in LA., Gonzalez met Erica, the woman he would marry, at the 30th birthday party of Kenny Arena, now as assistant coach for his dad.

Gonzalez lived in Manhattan Beach but decided to shake up his life with the move to Pachuca, a city of about 265,000, where he now lives with Erica and their two daughters, 2+-year-old Isla and 1-year-old Colette.

“It’s just a totally different lifestyle,” he said. “In LA, you’re done with training and you sit around and you think, what should I do today? There’s always something, to do, and Pachuca there’s not really much to do.”

The family makes the hour-long drive to Costco outside Mexico City to fill the SUV with groceries and supplies. He is careful to check the calendar to avoid shopping on the middle and final days of each month.

“You don’t go to the mall when it’s pay day. When people get paid, it’s packed,” he said.

He is convinced he would not have revived his career had he not decided to leave Los Angeles.

“It’s definitely made me a better player and also made me a better person, living in a different culture, living in a different country, living in an environment you’re not used to,” Gonzalez said.

[ MORE: USMNT – El Salvador preview ]

“I spent my whole career in LA before I made this move, under the same coach, and so things were very comfortable for me, I would say. And what Mexico did was put me in an uncomfortable position, and I went to a place where I was unsure of myself playing every single game, and Mexico I believe is still ahead of MLS in terms of the quality and the players’ technical ability.”

Back with the national team, Gonzalez is competing for what likely will be four center back spots on the U.S. World Cup roster, assuming the Americans qualify.

John Brooks and Geoff Cameron top the depth chart at the moment, with Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Matt Miazga and Matt Hedges the four splitting time at the Gold Cup. Gonzalez put the U.S. ahead in last week’s 2-0 win over Martinique with his second goal in 42 international appearances.

“Moving to Pachuca has allowed him to focus a little bit more on his craft. I don’t think he has the distractions he might have had in Los Angeles,” Arena said,

Gonzalez’s teammates have noticed his strides.

“Your way of dealing with quick, skillful attacking players is put to the test every week,” captain Michael Bradley said. “It’s a guy who continues to show that he has to play a role for us moving forward.”

NUMBERS GAME

Additions to Gold Cup rosters for the knockout rounds must wear numbers 24-29, resulting in some unusual assignments. Forward Clint Dempsey is 28, a combination of his club No. 2 and his national team No. 8. Bradley is 26, because 6 minus 2 equals his usual number 4. Instead of No. 1, Howard is wearing No. 24, his old digits at Everton. Forward Jozy Altidore is 27 instead of 17.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.

Wenger called ref Dean “not honest,” “a disgrace” to earn ban

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LONDON (AP) Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger accused a referee of being “not honest” and called him “a disgrace” in a rant inside the match officials’ changing room that led to a three-match touchline ban for one of English soccer’s most experienced coaches.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

The English Football Association published Tuesday the written reasons behind its decision to ban Wenger for being abusive toward referee Mike Dean after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Dec. 31.

In his match report given to the FA, Dean said Wenger “was pointing aggressively at me saying, ‘You’re not honest’ on numerous occasions.” Dean then said Wenger said “you’ve done this to us many times before, you’re supposed to be professional, you’re a disgrace.”

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Wenger had been incensed at Calum Chambers being penalized for a handball and West Brom converting the resulting penalty to equalize late in the game.

The FA said “there is simply no justification for this behavior” and considered a stadium ban for Wenger.

Wenger was also fined $54,200 for his conduct.