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Lopetegui defends Pique from questions of loyalty to Spain

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Spain coach Julen Lopetegui has defended Gerard Pique from critics who question his loyalty to the national team because of his support for a disputed referendum on Catalan independence.

“Gerard gives it his all each and every time he plays with us,” Lopetegui said Friday. “I judge players’ commitment to the national team by their behavior. That is where I put my focus and in that sense I have no doubts about Pique.”

[ MORE: Rafa ready for Liverpool ]

Pique posted a message on social media on Thursday calling for people in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia to participate peacefully in Sunday’s vote that police have been ordered by courts to stop.

“From today until Sunday we will express ourselves pacifically,” Pique tweeted. “Don’t give them any excuse (for a crackdown). That’s what they want. And sing loud and clear.”

Pique has been jeered by Spain fans during home matches in recent years both for his jibes at Barcelona club rival Real Madrid and his support of the push for a secession referendum in Catalonia.

Spain captain Sergio Ramos, a Real Madrid defender, said Thursday that “Pique’s tweet isn’t the best thing to do if he doesn’t want people to jeer him.”

[ MORE: Klopp “can’t shoot from the bench” ]

The 30-year-old Pique has made 91 appearances for Spain, helping it win the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship. He and Ramos form its pair of central defenders.

As expected on Friday, Lopetegui included Pique in Spain’s squad for its final two qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. Spain hosts Albania on Oct. 6 in the southern city of Alicante. It then visits Israel three days later.

Barcelona is the capital of prosperous Catalonia, where a separatist-led regional government vows to hold the vote on independence from the rest of Spain despite its suspension by the Constitutional Court.

Spain’s constitution says that only the nation’s government can call a referendum on sovereignty. Police forces acting on judges’ orders have seized ballots and arrested regional officials, sparking protests in the streets and universities.

Allardyce not interested in Leicester City, Dyche the early favorite

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Amid plenty of calls for Leicester City to shoot for the moon as they search for a new manager, a more realistic name has emerged as an early frontrunner.

Craig Shakespeare, the man rumored to have engineered the downfall of Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City to take the reigns himself, was canned after just 26 games in charge. That has left a managerial opening at a club that to this point nobody can quite figure out how attractive a position it truly is.

There are calls for a run at top managerial names without a job, such as Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc, but instead the choice could come from within the current Premier League ranks.

Journeyman Sam Allardyce has ruled himself out of the running, saying on Talksport, “As big a club and as much as I would love to manage Leicester I don’t think it is time for me to manage yet. I’m not ready I don’t think. Having been in the game so long and done it so long, and looking at how I felt at the end of last season, I feel I am enjoying my life too much. Yes, it would have interested me and yes, I would take the Leicester job, but not at this time.”

Those quotes should also do much quell rumors of a USMNT stint for Allardyce as well.

Next in line for the Leicester opening is Burnley boss Sean Dyche, who according to the Daily Mail is “interested” in the position, whatever that means. However, the catch is that due to his current post at Turf Moor, the Foxes would owe Burnley $3.4 million should he break his contract and move positions, a number which comes along with Dyche’s new Burnley contract signed this past summer.

Other names mentioned include the likes of former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, Huddersfield Town’s David Wagner, and Wales boss Chris Coleman. Tuchel would be a stretch with the German likely looking for a bigger name, while Wagner would be tough to pry from Huddersfield after their solid start to the Premier League season plus likely competition from the United States national team. Coleman seems the most likely of the bunch, with his time in charge of Wales proving rocky in the recent past, especially as they narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification.

Chelsea facing lineup nightmare as they limp into Champions League play

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With the 2017-18 campaign just two months old, Chelsea has been rocked by injuries, potentially ruining Antonio Conte‘s ability to piece together his famed 3-5-2 lineup that saw the Blues storm to the Premier League title last season.

N'Golo Kante‘s absence thanks to a hamstring injury has seen his midfield torn apart at times, including against lowly Crystal Palace as Chelsea slumped to defeat to the then-pointless Eagles. Fellow former Fox Danny Drinkwater also sits, having yet to make his Chelsea debut with a calf injury vexing the England international thus far.

Wing-back Victor Moses, who has become a star at a position nobody could have seen him excelling at, is also sidelined with a bum hamstring and must be replaced. The Italian boss could call in deadline day signing Davide Zappacosta to fill the role, but it’s not that simple.

[ WRAP: A complete rundown of Tuesday’s Champions League action ]

Complicating matters greatly, Conte has the opposite situation to navigate along his back line. A pair of poor performances in league play has his defense suddenly under fire, thanks to the good form of his replacements who are pushing for more time on the field. With both Antonio Rudiger and young Andreas Christensen putting in solid performances when called upon, there is suddenly increasing chatter that they should be given starts ahead of Gary Cahill, David Luiz, and Cesar Azpilicueta.

Thankfully for Conte, he can once again call upon the services of talisman striker Alvaro Morata, not worrying about the poor form of Michy Batshuayi who had such a bright start to the season.

[ PREVIEW: A full look at Wednesday’s Champions League slate ]

So, his options are thus: he could either call in Davide Zappacosta to fill Victor Moses’s role without changing the base 3-5-2 with Morata and Pedro up high, leaving Rudiger and Christensen on the bench while hoping that Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas can manage in midfield better than against Crystal Palace. Or, he could shuffle the deck completely and shift to another formation.

Another option presented is a 3-4-3, with Morata by himself in the middle flanked by Willian and Pedro, leaving the central midfield pairing even more exposed. However, that option allows the possibility of patching that midfield by pushing David Luiz or even Rudiger forward, allowing another defender to see the field likely in place of Fabregas. That puts more creative duties on Bakayoko’s plate, or sees the Frenchman fall to the bench, although swapping the defensive midfielder for a central defender seems to have little benefit.

These lineup choices are of the utmost importance as Chelsea meets AS Roma in Champions League play on Wednesday, because a victory would give them a perfect nine points out of nine, leaving them with tons of wiggle-room with three matches remaining. That five-point cushion would present the Blues with the ability to rotate the squad moving forward, a luxury so desperately needed with the injury problems and questions to sort out at the back. That could be invaluable not only to Chelsea’s Champions League standing but also their increasingly questionable Premier League health as the Manchester clubs continue to show stunning form at the top of the table.

Watch Live: Ghana and Niger meet, Brazil takes on Honduras in U-17 World Cup

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The United States has made its way through the U-17 World Cup Round of 16 in triumphant fashion, but there’s still plenty more to be decided.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Mali is already through to the quarterfinals, and they await the winner of another all-African matchup in Ghana and Niger. Ghana topped a hotly-contested Group A with the United States and Colombia, while Niger made it through via the third-place table after finishing behind both Spain and Brazil in Group D.

The Brazilians won that group, and they face Honduras who finished third in Group E but advanced, collecting enough points behind France and Japan. Brazil went a perfect 3-0 in the group stage, conceding just one goal while scoring six.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Ghana vs. Niger – 7:30 a.m. ET
Brazil vs. Honduras – 7:30 a.m. ET

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.