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MLS All-Stars get chance to make statement vs Real Madrid

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CHICAGO (AP) The best team in the world facing off against the local lads sounds like a recipe for disaster – just not when it takes place in the MLS All-Star Game.

Then, it’s a showcase.

For the 13th straight year, North America’s best take on a top international team, this time glamour-boys Real Madrid on Wednesday night at sold-out Soldier Field.

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The game caps a three-day, MLS-styled celebration of the sport – from matches on the sand at Oak Street beach to star-studded endorsements of the town’s deep-dish pizza – that had fans in the City of Big Shoulders following along with their feet.

The payoff for those inside the venerable 61,000-seat stadium, coincidentally the site of the inaugural match of the 1994 World Cup, will be an embarrassment of soccer riches.

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Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo won’t be on hand for what amounts to another preseason friendly, but Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Isco, Luka Modric and nearly all the front-liners who helped every important club championship in sight, will. They’ll encounter some familiar, if aging, faces across the pitch.

They range from World Cup winner, former German national team and current Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, to one-time Real teammate and Orlando City playmaker Kaka, as well former Atletico Madrid rival and New York City FC striker David Villa. Also familiar will be a handful of Americans who logged considerable time with the U.S. national team and European clubs, among them Toronto’s Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, Houston’s DaMarcus Beasley and Seattle goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Expect a competitive match, even though Real manager Zinedine Zidane is expected to reach deep into his bench after the starters played the opening 60 minutes against Barcelona in Miami last Saturday as part of their preseason tour. The MLS team has won seven of the previous matches.

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“I do not know how the game will go,” said Kaka, “but we have a great team to play a very even match with Real Madrid.”

MLS fans chafe at the perception the league lags well behind their top-tier counterparts in Europe and want their team to show up once again with something to prove. The All-Stars’ 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in 2014, however, may have been too competitive; then-Bayern manager Pep Guardiola left that game without shaking hands, instead wagging his finger at what he considered unnecessarily hard tackles by MLS defenders.

Yet the games have proved worthwhile for both sides, providing MLS with an opportunity to gauge its level of play against top-flight competition and show stadiums packed with passionate and knowledgeable fans to the rest of the world. In return, the international clubs – often English Premier League giants like Manchester United and Chelsea, but also Roma from Italy’s Serie A, Bayern from Germany’s Bundesliga and now Spain’s Real Madrid – have used the exposure from the game and their tours to build their brand with U.S. and Canadian audiences.

No matter the final score, the game offers little more than a snapshot of how far MLS has closed the gap since it was founded as a condition to host the 1994 World Cup. Asked to make the comparison, decorated MLS imports like Schweinsteiger cite the faster pace of play elsewhere and the experience that enables even young teammates to anticipate how attacks will unfold and exploit the smallest vulnerabilities in opposing defenses.

But fans can glimpse now what MLS could become by imagining themselves standing in the boots of Brooks Lennon, or any of the other promising young Americans gathered here for the game. The 19-year-old winger, who joined Real Salt Lake this year on a season-long loan from Liverpool, didn’t make the MLS All-Star squad and instead played Tuesday night in MLS’ “Homegrown Game” against Chivas Guadalajara’s under-20 team.

Lennon has been a force everywhere he’s played so far: as a youngster with Real Salt Lake’s youth development team and then, from 2015-17, in Liverpool’s academy. He progressed to become a regular with the English side’s under-23 team, as well as a member of the U.S. national under-18 and under-20 teams.

But when he looked at the next step, joining Liverpool’s senior club, Lennon saw players like Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino on the roster and realized he needed more seasoning. He returned to Salt Lake and was an immediate hit, but he’ll have to decide his next step at the end of the MLS season.

“The 2 + years in Liverpool were incredible. I matured a lot, as a person and a player,” Lennon said. “My choice will probably be dictated by which situation offers the best chance to continue that.

“Right now, though,” he added, “my focus is here and what my team needs to do to make the playoffs.”

Brian McBride, who coached the MLS “Homegrown” team, understands Lennon’s dilemma. He starred for the U.S. national team and played in Germany and England as well as MLS. He thinks Lennon’s upside will make him a valuable commodity on either side of the Atlantic.

“He’s already learned the basics of how to be a pro. You can see that not just in his play, but the way he conducts himself,” McBride said. “Playing here, or over there, are different experiences. But as long as he continues to grow, there’s really no wrong decision.”

The MLS is drawing better players to these shores than ever, thanks to the improving caliber of play and higher pay. So many mid-level players have come over in recent years, especially from South America, that the number of U.S.-born players starting from MLS clubs has dropped from 51 percent just three years ago to 42 percent in 2017 – even though three more teams and 33 more starting spots were added through expansion.

“That’s a healthy sign,” said Alexi Lalas, a TV analyst for FOX who played for the U.S. national team, in Italy’s Serie A and the MLS. “It tells you there’s more talent here now – and more competition for every spot. And we’re looking at a generation of kids who grew up watching MLS teams and maybe dreaming someday about playing for them.

“We need to keep getting better. But we’re clearly headed in the right direction. You know the perception and more important, the reality, has changed when a guy like (All-Star midfielder) Diego Valeri chooses to play in Portland during the prime of his career,” he added. “I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Report: Landon Donovan mulling U.S. Soccer presidential run

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Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl has been all over the turmoil at United States Soccer since the men’s national team’s embarrassing World Cup qualifying ouster last week.

The latest is that many interested observers are encouraging American legend Landon Donovan to run against Sunil Gulati in February’s presidential election.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Donovan retired from playing for a second time in 2016. He’s invested in Premier League club Swansea City and tried his hand at broadcasting as well.

According to Wahl, Donovan issued no comment when asked whether he is seriously considering a run for president. Gulati didn’t confirm that he’d run for a fourth term — the maximum tenure — during his post-World Cup failure conference call, but strongly lauded his credentials for another stint.

Wahl had previously reported that lawyer Steve Gans has the required letters of nomination to run against Gulati.

While Gans would challenge Gulati and perhaps make for interesting debate and a bellwether of the appetite for change amongst the constituency, Donovan’s name would likely be enough to swing some voters regardless.

Without making any judgments about the job Donovan would do, think of it as a big entertainment name like Dwayne Johnson amongst Democrats or Donald Trump amongst Republicans who might upturn eyebrows amongst folks thinking, “Maybe we need something different.” The name value isn’t the same but perhaps it’s less polarizing to compare the runs of Jesse Ventura and Al Franken, or Jack Kemp and Steve Largent instead.

A Donovan run would likely keep U.S Soccer’s cozy relationship with Major League Soccer while perhaps emboldening those who seek big changes within the youth structure (Donovan was part of the U.S. residency program which was recently canceled in a sort of “We did it” nod to academies). His experience is varied and his network exceptional.

Donovan for President? Maybe!

Wenger’s fiery response to Deeney comments: “You can’t question our character”

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Arsene Wenger was none too pleased at Troy Deeney‘s comments question whether Arsenal had the “cajones” to compete at the top of the Premier League.

The Arsenal boss blasted back at the Watford striker, telling reporters “you can’t question our character.”

Speaking at his pre-match press conference ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League match at Red Star Belgrade, Wenger launched into an attack of his own. “People try and put us down, they always have. Those comments aren’t justified. Everyone is entitled to talk. We don’t listen to what people say – we try to analyze or own game. I love my players and I trust their strength of character to respond quickly. I know who my players really are.”

[ MORE: Everton boss Koeman cracks joke, “Maybe I am in the crisis” ]

When asked if Deeney’s comments hurt, Wenger replied, “Yes but I know who my players really are. In the last seven games we had six wins and one draw. ‘Comments are part of the modern game. I love my players and I trust their strength of character to respond.”

The Frenchman was responding to comments by Deeney following Watford’s 2-1 comeback victory over Arsenal. The 29-year-old was told that Wenger disagreed with the penalty that allowed the Hornets to draw level, and he responded by saying, “There’s a reason they lost and is wasn’t because of one penalty. I have to watch what I say but… having a bit of cojones, I think the word is. Having a bit of nuts. ‘Whenever I play Arsenal and this is just personal, I go up and I think let me whack the first one, let’s see who wants it. ‘I came on today, I jumped up with [Per] Mertesacker, didn’t even have to jump actually, nod it down, the crowd gets up, and they all just backed off.’

As Everton struggles continue, Koeman jests: “Maybe I’m in the crisis”

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Ronald Koeman may be joking, but Everton’s table position does not appear to be humorous.

The Dutch boss, under fire for the Toffees poor start to the season that sees them in 16th through the first eight matches of the season, has done little to endear himself to Everton fans. His latest stunt won’t help his cause.

Koeman, hoping to make light of his dire situation, joked at Everton’s pre-match press conference ahead of their Europa League match against Lyon on Thursday. When asked if he is four matches away from a crisis, Koeman answered, “Maybe I’m in the crisis.”

The comment came with a wry smile and a chuckle, clearly making light of the situation. However, the words were far more ominous. The question made reference to comments former Leicester City boss Craig Shakespeare made just a day before his recent sacking, saying “It’s the reality, we all understand that you can draw four games on the trot and the spin becomes that you haven’t won for four games.” He was fired the next day.

Koeman was pressed on his job status further, and he responded with a more level-headed answer. “Everybody knows in football the manager’s job is a really difficult job because things change really fast,” Koeman said Wednesday. “Most of the time, the manager doesn’t get time to improve the team.”

The Dutchman confirmed he met with Everton majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri on Friday while his boss was in town, and that he received their backing verbally. “We spoke about football,” Koeman said. “There was not really a message but the feeling is that they (the board) are behind the team, they are behind the manager. Everybody knows in football that’s a nice thing but in football always, finally, it’s all about results. Until now it’s full, total support from the board, yes.”

Not only does Everton rest just two points above the relegation zone, but they also sit bottom of their Europa League group with a single point through two matches.

Man City’s Ederson: “I was born to play with my feet”

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MANCHESTER — The gray skies over the City Football Academy would have produced a grimace from most, but a towering Brazilian goalkeeper was smiling from ear to ear.

Ederson Santana de Moraes strode into the room with a wink and a smile to imitate the smiley face emoji tattooed just behind his left ear.

The boy from Sao Paulo feels at home in Manchester after his $46 million move from Benfica in the summer (which made him the most expensive goalkeeper on the planet) and just over a week since he made his debut for the Brazilian national team he is being lauded by fans and pundits across the world.

Siting back in his chair as he looked out at the dour Manchester sky and the meeting room lights glistened off the braces on his teeth, the 24-year-old is a long way from Lisbon or Sao Paulo.

“It has been a really positive experience so far,” Ederson said, via a translator. “Obviously the cities are a little different. Lisbon is more tropical, here it is more cold and rainy. But I am settled in well, I like life here and I am ready and prepare for any circumstances. I am settling in here very well.”

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Ederson played the hero for Man City less than 24 hours earlier as he saved a penalty kick in their hugely important UEFA Champions League win against Napoli. Today he was back at the training ground and was taking part in a SkillsCity app challenge in conjunction with the club launching its first-ever US SkillCity final this December in California.

The competition (presented by Nexen) is open until November 19 for young players aged 5-14 across the U.S. who can submit their best skills, following guidance from City’s coaches, via the app ahead of the final in California where eight winners will be announced from 32 players selected from across the USA. It’s a novel idea and the prize will be a VIP trip to Manchester in 2018 to see a game, stay at the CFA and more.

“I remember when I was a kid I couldn’t watch much on TV because the games were not on,” Ederson explained. “Having these kind of apps these days help a lot to develop skills and help the kids to practice, to improve and test their skills. It is really positive.”

Ederson’s skills have certainly been positive since he arrived at City as the Brazilian has been hailed as the missing piece of the jigsaw in Guardiola’s side.

His composure with the ball at his feet and ability to come charging out of his goal has provided plenty of confidence to City’s defense.

“I was born with those skills, being able to play with my feet. When I started playing as a player I was playing as a defender or a full back. That helped me with my adaptation to play with my feet. Through time I have developed those skills and even now I keep training with my feet because it is very important,” Ederson said. “In the past maybe I didn’t spend so much time training with the players that were in front of me. Now we are more involved and maybe that is why I can now show my qualities with the football.”

Ederson’s confidence in coming off his line saw him injured in City’s 5-0 win against Liverpool earlier this season as he was clattered by Sadio Mane and suffered a deep gash on his face which required several stitches.

That resulted in Mane being sent off and Ederson being carried off but his quick recovery impressed City’s fans and enhanced his growing reputation as a steely competitor who is a formidable last line of defense.

“It has been a good start for me here at City. It has been a very positive experience for me so far and the fans help me a lot and their support is very important for me. What happened in the Liverpool game with Sadio Mane, those things can happen in football,” Ederson said. “I got injured and I could have continued playing but the cut was quite big so they wouldn’t let me continue.”

Ederson’s speedy recovery saw him play a few days later at Feyenoord and the improvement in City’s defense has been stark since his arrival with just four goals conceded in eight games in the PL so far.

“I think I am a calm goalkeeper and a calm person as well and I try to give calm to my teammates,” Ederson said. “I help a lot in the build up and the long balls as well. But mainly I would say a goalkeeper must be a calm person to cope with the pressure to handle when you make a mistake. I think that’s really important and it helps you a lot to develop your skills.

“I think modern football has evolved a lot. Goalkeepers do several things during the game. They help in the build up. That is very important, to play with your feet, it is very important to know how to read the game and obviously save balls and also handle the pressure when it comes to the crunch time.”

Where does Ederson’s extreme ability and composure with the ball at his feet come from?

Look no further than the club where he came through the ranks and who he supported as a kid, Sao Paulo, to find his idol.

“Rogerio Ceni who played for Sao Paulo. He was my idol. He was the guy I looked up to and he played for the same club, Sao Paulo, for 25 years. He won a lot of trophies and had a lot of chances to leave the club but he stayed there. He became the main idol of the club. All the skills I have now, I would say that’s because I saw him,” Ederson smiled. “He played well with his feet and was good in the build up and he was even a goalscorer with penalty kicks and free kicks. He made history at the club and he was my main idol.”

A revelation with his feet in the Premier League so far, will Ederson, like his hero, be coming up to take penalties and free kicks anytime soon?

“No free kicks… but if there is a chance to ever take a penalty I am going to ask the manager and I would do it!” Ederson laughs.

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Pointing to the tattoos all over his body and explaining their significance, including a passage from the bible on the back of his left calf and other markings to honor his family, it is easy to forgot how far Ederson has come in such a short space of time.

He moved to Benfica from Brazil as a 16-year-old and then dropped down to the third division with Ribeirao on loan before moving to Rio Ave where he made his name playing regularly, before heading back to Benfica and taking his chance after an injury to the regular starter.

Discussing his hometown of Osasco, Ederson revealed he has no plans to return to Brazil when his playing days are over.

“I left my hometown very early. I cannot remember much. I have friends and family there so when I have holidays I try to go there to my home village. It is very calm but because I left very early I don’t miss it that much,” Ederson said. “To be honest, I am not planning to go back and live there when I retire. The plan is to stay here in Europe with my family because it is calm and safer so in my future, my family and I are thinking about when I retire we will move to Portugal because of the language and the lifestyle.”

When asked what he and his teammates can achieve this season after winning seven of their opening eight PL matches and all three of their UEFA Champions League group games, Ederson is confident Pep Guardiola has built a side who can dominate now and for many years to come.

“I think Man City has built a really great team, a really young team both for the present and the future. I think we are ready to fight for everything,” Ederson said.” The Premier League, the cups, the Champions League. If we keep doing the good work we are doing, we will have a lot of chances to win one, two or three trophies. We must keep working hard and focus on the targets.”

Ederson achieved one of his long-term targets last week by making his debut for the Brazilian national team in their World Cup qualifying win against Chile.

He is dreaming of being on the Selecao’s plane to Russia for the 2018 World Cup next summer.

“I was very happy to play my first game with Brazil and also that it was in my city, Sao Paulo, with my family watching at the stadium. We won and we got a clean sheet, so it was perfect,” Ederson smiled. “I’m following this path towards looking at the World Cup on the horizon and I would be very happy if I was chosen in the final list. But we have to wait because the season is long but it would be a dream come true to play in the World Cup because I have been working so hard in the last years to be able to be there.”

“My Brazilian teammates [Gabriel Jesus, Danilo, Fernandinho] helped me a lot here to adapt and settle in. I knew them before from the national team, so obviously they make my life easier here.”

Ederson’s confident and commanding displays are making City’s chances of winning it all a lot easier this season.

Pep seems to have finally found the playmaking goalkeeper he has craved since he arrived in Manchester.