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Williams eager to lead USMNT rebuild

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Danny Williams is living his dream in the Premier League.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

A regular for Huddersfield Town, driving on their fairytale from midfield with his tattoos, pristine hair and beard and all action displays impressing Terriers’ fans, Williams is arguably in the best form of his career.

He is relaxed, confident and quick-witted as we caught up at Huddersfield’s Canal Side training complex in the center of the West Yorkshire town.

Why wouldn’t he be?

Williams, 28, is playing in his first-ever season in England’s top-flight after slogging away in the second-tier for four years with Reading before moving to Huddersfield in the summer on a two-year deal. He hailed their fans as “incredible” and saluted their start to the season as former USMNT forward and current Huddersfield coach David Wagner has them three points off the top 10 with the busy festive season ahead.

Despite their fine start to the season, Premier League survival is still the main aim and Williams has been a big part of the underdogs impressing in their debut season in the PL.

His fine form for Huddersfield has led to a return to the U.S. national team after a prolonged absence through injury and a combination of both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena not calling him up. And not only was Williams called up to the USMNT for the first time in over a year for the 1-1 draw with Portugal last month, he also captained the Stars and Stripes for the first time in his career.

Beaming from ear to ear, Williams is still a proud man over a month removed from that draw in Leiria.

“Obviously it was a huge honor for me. I didn’t realize how big it was in the moment,” Williams admitted. “I played the game, tried to lead like I always do but it wasn’t until afterwards I realized. It had such a big impact. I got a lot of messages from everyone. It was a really proud moment and that’s why I really enjoyed it, because you go from not being invited to being captain of the team. It was also because Alejandro Bedoya had a knock. He would have captained the team but I was happy to step in.”

Williams hasn’t had the luxury of stepping in for the U.S. for quite some time.

His last USMNT’s appearance came in the friendly against New Zealand in Oct. 2016 and although he thanked Klinsmann for giving him the chance to first represent the U.S. way back in 2011 (he was the first new player Klinsmann called up) he revealed he never felt like he was truly trusted.

“I get it, I had a few bad performances but maybe because I never felt the trust, you know? When I get a lot of trust, I pay it back with performances and I think that’s the same with every player,” Williams said. “If you have confidence from the manager and all the team, you can perform, and I just feel like I’ve never really been given that kind of trust. But that’s all in the past. I’m a bit more mature and older now and nobody can break me down that easy. I’ve shown people I can fight and I want to leave that in the past.”

Asked if he was ever given a reason for not being called up by Klinsmann again, or as to why he was not picked by Arena during his ill-fated 11 months in charge of the USMNT, Williams revealed some intriguing details.

“It was frustrating but nobody really ever talked to me or gave me a reason,” Williams explained. “I didn’t even know what the reason was, you know? Some people might have said ‘you only play in the Championship’ or whatever, but I think the Championship is still a strong league and I think you could see last year with Newcastle and even the teams down there now they are big teams, big, big clubs and good football players. I could never understand why I was invited because I think in the four years at Reading I did, basically, everything in my power to show the world that I am still on a good level and I can perform. Obviously I was a bit unlucky with injuries but in my opinion nobody really spoke to me.

“Some people wanted to play the MLS guys a little more but whatever, but Bruce Arena emailed me and said ‘you’re in the picture but I haven’t really seen you.’ And I thought that was a bit strange because you must know your players, don’t you? Especially because I am not 18. I was around the camp but I read something where he said the players Klinsmann invited were German-Americans, I don’t know what it was, but I felt a bit weird about it because I played on a high level for basically now eight or nine years. But again, I didn’t really want to say anything because, what could I do? I can’t influence if a manager likes me or not but I think we could all get a fair chance. It was a bit weird but hopefully now that I’m in the Premier League, that will change.”

Williams has moved from the suburbs of London to Manchester and is now very much in the PL circle. He includes Manchester City’s Leroy Sane among his close friends and sees him as “sort of a little brother” who he takes under his wing.

His play his developed from a true holding midfielder to being a two-way midfielder who chipped in with several stunning goals during his time at Reading. Williams’ position has changed and it certainly seems like he would be a valuable foil alongside Michael Bradley in the U.S. midfield in the years to come.

Back to the USMNT, does Williams still want to be a leading man for the USA moving forward?

“To be honest, you have to look at the U.S. national team at the moment and who is actually playing on a high level, I mean playing in Europe in the big leagues, there are not so many players,” Williams said. “In my opinion, as long as I play in the Premier League, get the minutes under my belt, I think I have every right to be a bit surprised if they don’t invite me. Again, that’s not in my hands. The only thing I can influence is my own performance and how I do with the team and hopefully that earns me a spot with the U.S.”

Williams sees a bright future not only for himself with the USMNT, but also for the band of young Americans coming through the ranks, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie in the Bundesliga.

The midfielder rose into the Bundesliga himself as a youngster with Freiburg and Hoffenheim, before moving to Reading in 2013, and he believes that both McKennie and Pulisic will lead the U.S. in the future, supported by a growing cast of young stars who played against Portugal last month.

“They’re playing a big part of the future. I got to play with Weston McKennie and there’s huge potential there but not only him, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta, I think they are all ready to be in Europe. Then obviously Pulisic is already a superstar in the States and he performs on a high level, when you see him playing against Real Madrid in the Champions League, that is top class and I wouldn’t be surprised if he soon got a move away from Dortmund. They will play a big, big part because they are a new generation. They are kids and I remember when I was that young. They are all hungry. They are all super excited. I think that’s what it is. They want to be hungry because they still want to learn something and they like the competition. They have a big, big part in the future.”

That said, the future for the USMNT doesn’t seem that exciting right now.

With the U.S. currently without a coach after Arena stepped down following the failure to make the 2018 World Cup, who would Williams like to see appointed as the next USMNT head coach and what qualities do they need to have?

He has a simple checklist: give everyone, not matter what league they play in, a clean slate.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a U.S. coach. It is international football. I think we should get someone who has experience and has proper ambition with a proper plan and doesn’t prefer and trust either American players or American-German players or just American-Mexican players. He should give everybody a fair chance,” Williams said. “He should look at how all of these potential players perform in their clubs and should really start from scratch. The U.S. is such a great country and not making the World Cup, it’s kind of like a scandal.”

Most would say that’s being polite.

The U.S. not reaching its first World Cup since 1986 has dominated headlines across the American soccer landscape for the past two months and with no coach, and outgoing U.S. Soccer president in Sunil Gulati, and big question marks over a host of veteran players, the USMNT is in dire straits and at a major crossroads.

Williams winced when asked if it hurt to watch on from afar as the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and pointed to some politics behind-the-scenes as a major reason for the USA’s scandalous failure.

“Of course it hurts. I am obviously 28 now. I saw that as an opportunity to make a name for myself again. I thought ‘okay, I am now in the Premier League and hopefully I get a chance to get called in and show what I can do.’ I think there are too many political things going on behind-the-scenes,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really close enough with the team for that amount of time so I can’t really talk, or give too much information, because I don’t really know about what happened.

“Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more, in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it. It is not only the U.S. that failed. Holland failed. Italy. Chile. This is unbelievable. Something is obviously going wrong because other smaller nations, they are speeding up their process. When I look at Iceland, they are a small country but they are actually playing at the World Cup.”

As his star continues to rise in the Premier League with Huddersfield, Williams will no doubt become an increasingly important figure as the USMNT rebuild from a monumental failure.

He hopes other talented young American players follow in the footsteps of Pulisic, McKennie and Co. to test themselves among the best leagues on the planet.

“It is very important that you don’t lose the focus because at the end of the day the USA is such a big country with so many great athletes, there is so much potential,” Williams said. “When I see the young boys I played with against Portugal, I am sure there are more out there who are hungry and happy to learn and make the step to Europe to get out of their comfort zone and be successful. That is what it needs and what it takes.”

MLS roundup: ATL roll past Galaxy; RSL survive 10-man Rapids

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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A roundup of, plus a few quick thoughts about, all of Saturday’s action from around MLS…

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta UnitedFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Two teams with fantastic attacking talent but very little in terms of a strong, controlling midfield presence — you’d expect a game like that to be wide open with plenty of chances at both ends of the field, and you’d have been right about Atlanta’s 2-0 victory over LA (at least for the opening 45 minutes. The stark difference between the two sides on Saturday? Atlanta’s ability to turn shooting chances into scoring chances, and LA’s inability to do so.

In truth, the chance resulting in the Five Stripes’ opening goal, which also turned out to be the winner, was the scrappiest once of the bunch.

Miguel Almiron was sensational on the night — constantly on the ball in dangerous areas, constantly gliding past one and two white shirts, constantly winning free kicks (and a penalty) in those dangerous areas. Since suffering a 4-0 defeat on opening day, Tata Martino’s side is unbeaten in their last six games (five wins) and moved to within a point of Eastern Conference- and Supporters’ Shield-leading New York City FC.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rendered completely ineffective and he — dare I say it — was little more than a passenger for the vast majority of Saturday’s game. Jonathan dos Santos picked up an injury during warmups, forcing Baggio Husidic into the starting lineup, and that did LA no favors when it came time to slow Atlanta’s momentum through the center of the field (which was the entire game).

Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England RevolutionFULL HIGHLIGHTS

If you had New England sitting above Columbus in the standings at any point this season, let alone after eight weeks, please proceed to the cash-out window immediately. Brad Friedel‘s bunch has played some pretty passable, if unexciting, soccer thus far and have picked up points in five of their seven games played. They’ve even won four points from their first three games away from home, which is two-thirds of the way to matching last season’s paltry haul of six.

Saturday’s 2-2 draw in Columbus saw the Revs come from behind twice to secure a well-earned and deserved point. Cristian Penilla has flown under the radar with regard to impact signings of the offseason — the Ecuadorian has two goals, including the stoppage-time equalizer on Saturday, and four assists in his first seven MLS games — and Diego Fagundez appears to have finally been handed the keys to the Revs’ attack with Lee Nguyen banished to the periphery (but still not traded away).

Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado RapidsFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Tim Howard was sent off after 20 minutes for handling the ball outside his penalty area — how great is that multi-million-dollar contract looking now? — yet Colorado so nearly held on for an away point against their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals. Alas, RSL scored three times in the final eight minutes of regular and stoppage time, helping the final score to match the lopsided nature of the preceding 60 minutes:

29 shots (10 on target), compared to just 12 (o on target) for Colorado; nearly 71 percent of possession; 571 passes, to just 228. The lopsidedness goes on and on.

Albert Rusnak scored a stunning free kick to complete the scoring, but was still upstaged by Damir Kreilach’s first MLS goal which came just three minutes earlier.

RSL have alternated wins and losses in each of their last six times out, which spells bad news for a suddenly important Friday night trip to Vancouver to face a Whitecaps side that 1) they beat at home earlier this month, and 2) has lost three straight, by a combined score of 10-1.

Elsewhere in MLS

Sporting KC 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union

Bundesliga wrap: Relegation playoff race stays tight

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With three matches remaining for all 18 Bundesliga clubs, there’s clarity at the very top and bottom but plenty to sort in the races to qualify for Europe and avoid the relegation playoff.

[ RECAP: Man City 5-0 Swans ]

We focus on the latter here, with all three teams on 30 points losing away from home this weekend, including one to the 17th place side in Germany.

Hamburg 1-0 Freiburg

Lewis Holtby scored a 54th minute goal to keep the hosts’ slim survival hopes alive, and USMNT forward Bobby Wood got into the match for the final 23 minutes as Hamburg scooped up a rare win.

Augsburg 2-0 Mainz

The visitors had more of the ball but couldn’t rebound from a 29th minute Michael Gregoritsch goal, allowing Alfred Finnbogason to seal the result in stoppage time.

Borussia Monchengladbach 3-0 Wolfsburg

Wolfsburg has a hefty edge on Mainz and Freiburg in terms of goal differential, but won’t be feeling too confident after watching Lars Stindl, Raffael, and Christoph Kramer all score before halftime.

Elsewhere
RB Leipzig 2-5 Hoffenheim
Eintracht Frankfurt 0-3 Hertha Berlin
Stuttgart 2-0 Werder Bremen
Hannover 96 0-3 Bayern Munich
Borussia Dortmund 4-0 Bayer Leverkusen
Koln 2-2 Schalke — USMNT’s McKennie goes 90

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 31 25 3 3 84 22 62 13-2-0 12-1-3 78
 FC Schalke 04 31 16 8 7 49 35 14 9-4-2 7-4-5 56
 Borussia Dortmund 31 15 9 7 61 41 20 9-4-3 6-5-4 54
 Bayer Leverkusen 31 14 9 8 55 41 14 7-5-3 7-4-5 51
 1899 Hoffenheim 31 13 10 8 60 44 16 9-4-2 4-6-6 49
 RB Leipzig 31 13 8 10 47 47 0 8-4-4 5-4-6 47
 Eintracht Frankfurt 31 13 7 11 41 40 1 7-4-5 6-3-6 46
 Mönchengladbach 31 12 7 12 42 48 -6 8-4-4 4-3-8 43
 Hertha BSC Berlin 31 10 12 9 38 35 3 5-6-4 5-6-5 42
 VfB Stuttgart 31 12 6 13 29 35 -6 9-4-3 3-2-10 42
 FC Augsburg 31 10 10 11 40 40 0 6-4-6 4-6-5 40
 Werder Bremen 31 9 10 12 34 38 -4 6-5-4 3-5-8 37
 Hannover 96 31 9 9 13 38 47 -9 7-3-6 2-6-7 36
 VfL Wolfsburg 31 5 15 11 30 40 -10 2-8-5 3-7-6 30
 FSV Mainz 05 31 7 9 15 32 49 -17 6-3-6 1-6-9 30
 SC Freiburg 31 6 12 13 26 51 -25 5-6-4 1-6-9 30
 Hamburger SV 31 6 7 18 24 48 -24 5-4-7 1-3-11 25
 1. FC Köln 31 5 7 19 31 60 -29 3-5-8 2-2-11 22

Pep celebrates another historic Man City performance

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Pep Guardiola was thrilled with his club’s response to sealing the Premier League title: More dominance.

[ RECAP: Man City 5-0 Swans ]

Man City battered Swansea City 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium on the strength of goals from five different players.

“From the first minute to the last one, we played what we have shown in the season,” Guardiola said on NBCSN after the match. “(We scored) a lot of goals and we didn’t concede. We play to keep improving our game here and for the next season.”

Guardiola could hardly differentiate between the club’s stylish Sunday goals, saying, “The first one, the second one, of course the third one. … The Yaya pass was amazing. All the goals were so good.”

And he was also pleased with the support from the Etihad Stadium crowd, though he admits he was grateful to escape before the City faithful stormed the pitch.

Guardiola said he thinks the supporters are still behind their team despite the decisive UEFA Champions League loss to Liverpool because of how hard City plays week-in and week-out.

“That’s happened because they know that we are not liars in the way we want to play,” he said. “They know that we tried our best from the beginning to the end. We knew from the beginning how happy they were.”

Conte relishing renewal of Mourinho rivalry

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LONDON —  Antonio Conte versus Jose Mourinho. Chelsea versus Manchester United.

The FA Cup final on May 19 will be some showdown between two Premier League giants as Chelsea breezed past Southampton 2-0 in their semifinal at Wembley on Sunday.

Conte against Mourinho is a battle which has become increasingly feisty over the past two seasons as they’ve had public spats and insulted one another.

Speaking after the game, Conte was asked about his relationship with Mourinho and potential fireworks on the sidelines, as well as on the pitch, during the final.

“With Jose [Mourinho], we have clarified the situation and that is the most important thing. There is not a problem between him and I,” Conte said. “I think this is a final between two great teams. In my mind I can tell you last season we arrived as favorites against Arsenal. I think in this season season we are not arriving as favorites but as you know very well, last season we lost the cup.”

Conte then revealed he respects Mourinho despite the words the two had earlier this season.

The Italian coach responded to Mourinho’s comments about him, and other PL managers, acting like “clowns” on the sidelines by saying Mourinho was a “fake, little man” as United’s manager also hit out and made a remark about Conte’s involvement in a previous match-fixing investigation.

“We are talking about two managers with a strong character and about two winners and when your mind, your heart, your blood and there is the will to win, for sure we want to try to win this trophy,” Conte said. “The same way Manchester United wants to achieve this. I have great respect for United’s story, for Mourinho’s story. I think they have the same respect for Chelsea’s story and my story.”

Let’s see if that respect is on show during what should be a fantastic final next month as it could well be Conte’s final game in charge of Chelsea.