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Pressure is on USMNT ahead of critical World Cup qualifiers


The next two U.S. national team games will be pivotal in deciding the direction of the program in the coming years. It’s that simple.

[ MORE: Pulisic responds to criticism ]

Next week the USMNT host Panama (Oct. 6) and then head to Trinidad & Tobago (Oct. 10) in two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers which they dare not lose as their four-year cycle comes down to two games.

If they lose either games the prospect is very real that they will not be at a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.

[ MORE: Qualifying scenarios for USMNT

Of course, if they finish fourth in the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying then they will still have a chance but will face a home and away game against the winner of the Australia/Syria playoff for a spot in Russia.

The pressure is stacked on Bruce Arena’s men to hold their nerve and get at least four points from their final two CONCACAF qualifiers in the Hex which they will likely need to seal the third and final automatic berth to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fact that they are in this position in the first place is down to a multitude of factors but Arena’s arrival had sparked a unbeaten run of 14 games, a Gold Cup success and a promising draw at Mexico.

All of that good work came undone last month.

With plenty of injury concerns, players out of form, widespread criticism for the team and a mental barrier to overcome following the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica and a battling, unimpressive 1-1 draw away at Honduras in early September during the last international window, Arena’s side are now in a lose-lose situation.

Qualify for the World Cup and U.S. fans and pundits will shrug their shoulders and sarcastically applaud. Fail to qualify and all hell will break loose. A poor start to the final round of qualifying cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job and initial optimism around Arena’s second-coming will end in tears.

Speaking to U.S. Soccer, the head coach is being realistic about the final hurdle standing in the USA’s way.

“As we enter these last two games, our view is that we have to get at least four points and likely six points in order to qualify as the third team in CONCACAF,” Arena said. “Panama and ourselves are fighting for the third and fourth position in the group. They’re a point ahead of us, so when we play them we anticipate they’re going to have a really defensive look to themselves and look to catch us on the break.”

When Panama roll up to Orlando next Friday, the majority of the 26,000-plus crowd will be expecting a home win which will see the USMNT have one foot in Russia. The fact of the matter is, next Friday is Panama’s World Cup final.

For Panama the equation is simple: win against the USA and they qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history.

Panama also know that a draw will also be a hugely favorable result as they host Costa Rica in their final group game and Los Ticos will have almost certainly have already qualified automatically by that point, meaning Panama will face a weakened outfit with nothing to play for. The U.S. will then go to T&T at a smaller venue with the home players relaxed and nothing to play for just to add more difficulty to their situation.

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For the U.S. the scenarios are plentiful but the simplest way they can finish in third is by winning their final two games of qualifying.

Chatting to Pro Soccer Talk recently, the USMNT’s teenage sensation, Christian Pulisic, said these games against Panama and T&T have been in the back of his mind ever since the disappointing results to start off September.

“Obviously now I am focusing on [Borussia] Dortmund. We have big games coming up. But it’s there,” Pulisic admitted. “We have to do everything we can and I am going to do everything I can do to help us qualify.”

It is too early to talk up the “what next?” scenarios when it comes to Arena’s future and that of his team but quite simply if he fails to take the U.S. to the World Cup he will have to leave his role immediately as the sole reason for hiring him was to lead the USA to Russia in the short term. Arena is contracted through the end of the 2018 tournament but it’s not too drastic to start thinking about where the U.S. is heading post-Russia 2018, irrespective of whether or not they qualify.

Peter Vermes, Jason Kreis and Jesse Marsch would surely be the frontrunners from the former U.S. national team players currently coaching in Major League Soccer to replace Arena and nurture the talented group of youngsters Tab Ramos is developing at youth national team level.

Or would Sunil Gulati — if he’s even in charge after the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) hold their presidential election in February 2018 — plump for another big-name foreign coach a la Klinsmann to totally rebuild the USMNT’s reputation?

At this points its all ifs and buts but if the U.S. don’t qualify for the World Cup then Gulati’s position would come under serious threat as contenders line up to challenge his 11-year, previously unchallenged stint making all of the big calls for U.S. Soccer.

All of these issues will be multiplied and magnified if the U.S. doesn’t get through the next two qualifiers. Can you seriously imagine a World Cup without the USMNT in it? It is not a pretty picture for anyone concerned. The USSF. The players. Major League Soccer. Commercial partners. And, heck, even the future of the game in the country might take a hit given the huge rise in interest in the game every four years which almost certainly yields new fans of the game across the country.

Seemingly unfazed by the enormity of what lies ahead in the next two weeks, Arena is bullish about the USA’s chances of advancing. After all, he has to be.

Gulati and Arena must shudder to think about the impact the opposite outcome will have for everyone connected with U.S. Soccer.

“I like our chances. I know it looks like were in a difficult situation, but we’re a point out of third place and we’re playing the team that’s ahead of us at home, so that’s a real positive,” Arena said. “If we’re able to beat Panama, we head into the last game with a very good chance of finishing third in the group. I like our chances, and at the end of the day it’s up to us. We have to play well in games nine and 10 in the Hex in order to qualify.”

LIVE, FA Cup: Leicester v. Chelsea

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Leicester City host Chelsea at the King Power Stadium on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET) in an FA Cup quarterfinal clash between two Premier League clubs.

[ LIVE: Leicester v. Chelsea ]

Claude Puel has Leicester in eighth in the Premier League table and the Foxes can smell an upset with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in fine form.

Chelsea have had a long week with Antonio Conte‘s men going to Barcelona and being taught a lesson by Lionel Messi as they crashed out of the UEFA Champions League but played well apart from Messi’s heroics. Conte’s admission that he doesn’t see the FA Cup as being too important may give Leicester an extra boost.

In team news Leicester start Kelechi Iheanacho up top after his fine display off the bench last week, while Chelsea are pretty much at full strength with Cesc Fabregas dropped, Thibaut Courtois rested and Alvaro Morata starting up top.


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Hughes defiant after debut win as Saints boss

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Mark Hughes got off to the perfect start at Southampton as the new manager led his team to the FA Cup semifinals.

Saints beat third-tier Wigan 2-0 at the DW Stadium on Sunday to reach the last four of the FA Cup for the first time in 15 years. They are in the relegation zone in the Premier League but are two points from safety with a game in hand.

Second half goals from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Cedric did the job for Southampton as Hughes’ side weathered and early Wigan storm. Speaking to the BBC after the game, Hughes, who was sacked by Stoke in January, was in a defiant mood.

“People have questioned this group before I arrived and maybe questioned my appointment as well. It is only a start but a statement of intent,” Hughes said. “We have work to do in the Premier League but we will enjoy this moment. A Wembley semifinal which will be a great experience for our fans.”

Hughes’ side did what Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City couldn’t in knocking Wigan out of the FA Cup as Paul Cook’s team fairytale run was ended.

In truth Saints could’ve won by a more comfortable scoreline in the second half as Manolo Gabbiadini had a penalty kick brilliantly saved by Christian Walton, but given Wigan’s dominance in the first half, 2-0 was a fine result. Saints looked more dangerous in a 4-4-2 formation and Hughes knows there is plenty more work to do but confidence will perhaps grow with a trip to Wembley coming up.

When it comes to Hughes’ future at Saints he only has a deal until the end of this season. He has eight games to turn their fortunes around following Mauricio Pellegrino‘s firing earlier this week after just five wins in 30 PL games this season.

It appears that Hughes believes he can not only get the Saints out of trouble but also make some waves in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley next month.

“It has been a difficult week for the guys,” Hughes said. “I am really pleased with the amount of talent I have to work with with this group.”

Southampton beat Wigan, reach FA Cup semis

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  • Wigan’s fairytale ended
  • Hojbjerg, Cedric score first Saints goals
  • Saints reach FA Cup semifinal for first time since 2003
  • Gabbiadini’s penalty kick saved

Southampton beat third-tier Wigan Atheltic 2-0 at the DW Stadium on Sunday as Mark Hughes‘ first game in charge ended in a victory in the FA Cup quarterfinal.

Saints were second best in the first half but Wigan spurned several chances, while Southampton went ahead via Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg‘s first goal for the club as he finished well from a corner.

Christian Walton then saved Manolo Gabbiadini‘s penalty kick brilliantly but a late goal from Cedric Soares sent Saints into their first FA Cup semifinal since 2003.

For Wigan, their fairytale run is over as they knocked out Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City to reach the last eight.

Wigan started well enough as the Latics settled into the game on a difficult surface. Southampton caused some problems for Wigan goalkeeper Walton who dropped a cross but Guido Carrillo couldn’t make the most of it.

Will Grigg then raced clear after a rapid counter from Wigan and his shot was deflected wide with Southampton caught out. Soon after another deflected shot found Cheyenne Dunkley in the box but he couldn’t get anything on the ball with the goal gaping. A massive chance for Wigan.

Gary Roberts then had another great chance for Wigan as a loose ball found him in the box but he looped his effort over the bar. The Latics continued to look the better team and took the game to Saints with 10 corner kicks, as Max Power’s corner almost crept in at the near post.

Jacobs curled a shot just over after half time as Wigan threatened but Southampton improved. Sofiane Boufal curled a free kick onto the top of the net and then Gabbiadini had a glorious chance.

Dan Byrne accidentally played in Southampton’s Italian striker and 10-yards out he only had to beat Walton but Wigan’s goalkeeper produced a fine stop.

Walton denied Hojbjerg’s header soon after as Saints cranked up the pressure and from the resulting corner they took the lead.

Dusan Tadic‘s corner found Hojbjerg and he finished well to score his first goal for the club and the first of Hughes’ reign.

Southampton should have sealed it late on as Gabbiadini was brought down in the box but his penalty kick was superbly saved by Walton to keep the score at 1-0.

Wigan threw everything at Saints late on as Noel Hunt almost equalised but the visitors broke and sealed the game.

Nathan Redmond released Cedric and the right back, in the left wing position, ran free and finished superbly to make it 2-0 and send Saints to Wembley.

Mourinho’s deflection game suggests big changes

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“I’m not the problem, they are.”

That would have been the more succinct (and boring) way for Jose Mourinho to sum up the current situation at Manchester United after their disappointing UEFA Champions League exit to Sevilla on Tuesday.

Instead he went on a 12-minute rant on Friday about Manchester City’s heritage and then following Man United’s FA Cup quarterfinal win against Brighton Saturday he slammed his players, saying they were “scared” to play and many lacked “desire” and “personality” throughout the game.

With player power at an all-time high in the Premier League and Mourinho a recent victim of that in 2015, just six months after leading Chelsea to the title, this is a dangerous game for him to play.

He wants the club to back him unreservedly ahead of his players and even though some fans are already showing their disdain towards Mourinho, he’s powering on.

What is the end game for Mourinho here?

Having just signed a contract extension in January to keep him at Old Trafford until 2020, Mourinho looks hellbent on cutting some serious deadwood this summer and trying to totally rebuild this squad.

That’s his main aim and heading into an international week and a two-week break from action, that’s the message ringing loud and clear not only in the minds of his players but also the hierarchy at United.

He always has an agenda and he always knows the correct time to ramp it up.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward will know the main aim of Mourinho’s rant is to be given more money to spend and get rid of players like Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera from previous regimes.

“A few guys were scared to play. I think it is a relation with personality, trust and class. When the sun is shining and you win matches, every player is a good player and is confident to play. When it is dark and cold and you have a period of bad results, not everybody has confidence and personality to play,” Mourinho said after Saturday’s unconvincing win against Brighton in the FA Cup.

Nemanja Matic was singled out for praise, while Scott McTominay was scolded for his display against the Seagulls but praised for his attitude. As for the rest of the players, well, Mourinho didn’t even bother mentioning them.

That says it all.

Mourinho is playing a dangerous game here. With clashes with Paul Pogba making the news in recent months as the power struggle between the two is clear for all to see, Mourinho is flexing his muscles and asserting his power on the club and he is blaming the players for their lack of success. Along the way he has also hit out at fans for their criticism of his team and it is starring to create a fractious atmosphere at the club.

This is exactly why Sir Bobby Charlton was said to be wary of Mourinho taking charge of United in the past.

It is a case of Mourinho’s way or the highway. That’s how it is.

Is that a bad thing? Right now there is clear progression. From winning the League Cup and Europa League last season and finishing sixth in the PL to being in second in the PL, in the FA Cup semifinal and reaching the last 16 of the UCL this season, Mourinho is moving things forward, even if it is incredibly slowly.

You can talk about the style of play all you want but Mourinho just wants to win. United’s fans just want to win too. Yet their manager is now constantly telling them that the players they have, no matter how much you spend on Romelu Lukaku, Pogba or others, aren’t good enough to get the job done.

With Pep Guardiola‘s dynasty at Man City about to add a Premier League title and red-hot favorites to win the Champions League, United have a big decision to make.

Do they ignore player power and go all-in and let Mourinho make the sweeping changes he wants, even if that means saying goodbye to Pogba and Co. and perhaps a dip between now and August until he can get in the players he wants?

Or do they cut out Mourinho and risk not being able to replicate his recent success, even if the style of play may improve with someone else in charge?

Mourinho is forcing Man United’s hand and it appears that a lot of the fans aren’t all on board with the way he is doing this. Yet the lofty expectations which engulf United needed addressing for some time as Sir Alex Ferguson‘s shadow still looms large over the club.

Like Fergie, Mourinho is calling the shots. Now it’s all about if he will be given the time, and the funds, to completely rebuild this United side. He is trying to buy himself extra time by solely blaming the players for his team not going deep in the UCL and seriously challenging Man City for the title this season.

Given the fact United just gave him a new contract we should expect Mourinho to be around at United for at least the next two years. We shouldn’t expect many of this current squad to be joining him.

But this risky deflection game could signal the end game for Mourinho at United sooner than he thinks.

One way or another the three-year syndrome which has encapsulated his managerial career seems to be extinct.