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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.

[ MORE: Latest MLS standings ]

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.

[ MORE: MLS stats ]

“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.”

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA